Do you remember Pavlos Maropoulos from school? Was in the same class as us all the way through middle school. I think you do, actually, because I seem to remember you seeing a girl for a while about ten years ago that you told me was Pavlos’ ex. I think. Wasn’t she the girl that used to live at the bottom of the hill next to the cemetery? It sticks out in my mind now for the fact that you told me at the time that she said Pavlos had beaten her up when they were together and that he was a loose cannon. I remember I believed it at the time, mostly because I hadn’t spoken to him since school but had seen him walking around the streets a few times and noted that he had looked angry and weird. He’d grown his hair long, was always dressed in black with angry slogans on his t-shirts, wore dog collars and spikes and stuff like that, and when he walked past you you could hear the tinny noise leakage emanating from the headphones that covered his ears, aggressive screamy metal music. And he had been lifting weights since we’d left school, had added a bit of bulk. He always looked like he might throw a brick through a glass bus shelter, just for the hell of it. So the idea that he would partake in a bit of domestic abuse was easy to buy into. Then again, though, at that age I used to pretty much believe anything I was told, so long as it was interesting. As I sit here now I’m not so sure that I believe the story. I’m not as prone to judge people on rumours as I once was. Especially considering how many tall tales used to get thrown around our neighbourhood. Anyway, the reason I ask if you remember him is that a couple of weeks ago he sent me a friend request on Facebook. Out of the blue. I hadn’t spoken to him in 15 years, not since we left school, and hadn’t thought of him in about ten years, not since you were seeing that girl.
Teachers are human beings. When I was a kid I had no idea. I’ve been travelling back in my mind to my school days a lot lately, replaying interactions teenage me had with certain teachers, and seeing things in a completely different light to how I did back then. I can step into the heads of those old teachers of mine, see where they were coming from. Because I am them now. I’m a teacher. How that happened I do not know, but it did, and it has been my profession on and off for ten years this year. And yea, teachers are human beings. Flawed. Unhinged. And with a beautifully twisted and well articulated sense of humour. That last sentence is open to accusations of writer’s bias. So be it.
I know that teachers are these things not only because I am one, that would be too small a sample section, but because I am also surrounded by them. Most of the things I do I do with teachers. I hang out with teachers, I drink with teachers, I get stoned with teachers, I discuss life with teachers, I argue with teachers, I sleep with teachers, I watch football with teachers, I get my advice from teachers. The woman currently the object of my attentions is a teacher. I even have a teacher for a flatmate. My living-room has a massive whiteboard on the wall and a fold-up table used solely for giving evening lessons. My living-room is a classroom with settees and a telly, for fuck’s sake! So I feel I am qualified to speak about teachers.
I was, for want of a better word, a challenge to my teachers. A pain in the arse. Although they must have liked my company, because they chose on an almost daily basis to spend an extra hour (sometimes two) of their time with me after the final bell had rung for the day, in detention. Man, in the winter I rarely got home before dark. And I only lived up the road. Detention. How is that allowed?
Lately, when I lie in the darkness at night smoking a couple of spliffs in bed and switching off from the day spent traipsing all over teaching my students English, I’ve been having vivid flashbacks to my childhood. Random stuff. Never anything particularly significant. But one memory always leads on to another, and I am there, back on the school field or sat in detention or on Western Road in Brighton doing Christmas shopping with my sister, my nan and my aunt. I can smell it. Hear it. Feel it. Tonight is no different, but for the fact that I don’t have to get up for work tomorrow morning on account of a chest infection, meaning I can sit up in front of my laptop and write some stuff down. I am aware that smoking with a chest infection makes me an idiot.
For some reason tonight my brain took me back to an eventful day in the early months of 1995, when I was 11, playing out like a film in my mind’s eye, with 3D glasses provided free of charge, scenes that had been absent from my memory for well over a decade. Bizaare scenes.
It’s about half past one in the afternoon and, unlike most of my mates, I’m not in class but rather the school hall. I’ve been excused from lessons because I’m in the school production and an emergency rehearsal has been called because the performance date is approaching and we’re shit, basically. Nowhere near ready. My role in the play is a small one so most of the time it’s other people rehearsing their bits while I’m sat on the floor with the other D-Listers. I keep getting told off for talking and pissing about and the teacher’s really starting to get on my tits. I’m not interested in the production, I only signed up for a part in it because I knew it would get me out of class occasionally. Also I’ve got something more important on my mind. In a few hours I’m going to be making my debut for the school’s Year 5 football team and, even more exciting than that, it’s against Manor Hall, our biggest enemy, the school from just up the road, the kids of which we fight in the park, the same kids that we went to first school with and were best friends with until we separated and went to different middle schools at the end of Year 3 and became sworn foes. This is a proper derby. And my nan’s coming to watch. And even better than all of that, we get to leave school early to get over to their school in time for the game. At 2 o’clock I’m sent to go and get changed with the rest of the team. I’m given shirt number 11. I wanted 8, because it’s Gazza’s number, but 11 is the next best thing, I’m not complaining.
