… which just goes to show that you should never put all your eggs in one basket until the chickens have come home to roost in the same bush twice.
Now, where was I? Oh yes. Parents’ Evenings. I have written elsewhere about my experiences as a teacher; and a little bit as a parent at these cosy annual soirés. However, I don’t believe I’ve told you the story of ‘The Twits’.
A truly magical, special time.
‘The Twits’ entered my life at what was, a truly magical, special time.
It was pre-Parkinson’s. Thankfully I had the wit to realise then that were I not to make the most of every single moment, I would regret it forever. I am talking of course about when our two children were little. I taught full-time, my better half, part-time and that was the plan until our youngest, James was ready to start school as a ‘rising five’. At which point, we hoped part-time would become full-time. Which it did. In the fullness of time.
A big decision
I meanwhile, had reached the dizzy heights of Head of Department; for two years at a school in Berkshire and, by the time of the birth of our first son, a further two years at a school in West London, nearer to where we lived. Both were secondary comprehensives. It was not long after that I decided as far as a new job or promotion was concerned, it was on the backburner from now on. Unless a ‘peach’ (of a job) were to more or less fall into my lap, I wasn’t going to involve myself in chasing a ‘career’.
Okay, I know that in the British State Education system a ‘career’ is an almost laughable concept, but the point is that I wasn’t prepared to do all the ‘extras’ and saddle myself with the impossible amounts of work that this would require. As it was already I was finding too much of my time being greedily gulped by a ‘holier than thou’ Whitehall-based administration, heads up their own backsides; from where they were quick to shout about what great deeds some teachers can do, but even quicker to foist unworkable structures and strategies onto them and their beleaguered profession, one which was steadily sinking in the mire of a fundamentally flawed data – hungry beaurocracy and as a result choking the very innovation and inspiration it sought. No sir. When work was done, (and sometimes even when it wasn’t) it was family time. And I went home.
The wood for the trees
And I am so glad I did. Had I not done so, and attended all the meetings, all the working parties, all the committees, gone on all the courses, done the networking and the gladhanding, fired in all the application forms, prepared for all the interviews …. I would be kicking myself to purgatory and back again by now. I know it is a cliché, but they do grow up so fast. Time plays such maddening games that it is very easy to miss how fleeting it all is. One day you are carrying them on your shoulders on a walk through the woods.
Then the next thing you know you’re being told ‘I’m off tomorrow I’ve got tickets to see the Prodigy and Gorrillaz at the Benicassim Festival (in Spain.) I’m going to fly out and hook up with some of the lads who are already out there’ Self- financed too, fruit of his labours as Front of House plus a bit of Bouncing and Roadying for a local Comedy promoter. You see, when it’s gone, it’s gone. There’s no getting it back again.
Didn’t want to miss anything
As I look back on these precious nuggets of time I am reminded of the underlying sense of exhaustion we both felt. So much, in fact that it began to seem almost normal. In the first instance, this was courtesy of Ian. Born prematurely and insomniac, he did his level best to avoid sleep for the first two years of his life which came about, he explains, along with his early arrival, because he
‘Didn’t want to miss anything’
Of course nowadays we can’t get him out of bed until well after the sun has passed its shadow over the yardarm, and besides, as he says, our experience with him was just what we needed to cope with his brother, James. For just as his elder sibling, aged two, had begun to become a bit more reasonable in his approach to the concept of 4 or 5 hour’s shut-eye every night, along came James. He, poor soul after merely two weeks on this mortal coil, then broke out with the insidious ezcema that is the plague of this family, and for him the principal causal factor decisive in his refusal to sleep for a further four years. Give or take a day or so.
So, yes, If you were one of those people (and there were many) who told us during those seemingly never-ending eons of sleeplessness:
‘Oh but Michael/Christopher/Joshua/Jessica/Ashley/Emily… has slept through since we got him/her/it back from the hospital …’
Little did you know our carefully composed plastic smiles, glazed eyes and well–rehearsed expressions of joy and wonder at your good fortune hid a real, tangible urge to put a premature end to your threescore and ten with anything remotely resembling a sharp or blunt instrument … or indeed anything.
You think I’m joking don’t you?
That said, it was a kind of ‘satisfying’ exhaustion. You felt like you had got it for a good reason, that there was a purpose to it: admittedly a difficult concept to wrestle with at 2:30 in the morning for the third time. When all you can think about is what the f**k you are going to do with your Year Nine period one tomorrow, I mean today.
‘Satisfying’ I think that’s quite a good description. It’s certainly not the brain-sapping, leaden, formless, shapeless exhaustion that dogs me these days.
I’d do it all again, all of it,
But it was damned hard. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I’d do it all again, all of it, like a shot. But it was so hard. We had no family in the area. My parents, aunts and uncle lived in the North, as did my brothers when they settled to start their own families, while my wife’s family live in Spain. So we never had anyone to ‘take the baby a minute’, never had anyone who could ‘look after the kids for the weekend’ while we nip to Paris, Barcelona, Warrington … wherever. Of course people did what they could but basically we were ‘On duty’ 24/7. We had a nice little house. But it was little. (I didn’t realise quite how little until one of the removal men – and not a particularly tall example of the species either – cracked his head on the top of the door frame when he entered the toilet. The door, in order to save space (somewhere!) was about 2 inches shorter than all the others.
