A gang of grumbly boys bursts into my room. It’s an explosive end of my week.
‘I ain’t doing this lesson! I chose Art! This lesson’s for girls or poofters!’
‘I’m only here ‘cos Mr Smith won’t have us in metalwork!’
They glance me up then down, starting with my red platform shoes. Up over beige tights – the school insists women teachers wear tights or stockings at all times – no bare legs or trousers. Up beyond my flared tartan miniskirt to my red ribbed top which today feels a bit tight. Never mind. For the rest of the day I’ll be swaddled in a pink nylon overall which is occasionally matched with pink Marigold rubber gloves.
‘Your names please boys?’
There’s fierce eye contact.
‘Gavin!’ A burly young giant towers over me.
‘Ray!’ A shorter but no less submissive boy scowls back.
‘Tim.’ Tim short for timid? Or timorous? Hardly.
‘Len! Not doing exams! Leaving at Easter! Got a job in my uncle’s garage.’ So Len’s not to be messed with either.
‘OK boys – I’ll see if you can change back. We don’t want you doing lessons that you don’t like.
This school was a secondary modern before it was renamed a Senior High but the ghost of low expectation lingers on. Most students are entered for some sort of exam unless they choose to leave at the end of the Easter term after they turn fifteen. These early leavers dither aimlessly about the corridors, desperate to sidle out of the school gates and bunk off. And quite a few seem to be listed on my registers.
Mr Roberts, the deputy head says he’ll pop into the staffroom and ask if the other teachers will take the boys back. He returns swiftly to tell me no, their classes are full and anyway they only teach serious students. It seems my grumbly gang can’t do subjects like art, woodwork, technical drawing and metalwork. But they can do Cookery! It’s easy! Just spend lessons making jam tarts, bread, pastry and cakes. The new teacher will take you. She doesn’t know the kicking-out rules practised by other staff.
Next week the gang has joined the queue propping up the wall outside my room.
‘All of you, come in and gather round my demonstration table with your stools. As it’s our first cooking lesson we’re using storeroom ingredients. You can pay later. There’s margarine, caster sugar, eggs and self raising flour.’
‘What are we making Miss?’
“Alice’ She’s sweet enough to be wearing an Alice band.
‘Miss – I want to do O level Cookery but I’m in this group.’ She could have added ‘of idiots.’
‘We’re making fairy cakes today, Alice.’
‘What! I said this lesson was for poofters!’
Gavin’s voice is as large as his size.
‘It’s a simple recipe – same weight of egg and other ingredients. Beat the marg with the sugar until it’s creamy, like this.’
I bang my wooden spoon on the edge of the mixing bowl and the soft, shiny mixture plops down. Gavin should be good at this.
‘Crack your egg into a cup, beat it with a fork, stir in, sieve the flour and fold in gently. Then into tart tins.
Gavin booms from his stool.
‘When are we doing tarts, Miss?’
He smirks to the group.
‘I’ve never done tarts!’
I so hope he won’t come to my pastry lessons and learn about knocking up.
‘Aprons on, hair tied back, hands washed – let’s get cooking.’
The room busies with weighing and beating then it’s into the cake cases for baking.
“Wash up while the cakes cook.’
The room fills with sponge-baking fragrance. Even Gavin is calming under the spell of watching his raw cake dough rise and turn golden brown.
‘Onto cooling racks and ready for marking!’
‘Len. Two marks off. You’ve made 7 instead of 6. And they are different sizes.’
Len scowls. Stupid rules of fairy cake making!
Alice has six perfectly formed, well risen, golden cakes.
“Full marks Alice.’
‘Gavin – 6 out of 10.’ ‘What! Why?’
‘Sink full of washing up, Gavin– do it before you leave.’
They pile out the room, fairy cakes packed in paper bags. My boy gang is laughing through mouthfuls of sponge. Only a few bowls and spoons are left in the sinks for me to clear away.
Next week they have a choice of pineapple upside down cake or spotted dick. I hope Gavin stays away.