I reckon it must be a total nightmare having me as a teacher! I mean, I have my uses: I bring jellybeans to lessons, bake cakes with pupil’s names on and frequently fall off chairs whilst trying to write on the board (why do they make the white boards so high? And why am I so short?) Ooh, and there are my lucky pebbles which have ensured nobody I have ever taught has got less than a B at GCSE or A/ AS Level ( I like to think this is the outstanding teaching as well as the magic stones, myself!)
But there are many downsides to having me as your English teacher. There’s the fact that my aim with the jelly beans isn’t that great and I have been known to take eyes out with flying sweeties; there’s the homework thing (six essays on ‘The Great Gatsby’ – seriously, Mrs Bruton!); and then there’s the annoying writer business.
Having an English teacher who is also a novelist has to be the worst thing ever – even if she is, ‘one of the finest teen writers in recent years’ according to ‘The Guardian’ (*curtsies shyly*!) Firstly there’s the fact that you run a serious risk of appearing in one of my books. Now, for my Year 7s and even for my old Year 11s, this seems to be OK – in fact they are always asking me to put them in a novel. But my current Year 10s clearly find this the most embarrassing thing EVER! Which of course makes me want to immortalise them in literature all the more!
If you’re lucky, I might just nick your name; Jimmy Wigmore, Elfie Baguley, Agnes Rodriguez: the names of my three main characters in ’Pop!’ are all a mish-mash of former pupils and family nicknames.
Or I might just steal the odd mannerism: Jimmy does this blinking thing and hides behind his very long hair – oh, and he goes red right to the tips of his ears when he’s embarrassed; whilst Agnes twists her fingers round her wrist and bites her lip when she has stage fright. Elfie, on the other hand, scrunches up her nose and does a sort of sideways tippy head thing when she’s telling you a lie – just as a certain rather pickly, pesky student of mine (naming no names!) always does when she’s explaining how Twitter ate her homework – or ET stole her essay – or how the answers to the test magically appeared on the back of her pencil case!
And, just like said pickly student, Elfie is a total ace at making up stories. Which is a good thing cos when she decides that the solution to all her problems is to enter the North West equivalent of ‘The X Factor’, she’s going to need a whole heap of colossal whoppers to make sure they win. ‘Cos everyone who enters a TV talent show has to have a story. At least the ones who get through to the final rounds always do. It might be a battle with cancer or drugs, or a dead dad/dog/goldfish who told you to ‘follow that dream’, or a crippling stutter or stage fright or one-legged-ness or just chronic ugliness… it doesn’t matter: if you want to win you need a healthy dose of misery in your back catalogue. ‘
Fortunately, over the years I’ve heard it all when it comes to creative reconstructions of the truth so I had a lot of material to draw on. ‘My dad put my homework in the shredder, Miss….My dog ate the laptop, Miss … The goldfish threw up on my essay, Miss… somebody even once came up with an excuse involving Daleks! So Elfie’s tales of tears and tragedy, broken homes, feuding families, star-crossed lovers (with Lady Gaga knitting competitions, Queen Mum cocktails and celeb catfights thrown in for good measure) were all too easy to think up! Or, in some cases – remember!
Yes, that’s the other thing about teacher/novelists– they nick things you say and put them in their books. Of course there was the time my Year 11s tried to persuade me to put the word ‘douche-bag’ in a novel and then wet themselves laughing when I found out what it actually meant (who knew!!!) but loads of the stuff my characters say is based on overheard conversations (NEVER talk loudly about your code name for your boyfriend/ your mum’s obsession with ‘One Direction’/your secret ‘Twilight’ habit when I’m around!) Cos kids come up with stuff way better than we writers could ever think of by ourselves. Take some of my fave lines from ‘Pop!’: ‘How do you even know my kid brother isn’t actually my secret lovechild?’ ‘Because I was there when your mam’s waters broke on the floor in Lidl’ – well, substitute Lidl for Waitrose (it’s dead posh where I teach!) and I nicked that line right out of the mouths of babes! Seriously I should be paying my pupils commission!
