Weird being a teacher because when staff leave a school, instead of leaving at various pinch points throughout the year – as they do in the real world – they mostly all leave at the same time, at the end of the long Summer Term . At this point everyone is wilting, emotional and distracted by the prospect of blackmarket spreadsheet betting to predict the length of the longest leaver’s speech which will take place at the end of term BBQ.
This year we have a particularly rich decant of retiring teachers, so predictions are proving difficult. All of the escapees look far too young to retire and are far too perky about sharing their exit plans – they could at least look sorry to go. Many of them have been at the school for years – some of them, all their years (even appearing in whole school photos across the decades, the men starting in the ’70’s with full heads of hair and resurfacing in the present day clearly having given their follicles a few challenges. Kids eh?) The plan is to mark their teaching longevity not only with the traditional speeches and a china mug bearing a school logo many iterations older than the current corporate brand (‘we’ll rethink retirement gifts Margaret, I promise, once we’ve worked through this 1980’s bulk order from Royal Dolton’) but also with a staff cricket match and tea. No BBQ this year. The Wellbeing Committee are asked to organise the tea, and as Chairperson of said group, this is where I come in.
The team assure me that inviting our colleagues to enter cake categories in a bake-off style competition will encourage a frenzy of kitchen activity; all we will have to do is work out a strategy for cucumber sandwiches. I send out the invite, set the cake categories and stand back expectantly.
Teachers march on their stomachs and I know they will be offended if we just provide shop bought cakes for them at the cricket match – they get plenty of these at the many evening meetings they are obligated to attend and they are still smarting from the cutback to the catering budget which resulted in the now well documented Biscuitgate protest march of 2013 (suffice to say that chocolate biscuits – individually wrapped – are now back on the plate at these meetings).
Despite this and despite knowing the unwritten rule for any colleague’s birthday is that they supply enough cake to feed the whole workforce – again handmade, gluten free, vegan and clean options are de rigurer – a week goes by and not a single person has responded to my invitation. Well, that’s not strictly true, one member of staff offers me a potato cake so that she can wittily point out that in the invite, I apparently also asked for the loan of ‘tuber ware’ sic.
I go back to the committee for advice. ‘Well your mistake was asking colleagues to compete against each other, they sagely point out’. Thanks team. I will clearly have to eat humble pie (making it myself) and I amend the invitation to simply just beg for cake, with the assurance that there will be no judging of soggy bottoms or analysis of crumb density. It’s just not cricket, but all cake will simply be eaten.
Teachers are the most competitive creatures I know. I still bear the scars from the last Staff’s Got Talent Competition. How were we to know that our River Dance routine would plummet down the leader board when an opposing House rolled their home-made combine harvester onto the stage to accompany their Wurzel tribute band? Naturally we put in a complaint about cider drinking taking place during school hours, but by then clogs and straw were flying backstage and the trophy was given to the staff in tartan who knocked out a tortuous version of a Bay City Rollers number. Bye Bye Baby indeed.
Fortunately, cake offers come flooding in. I have to consult my Mary Berry Almanac to decide which category the cakes fall under, so sophisticated do they sound. ‘Don’t expect anything fancy, but I’m happy to knock up a Venetian lemon drizzle cake with a violet infusion,’ and, ‘would a three tiered, red velvet show stopper be of any use?’ Even the Head teacher threatens to get his nephew and niece baking triple choc, butter milk brownies at the weekend.
The cake distraction has taken my mind off the actual good-byes. It feels like there have been too many of these this year and I feel myself finally acknowledging, selfishly, that I’d like some people to stay in my life.
Up the road at my former school, my ‘what larks’ friend prepares to also say goodbye. We joined at the same time – me mature but new to teaching, she nearly as mature (despite what she says) and a proper English teacher of many years’ experience. Being far too young to retire, she’s not leaving the profession but she’s going to a school where cake will be served morning, noon and night, along with a three course lunch. Her leaving makes me nostalgic for the times we shared at the school together. The goodbye tradition there is to send staff off by piggy-backing their goodbye speeches on to the end of term House Competition Finale – and when I say finale, I mean dodgems, bar- fly jumping, bucking bronco and a tented pavilion complete with candy floss and ice-cream for the winning House. The students get about ten minutes to celebrate their House success, and then the staff wade in – with their families if they’re fit to be seen in public -before being treated to a strawberry tea and the dulcet tones of the Head’s eulogies about departing staff.
On our first year at that school, friend and I got a little too excited about the fun fair. From our classroom windows it looked similar to the closing scenes of the ‘Grease’ movie and we were anxious to get out there and ra-ma-la-ma-a-ding- dong. Having been teaching for longer, she should have known better than to agree to us sharing a dodgem on the same ride as the students. We left the ride looking distinctly green, bruised and in neck braces; until that time I had felt that our tutor groups really liked us. At least once we had our colour back, we returned to the pavilion to tackle some impressive chocolate brownies and giggled unprofessionally – with stage asides – through a particularly long speech from our leaving Head of Faculty. As soon as the speech was over, we escaped to the bouncy castle and persuaded the rather large Deputy Head to gain street cred by trying out the bucking bronco – he had the photo of his younger self herding cattle in South America on his desk, after all, and had bored for England on the subject many times. (I still feel bad about this though, a snapped tendon is no laughing matter and it was a shame not to see him again until Christmas).
Suffice to say, my forever friend will be sorely missed. I wish I could deliver her leaving speech for her, I know she’ll be far too modest. They are nutters to let her go. Summer Loving it’s not.
Back in real time, I’ve been guilt-tripped by the glut of cake offers; I’m thinking I should actually cook something myself. I’ve still not used the lower oven in the flat but realise that all my cake baking stuff is still in my unsold house and I’m feeling too wobbly to collect it. I’m personally more about the show than the cake itself. I like to ice cakes and over the years, have fancied myself as a confectionary Aardman for my family. Perhaps I’ve always iced over the cracks, made things look good from the outside. Anyway, my icing kit isn’t with me, so my plan to fashion replicas of the staff out of fondant icing will never get piped. I know I’m to visit mum’s for a family conference about her future care, so I think it might be a good idea to stay and make some of her signature biscuits with her after the meeting.
Marion’s biscuits are indeed her signature dish. She’s made them through the years, and the recipe has never been written down. Church halls have been roofed with the takings from her biscuit sales; my son financed his Year 9 trip to Marrakesh through blackmarket biscuit vending at school (making the biscuits himself after having been sworn to secrecy about the ingredients) and any visit to mum’s house has always been furnished with a leaving present of a greaseproof paper parcel of biscuits containing a single lump of sugar to keep them crunchy.
However, as soon as I arrive, looking at mum cocooned in her huge sofa, I can see that no biscuits will be made on this visit. Mum is even smaller than last week and starting to look yellow in the face. I try to ice a brave face for the meeting and we all discuss the future valiantly but mum doesn’t like the menu of options. We’ll need her to marinade them over; she’ll need to reach her own decision. She hears it as a challenge to get strong enough not to need care, but her heart is literally not in it. I keep my game face on until I reach the car and then sob all the way home.
I realise that I didn’t even mention the biscuits. I can’t face cooking when I return to the flat, so swing by the shops to buy some scones.
No more pretending though, I’m not going to parcel these scones up as my own, I’m not going to attempt to dust them over with icing sugar. It’s not my season to cook. I need to keep an eye on my well-being. I’ll concentrate on the goodbyes and see if I can find a recipe for them that I actually like. I’ve just been on the phone to the canteen and I’ve ordered a few rounds of wafer thin cucumber sandwiches. The staff will be pleased and it will leave me time to stitch some bunting together.