At the chalkface: Absinthe friends

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

It's new year's eve. Phantasms flicker past my window. Faces from the past, alumni, blizzards of them, fall like snowflakes...

You’ve trawled through the emotional minefield of the jolly season with its welter of tawdry sentiment, high wire tension and the annual unsolicited insult of your kinfolk’s more toxic opinions on teachers and teaching.

“Teachers are too soft.”

“I would hit the bastards, me!”

“Teaching’s a doss with your 12 week holidays!”

You nod in agreement. So it goes. New Year’s Eve can be even more challenging. I don’t go out. I abandon society. I seek the solace of the “green muse”, of a little absinthe. It usually does the trick. The heart grows fonder, the memories more luxuriant, and I grow pleasantly blotto. This New Year’s Eve was, however, more disquieting than usual...

Sip... sip... implacable, interrogative, guilt-inducing voices seem suddenly to lurk in the murk.

“What did you do with your life?” they howl.

“For forty years I taught. Loved it mostly.”

“Ah, but shouldn’t you have got a proper job? Didn’t you waste your time? Did you fail the children?” Sip. “Did you teach them anything?”

Sip. “Did you make a difference?” Sip. Shut up. Hitler made a difference. Pol Pot made a difference.

“Probably not,” I murmur, “savage inequalities remain.”

It’s so easy to think you’re rubbish at this lark. It’s a tough gig.

Sip. Blimey, this is strong stuff. Phantasms flicker past my window. Faces from the past, alumni, blizzards of them, fall like snowflakes.

Who goes there? Concave of visage and cropped of skull? Ah, Jack Shepherd. He’s begging outside an ATM. Sleeping rough. Poor Jack?

My fault? I never made him literate, never got him off the amphetamines. He points an accusatory finger. I see others who’ve been luckless. Geena in tears talking to a wall. Kathy incarcerated.

Avaunt! Sip. Sip.

But it’s not all guilt and sadness. Life’s been kind to most. Who’s that? Ronald Crumlin. He’s down the Portobello, flogging fruit and veg and his grandma. Laughing, he too points at me. “See ‘im! He’s the reason I’m stupid!”

And who’s that? Ah, Decibelle. A splendid nurse, busy saving lives. And who’s that? Ah! Brian Wilson, he left only with unclassifieds. I feared the worst. But look, he’s flourishing with wife and kids and his own doughnut emporium in Ladbroke Grove.

“You were all right, sir – considerin’.” Considering I was a teacher. I’ll settle for that.

The heart does get a little fond, the mind a little delusional. Did these phantasms happen? Who knows? Whatever, the real New Year is upon us.

Good luck. You’re probably going to need it.

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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