The teen pop band, the pushy parents with Olympic dreams, falling asleep in the back of Geography lessons, not to mention all the extraordinary outfits (seriously, I take note on Mufti days!) – it’s all totally taken from my lovely pupils. Sorry, folks!
Oh, but the worst thing has to be the idea of your teacher match making! And here I’d like to hold up my hands and say, ‘But I didn’t– honest!’ Only try telling that to my Year 10s! The fact is that when I’m not reading serious literature (‘Pop!’ is inspired by Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘North and South’ dontcha know! – even if it is via Richard Armitage from ‘Spooks’ – swoon!) I also watch a lot of rom-coms – oh, and ‘Glee’ (my big scene at the Grand Final of the talent show is totally nicked from the ‘Glee’ Season 1 finale!) So, whilst I like to think there are serious contemporary issues in the book (the impact of recession on kids in the UK, oil refinery strikes, the cultural impact of reality TV etc), there’s also a wee rom-com love story going on! And this is what my Year 10s are, ‘SOOOOOO embarrassed!’ about!
Allow me to explain: Jimmy (lovely, tall, gangly, shy Jimmy – who is, it’s true, partly modelled on many a tall, shy, gangly Year 10 I have taught past and present) has been in love with Elfie since he was eight years old and he saw her doing handstands up against the wheelie bins, flashing her knickers for all the world to see. And he’s basically been doing whatever she asks ever since – ‘one time she persuaded me to pierce her ear with a fish finger and a safety pin. Another time she tattooed my arm with a permanent marker and it wouldn’t come off for weeks.’ Jimmy reckons it’s just easier doing what Elfie tells him, to be honest – even if it does mean pretending to be the teen father of her love child or caught in a crazy love triangle with Agnes. Which he sort of is …
Agnes is the shy girl who sits in the back of the classroom and nobody talks to her because her dad’s a strike breaker. But when she opens her mouth to sing, she turns into a star. She’s the sort of girl who looks like a supermodel but doesn’t know it and has no idea how talented she is (there’s at least one in every class!) When Elfie decides that Agnes is her ticket to stardom, Jimmy and Agnes get thrown together and maybe – just maybe they can get over their chronic shyness and perhaps …. maybe …. Oh, I’m not telling. You’ll just have to wait and see.
But, the problem is that since ‘Pop!’ came out all the Agnes and Jimmys that I teach won’t even look each other in the eye, so let’s get one things straight: ‘Pop!’ is not some crazy ‘my teacher is a matchmaker’ scheme. In fact, you should all be off doing your homework and reading Dickens, not snogging and dating. None of that nonsense till your GCSEs are over, I say! Cos I might have nicked a lot from the classroom but Jimmy and Agnes’s romance isn’t based on my students; it’s me and my hubbie (seven years of ‘will they- won’t they?’ friendship it took us to get together – seven years!!! Seriously, there’s shy and then there’s ridiculous!)
Nonetheless, I reckon I owe my poor long-suffering pupils an apology! So, I’m really sorry! Sorry about all the times I’ve gone on and on about, ‘Well, in my next book ….’; sorry for the terrible hypocrisy (‘Always plan carefully before you start writing,’ she says. ‘Never leave assignments till the last minute… semi-colons matter … avoid using slang…’ Oh Mrs Bruton, you need to follow your own advice, madam!); sorry for eavesdropping and metaphorically borrowing from your wardrobes; and sorry for seeming to meddle in your love lives (even when I’m totally not!)
I’m seriously hoping that putting the deputy head in ‘Pop!’ and giving you a thank you in the back will make you forgive me. Or perhaps when you’re about ninety (and I’m totally dead!) you might decide having a novelist for your teacher is a cool thing to tell your grandchildren. Or perhaps if I just stopped setting so many essays, you’d feel more inclined to overlook my crimes…
In the meantime, I think I’d better get baking! Pop-cakes, Year 10?
A weblog about writing, books, teaching and the rest of life by the author Catherine Bruton.