It’s Thursday afternoon, and as I walk towards my room, the usual line of boys who squabble, jostle and push each other onto my wall, is missing. Thursday afternoon is spent teaching boys who have decided that cookery is the only subject they want to take. They have frightened off the girls who have chosen mucky metalwork or dusty woodwork instead of the fighting and spats in the jungle of a class of boys. There are days when I would like to take off my nylon overall and join the girls in a peaceful lesson.
But today, only Len and Sam are propped against the door looking rather sullen. Something has happened, but neither boy is offering an explanation.
I unlock the room and face the pile of ingredients that I have bought for macaroni cheese and baked apples. How will I make use of all of this food with just two students? The cheese is carefully cut into equal chunks, and the greengrocer has chosen cooking apples that look identical, and delivered some tiny tomatoes to cut down on cost. All to avoid squabbles of ‘His is bigger than mine – it’s not fair!’
‘Hello boys – it looks like you’ll get larger portions today if no-one else turns up. Where are the others? What’s happened? Are they bunking off or are they in trouble?’
Neither boy wants to talk. I might get information if we start cooking.
We busy ourselves coring the apples and pushing in a spicy mix of sultanas and raisins, then boiling extra quantities of macaroni. I know what they are thinking:
‘More food to take home for tea for me and my mates.’
But why are the rest of the class missing?
Students invent various excuses for not coming to lessons.
‘I’ve got to go to the doctor’s .. the dentist …the cat is dead.. ‘.
Walthamstow dog track is down the road and betting is a profitable school pastime. Many of the boys play up in maths lessons, but they can calculate the outcome of an each way bet as quickly as they say ‘yep’ to one of my lemon curd tarts.
‘So have they gone to the dogs or is it the horses today?’
Silence, heads down. Len stirs the boiling macaroni. His glasses steam up, but he doesn’t seem to care.
We concentrate on cheese sauce, using the quick all-in-one method invented by Stork margarine cooks. Measure the milk, marg and flour into the saucepan and whisk and heat until it thickens.
‘Bring your saucepans to the dem table and we’ll finish the cheese sauce together.’
We grate in extra quantities of cheap Cheddar cheese.
‘Don’t grate your knuckles in with the cheese – bits of skin don’t look nice. Now let’s season it with mustard powder, pepper and a little Worcestershire sauce and taste it.’
Delicious – we like tasting.
The sauce gets mixed with cooked macaroni and some frozen peas. The room is warming up and cooking might have softened Len’s reserve.
‘Come on Len – tell me where they are.’
He heaves in frustration.
‘Most of them have gone to court miss.’
‘Why’s that Len? You can tell me.’
Sam is not happy that Len is giving away the group secrets.
‘Neil and Ray got caught after they broke into factory.’
‘Ray left his gloves behind after he’d climbed through a window and they had his name in them.’
We smile at the silliness. A boy burglar who still has his clothes labelled with his name in case they get lost.
‘And the others?’
‘George decided to borrow a milk float. The milkman had left the keys in it and George thought it would be a quick way to get to school. But the man ran after him and someone called the police.’ George is always late and rather dozy, so this spontaneous act is a surprise.
‘And Nick? Where is Nick?’
Nick loves cars and motorbikes but is too young to drive. Nevertheless he takes them for a spin and lives up to his name nicking anything that will speed along the highway.
‘Nick got caught for driving underage and without a licence.’
The list of petty thieving, borrowing bikes and cars and general mischief goes on. The consequences could be serious – a fine, probation or worse still they could be sent away to a young offenders institution and Borstal.
We pile the macaroni into foil dishes, grate more cheese, carefully arrange slices of tomato on the top with a sprig of parsley, then wrap them with instructions to heat in the oven with the baked apples for 30 minutes ready for the tea when they get home. I feel rather sad that it has been a quiet, gentle afternoon, with no challenges or jokes. What will the future hold? Will my class shrink to just two?
Next week I sit at my desk and watch to see who will turn up. It is like waiting for the contestants from the Apprentice – who will return after Alan Sugar has pointed and said ‘You’re fired!’? Neil and Ray come in first, perky as always. They dump their bags, pile duffel coats and blazers on top and tie on their aprons. George and Nick arrive looking chastened and more sullen. Others shuffle and push past the pile of coats and soon the room is noisy and bustling.
‘What are we cooking today miss? I’m hungry.’
The room has returned to Thursday chaos and I am pleased.