There aren’t enough seats in the mini-bus for the whole team so those of us with bikes take them instead. Down Church Lane, cut through the graveyard, across the green, through the square, along Manor Hall Road. Say hello to my nan. Jog up and down. Start the game. And then a moment that will haunt me for the rest of my life, of this I am sure, almost 20 years after it happened. A cross is put in from the left wing. I don’t know by who, but it isn’t by the player that should be out there, our left winger, because that player is me, and I’m hovering about just outside Manor Hall’s box. The ball goes over my head towards our star player Ross and as it approaches him it plays out in front of me in slow motion, as I know that Ross is more than capable of taking the sting out of this with his chest and then laying it off to me, and the one thing that I pride myself on is my technique when it comes to volleying. I position myself and Ross plays it perfectly, it bounces just in front of me and sits up nicely and I take it on the half volley and connect with it more sweetly than I will ever connect with another ball in my life. I watch it fly from my boot and I know already that it’s going in the top corner. Everybody knows it. There is silence as the ball spins away deliciously to its target. The goalkeeper doesn’t even bother moving. I’m about to write my name into school folklore by scoring a wonder goal from outside the box against Them. Them from up the road. Them whose school jumpers are bright blue as opposed to our navy blue ones. And my nan’s watching. And she’ll tell everyone what she saw. She’ll tell my dad. What goal celebration am I going to do?
The ball smacks against the angle of the crossbar and the post and ricochets behind for a goal-kick.
I go into shock.
Do you remember that time when we was about ten or eleven years old, it was the spring time, and that kid that everyone was a bit afraid spent the morning telling us about how he was able to speak to the dead? And do you remember how he told us it definitely worked, cos he’d done it at home the night before, so he knew? Remember the looks on our faces? I definitely remember the look on yours. And then when he told us that we could do it too. All we needed was this thing called a Ouija board, even if we never woulda known then that that’s how it was spelt, if forced to hazard a guess we would’ve probably spelt it weedgie board, and a coin. That was all we needed, he told us, to talk to the dead! Man, I remember the look on your face. But wait, shit, we haven’t got a weedgie board. What’s that? It doesn’t matter, you say, because we can make one ourselves on a piece of A4 paper? And it just so happens that we’ve got a photocopier in our classroom with a tray full of A4 paper. Remember the excitment when he told us that? Breaktime couldn’t come soon enough that day, could it? Even if deep down inside we knew that what that weird kid was telling us couldn’t possibly be true, we knew that we’d make our weedgie board, form a circle around it, put our fingers on the coin and nothing whatsoever would happen, even if we knew all that really, we still couldn’t fucking wait for breaktime, could we? What if it was true? It couldn’t be though, could it? Why we were even entertaining the idea? Roll on breaktime!
We didn’t have to wait til breaktime though for our juices to really get flowing, did we, cos remember how fifteen minutes before break that kid told the teacher he was going to the toilet and when he returned five minutes later he only produced a weedgie board from his pocket, that he had made in the cloakroom! Yes! Remember that? Course you do! You don’t forget those days. Ever. Everytime the teacher went over the other side of the classroom he whipped it out on the table for us to marvel at. Remember how big he had written the words ‘YES’ and ‘NO’ up in the corners? And remember the alphabet and numbers written in the circle? And remember how that weedgie board looked absolutely fuck all like any Ouija board you’ve ever seen since? But it was the only weedgie board we’d ever seen, so it had to be proper, and besides, this kid had done it at home the night before and he knew what he was talking about, alright?
Remember how at the time the obvious question never crossed our minds, ‘What sort of weird home life has this kid got if he’s conducting séances at night?’ And that kid didn’t even have any brothers or sisters, man! So I wanna know who the fuck was introducing him to this stuff? His parents? ‘Hello, Childline?’
90s hair was cool. But in a really shit way. 1996-97 was the transition period from curtains hair and the bowl cut, or as we called it, ‘I’ll have the number one high step, please, Norm.’ Norm was the barber. Everyone called him Dodgy Norm, which eventually just got shortened to Dodge. This affectionate nickname alluded to the fact that if you went into his shop in the morning you got a fairly decent job done on your Barnet. However, if you happened to pop in in the afternoon, after he had enjoyed his liquid lunch in the pub across the road, you were met by a somewhat more dodgy Norm. And naturally as school kids the only opportunity we got to go in there was after school; in the afternoon. Ah, the Step. If you wanted the bowl cut to go in a straight line around your head you asked for the ‘high step.’ If you asked for just a step, the barber shaped it into a wedge at the back. It looked like a duck’s arse. You had to have the high step. And towards the end of Curtain Hair’s reign not even the number one high step was enough. No. For your hair to get any sort of respect during the final days of the Bowl Cut Empire you had to throw in an undercut. ‘A number one high step undercut, please, Dodgy Norm.’
Then at the back end of 96 the changing of the guard took place. The curtains were closed for the final time. ‘I’ll have a number one French crop, please, Dodgy Norm.’ And by 1998 it was no longer the number one French crop, it was the ‘Nought point five French crop, please, Dodge.’ The 0.5. Basically, bald. The guard off. Shaved down to the scalp round the back and sides and then blended in to what little bit of hair you have left on the top of your head after it’s been taken as short as scissors will allow. It’s essentially the Forrest Gump cut. And then the best part, plastering it down with a fistful of sticky Happy Shopper Wet Look gel. 59p a pot. Bright blue stuff. Or bright green. They were both the same product, just with different names. One was Wet Look. The other was Firm Hold. Both made your hair look wet. Both held it firm. Both made the top of your head feel like a barn floor. And both stung your eyes when it rained and it ran down your forehead and into them. But it was a price worth paying for the right look. You had to look hard as a kid at the end of the last millenium, and that meant looking smart. Short tidy hair, yes. Floppy curtains, no.
Dodgy Norm passed from cancer a few years ago. He is still talked about by everyone as a local legend. The bloke everyone knew, everyone talked to and everyone liked and respected. A great bloke.