The ‘nice’ was on closer inspection, merely a veneer which hid a multitude of unpleasant and expensive-looking surprises. But money was too tight to mention and there certainly was no extra cash for upgrade of veneer, or things like new cars or expensive holidays for example.
The time that everything took! Sterilising all those bottles: every night! I’ve no idea how we managed it and were able to do a day’s work on such little sleep or rest. Another example: one which tells you a lot about my better half; a tenacious, resourceful, fiercely intelligent woman. In terms of the boys’ nutrition, complicated in James’ case by his acute allergy to egg (and by extension all products – not just food, containing egg) they were given the best of starts in life one could imagine. They had home-cooked food, every day: Ian until he started school, and in James’ case until he was given the ‘All Clear’ aged seven after his ‘Egg Challenge’ at hospital showed he had at last outgrown his allergy. There was only one exception to this that I can recall, and that was for some reason, I forget which, we had to give them processed food on a flight back from Spain. Closing my eyes, as I write, I can see the freezer stacked with carefully labelled tupperwares.
Love and books
And there was Love. There was so much Love. You could count it and cut it. And fun. One of the things the boys enjoyed, especially James – although sadly, he says he remembers little of it now was the ‘Story before bedtime’. It was difficult, at the end of a long day, but there was always time for a story… or five.
Many is the time, shattered in mind and body, exhausted, we fell asleep. Far away in the distance we would be able to hear, as we blissfully lost consciousness, one, other or both of them calling ‘Again, again!’ or ‘Another One!’ On one famous occasion, it was our wedding anniversary. Everything was set. Kids in bed early, nice meal and some quality time together. Lovely! Over an hour later, I am mouth wide open, deep in a dribbly sleep on James’ bed; both boys asleep too. Meanwhile my wife was downstairs, sitting looking at two plates of food which were getting less and less appetising by the minute, too afraid to come upstairs and check on us, lest her footfall, waken James up and send us right back to square one again.
It was on one of these occasions that James, his bother asleep and his Dad almost there as well, asked his celebrated and enigmatic ‘Fivehead’ question.
‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ ‘Winnie the Witch’ ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ ‘Don’t put Mustard in the Custard’ The ‘Percy the Park-Keeper’ stories….. were among the favourites. In fact, thanks to the Reverend W. Awdry, so obssessed were the boys with trains and Thomas the Tank engine in particular, that I came perilously close to getting sucked into the murky twighlight world that is trainspotting. Sadly, I had begun to distinguish my ‘Pacifics’ from my ‘Deltics’ … a scary place to be, let me tell you.
So many stories; so many books! Courtesy of grandparents, aunts, uncles and in particular, the lads’ Great Aunt – my Mum’s sister, Eileen, who wouldn’t just buy them a book, she would buy the collected works! For them, Birthdays and Christmas will always be associated with piles of books. Which is pretty cool, I reckon.
Then of course as they got older, it was ‘Harry Potter’ and briefly Tolkein. However, what sticks in my mind more than any other is the fun we had, over what I guess was a two or three month period, when we read almost everything by Roald Dahl.
I had read ‘James and the Giant Peach’ and ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ as a kid, but, I don’t know, although I enjoyed them, I found that I quickly tired. Which, as it happens turns out to have been just perfect, because it meant that we were able to discover the delights of ‘Danny Champion of the World’, ‘The Fantastic Mr. Fox’, ‘Matilda’, ‘George’s Marvellous Medicine’, ‘The Witches’, ‘Esio Trot’ and my favourite, ‘The Twits’ together with the boys: which I reckon is just as it should be. The icing on the cake was poring over the exquisite illustrations to these tales by the great Quentin Blake.
The Twits pay a call
Now as coincidence would have it, it was around this time, that ‘The Twits’ came to call. At a Parents’ Evening no less.
I was in the School hall. In those days we sat at old ‘exam- style’ desks with two chairs placed opposite for the parents. (This was before the days when students were required to attend Parents’ Evenings too)
So there I was, idly reading the jokes and filthy comments scrawled and in some cases carved onto the desk as I waited for my next appointment to appear. There ought to be a GCSE exam for this I thought to myself : Paper One: Analysis of Desktop, use of language, imagery, ability to succesfully combine the two, style, use of narrative. Hmmm, let’s see …
The largest piece of descriptive writing on this particular desk was lacking more than somewhat in its narrative content. It was altogether more urgent. Indeed it was more of a statement of fact. It simply read: ‘Harris is a TWAT’. (Mr. Harris being the third deputy.) Not generally well-liked it would be fair to say. A little too fond of ‘The Laydees’ (young, impressionable female members of staff, Trainee Teachers, Sixth Form girls with looks beyond their years. You know the type – him I mean) In fact it was he who, at the climax of a long and dirty war of attrition with one particular Year 11 student, found himself caught out by a board rubber, a tube of Super Glue plus the deft hand and co-ordination of his sixteen year old nemesis. My goodness, there was a weeping, wailing and a gnashing of teeth that day.
I looked up from my desk and my mark book – a mine of intricate assessment data on each of my students only decipherable and sometimes not even then, by me. I used to use it as a ‘prop’. Something to fiddle with and attempt to calm my nerves. I rarely talked from it.
Suddenly there they were.
The level of noise was incredible.There was a general hub-bub coming in at about 85 decibels, above which I could hear some increasingly strident snatches of conversation from tables nearby: ‘If he doesn’t start to knuckle down this year, he is going to underachive …’ ‘She didn’t tell me this. When was it set? Ooooh Wait till I get home: the little Madam …’ ‘Well, what can you do? They’re so independent at this age. Sometimes she’ll listen to her Dad…’ ‘Ya know the problem? Ya too sof’ whiddem. Ya kyan hexpec them to listen an’ respec’ if ya too sof’. Lard I’m going to axe some questions when I get home’
And suddenly there they were. Sitting opposite me. The Twits!
Mr and Mrs Twit
Mr and Mrs, just as described in Dahl’s words and Blake’s images. Mr Twit with the whole of his face except for his forehead, eyes and nose covered with thick hair, which indeed grew in spikes that pointed straight like the bristles of a nailbrush. I had to resist the urge to lean in a little closer to see if that speck at the corner of his mouth really was a cornflake. Meanwhile, Mrs Twit had a face which looked like nothing good had shone out of it for a very long time. She didn’t appear to have a glass eye, but one of them did seem to be always looking away.
Of course they weren’t called Twit.
‘Good evening, and it’s Mr and Mrs ….?’ I welcomed them.
‘Oh really?’ I said absent-mindedly, as I looked down my list of appointments for their name and time.
They were late, by half an hour. No apology, no explanantion and on top of which they had (judging by the commotion going on behind them) nicked someone else’s slot.
Mr and Mrs O’Reilly! Parents of Harry and Dean, both of whom I taught, and both of whom were Twits too.
64 channels of cable TV
I won’t go into detail about the discussion we had over the progress of younger son, Dean except to say that they genuinely looked surprised when I suggested that there might be a link between Dean’s inability to attempt any sort of task set for homework and the fact that his bedroom (as I found out during the course of our conversation) boasted a wide screen Television and 64 channels of cable TV or that his performance and behaviour in class, which was poor, might also have something to do with this and the fact that he rarely went to bed till after 2:am.
Why the Twits are twits
‘It’s terrible’ said Mrs Twit/O’ Reilly ‘He keeps us awake! He’s so noisy’
‘Well why don’t you do something about it?’
‘Take the cable out for a start.’
‘Oh no, we couldn’t do that. We promised he could have it for his birthday … and a promise is a promise.’
‘He’s 12 years old!’ I said in desperation, but the meeting was suddenly starting to get very fractious and I could see I was getting nowhere, so despite an irresistable urge to ask them whether they had seen Muggle-Wump lately and if so, how he was, I avoided the temptation and brought the conversation to a conclusion as quickly as possible. For my part I couldn’t wait to get home and tell the kids I’d actually met the Twits!
The writing on the wall
Time flew by, as it does and my uninvited guest pushed their way into my life. The writing was on the wall from day one:
‘Well, all I can say Andy is I’m glad it’s you and not me’
was the Headteacher’s response to the disclosure of my diagnosis of ‘The Shaking Palsy’. I was lucky to belong to an establishment with such a caring and supportive ethos.
In fact, I found the period immediately after diagnosis strangely liberating. I felt I could see things, and their importance and value much more clearly. Given the circumstances I found myself in, I reasoned that before symptoms started to show themselves outwardly, a move to a better school, one perhaps in which I didn’t have to fight so hard day after day might mean I could sustain full time work for longer than was looking the case at my current school.
So, some twelve years or so after my Big Decision, I went back out on the job-hunting trail. Cut a long story short: irony of ironies. I had done such a good job of pushing the notion of ‘career’ to the backburner, that that is where it stayed – permanently. But I know I’ll never regret my Big Decision. And if I ever start to miss being in school and pine longingly for my overcrowded classroom, my insufficient resources, the half-baked curriculum, an equivocal and intransigent management, I just think of the Twits and my world suddenly seems a much richer place.
As far as I know
And as far as I know Dean O’Reilly still has a widecreen TV and access to 64 cable channels in his bedroom.
Excerpts from ‘The Twits’
Text © 1980 Felicity Dahl and the other Executives of the Estate of Roald Dahl
Illustrations © 1980 Quentin Blake
Dedicated to Emma Louise Hickey and Cheryl Fitzgerald.
© Andy Daly 2011
The Twits. A postscript
If you happen to be wondering what are these forces so powerful that they will make a man go against his basic intinct not only to work, to provide for his depenants, but to constantly strive to better himself, to show his mettle in that bear pit we call the Jobs section of The Times Educational Supplement. Indeed to confound him so completely that he chooses to leave work as early as is decent, to make his way home as fast as his legs, bike, car will allow him. Let me show you: