Sunday August 20th … first day of term.
The latest we could arrive at school was 7.30, so I intended to arrive even earlier at 7am, knowing that in time this may change. I decided to leave at around 6.30 – it was a fifteen minute drive but I had not encountered rush hour traffic yet and it was easy to imagine all six lanes of the Expressway rammed at every interchange. So I was up at 5.30, my alarm having gently eased me into the waking world from 5am onwards.
Confident that I could find my way, yet nervous at the prospect of meeting the students (I don’t know why this should be so concerning, but it is) I made my way down to the parking lot to my humble Hyundai steed. On the one hand, I liked that it was a pale blue hatchback, whereas all the other hire cars were white saloon cars; on the other hand, I felt it reflected my obstinacy over the price (I knocked them down by OMR 20 – or rather, Helpful Head did when I raised an eyebrow over the price). My hunch that I had, indeed, been fobbed off with an inferior car, was affirmed when I tried to open the driver’s door and the handle parted company from the door and I found myself standing in the parking lot, holding a car door handle and staring at my door which looked strangely naked without its handle.
Another thing that was not in the game plan.
So I climbed across from the passenger side and worried less about meeting the students on my journey to work and more about finding my way back to the car hire place. I was wishing that I had taken more notice of the journey there, as a passenger in Helpful Head’s car; I should have foreseen something falling off this slightly ropey car.
But ‘first day stress’ replaced ‘detached door handle stress’ on my arrival at work. I clocked in by way of the fingerprint machine and felt like Arnold Schwarzenegger in ‘Total Recall’. I’m sure I am alone in this – the rest of the world has probably been clocking in with fingerprint machines since before the movie even.
In honour of our first day there was a stand set up with mini jars of sweets, scented candles and cute little smiley emoji tins with our names on, which was thoughtful. In honour of the students’ arrival there was a popcorn stand and a candy floss stall. I am fairly certain that no school in the U.K. would consider such a thing for even a moment, on the first day of term. I was tempted by the candy floss but in the absence of any other teacher evidently tempted, I (very maturely I thought) sailed past said stall. As I took my ‘homeroom’ group to my classroom, I spotted one or two teachers chomping away on the heavenly pink stuff …
Homeroom groups are tutor groups. As is the way with secondary teaching, one does not necessarily see a great deal of one’s homeroom/tutor group. The principle task is to register them in the morning. Secondary to that is to act as a mentor for each student within the group and following on from that, one finds oneself ‘carrying the can’ for their conduct and therefore liaising with parents when necessary. Not forgetting those all-important tutor reports; just when you think you’re done with report writing, because you’ve written all your reports of the thousands of students you teach (well, it feels like that) someone says, “Have you done your tutor reports?”
Anyway, I digress. With six Grade 9 boys (13-14 years) in my homeroom group, I think I have the smallest homeroom group in the school. Some homeroom groups are 20+, so I am fortunate, especially as they are all, without exception, wonderful. Boys and girls are separated for lessons and for break-times. There is not the space for the latter, however, so they take their breaks at different times. My school is both a lower and an upper school on the same site and the younger contingency are not separated by gender and so take their breaks together.
On the first day I spent a considerable amount of time with my homeroom group and I met some of my teaching groups. I would be teaching Grade 9 boys, Grade 9 girls, Grade 10 boys and Grade 10 girls, so the two top year groups in the school (GCSEs are taken a year earlier here). We had been warned that students would arrive ‘in dribs and drabs’ for the first few weeks and indeed this was a fair warning. So the pressure was off initially, as no-one wanted to launch into anything that would have to be repeated for the latecomers, of whom there were many.
My classroom transformed from a health and safety nightmare during the week of inset, to an actual classroom by the first day of term. I was relieved that there was a projector and that I was given a laptop, as there was a query over the former. Suspended on a curiously long rod from the ceiling, I was to bang my head on it several times a day for the first week, reducing to maybe once or twice a day for the next two weeks. Now I just bang my head on it very occasionally, as do the students. It is a small classroom, with small desks and small chairs, which is not problematic for my homeroom group, as there are few of them. It is satisfactory for my girls’ groups; there are more of them, but not an intolerable amount and they move gracefully. But for my Grade 10 boys: well, there is a sense of relief if a few are absent. There are sixteen of them and for fifteen year old boys, they are, generally speaking, very mature for their years. Physically, that is; they are prone to the usual scuffles that one associates with teenage boys. And they are not averse to catapulting missiles at one another, of which I am caught in the crossfire from time to time.
But back to my classroom: I was delighted to discover that I had a balcony. I have to climb out of a window to reach it, but the windows are large and low down. However, there is little opportunity to sit on it and in fact, sitting in the sun is not a pastime that people undertake as a rule in these parts.
My classroom also boasts a toilet, which – fellow teachers will understand – is most welcome. Some students will use it; others prefer a toilet that is not actually in the same room as the lesson. I am just grateful for a toilet that is close enough to use in between lessons.
So the first day came and went and as it drew to a close, I turned my attention to my broken car and transferred my stress to my Head of Department, who kindly offered to escort me to Value Plus. I would have to find my way home, but I had been driving for a couple of days by now and was familiar enough with a few places close to Qurm, to be able to muddle my way back to my apartment.
On arrival, I explained my predicament to Candy Crush man, who offered me his trademark chai tea, but instead of fetching it himself, he clicked his fingers at an Indian man, pointed to me and said something in Arabic which was probably along the lines of ‘get her a nice chai tea and take your time about it so we can faff around with this door handle’.
I had left the handle on his desk and after placing my order for chai tea, he took the handle outside to my car. He slotted it back into place with a firm shove and stood back to admire his handiwork. Then he tried to open the door with said handle and looked surprised when it came off in his hand, taking off his kuma* and scratching his head.
He returned, cap in hand (and door handle in the other), replaced the handle on his desk, his kuma on his head and sat back down.
His senior came along, checked the status of the chai tea situation (I assured him that there was one on the way) and also took my car handle to my car … after shoving it back on, wiggling it around and removing it, convinced that it was, indeed, permanently detached from my car, he too replaced it on the desk.
After some time my lovely chai tea arrived and finally, Candy Crush’s senior offered me a new car.
“Would you like a new car?” he asked.
“I think that would be best,” I replied.
And so I drove back to my apartment, looking like every other ex-pat on the road, in a white saloon car, with four handles attached. I had filled my first car with petrol and then swapped it for a car with almost no petrol. But at OMR 7 at the most to fill it, I thought I’d let it go. There are benefits to living in an oil-rich country.
As the week panned out, the school routine became a little clearer.
Assembly is at 7.45 and lessons begin at 8am. There is no homeroom time, so I am fortunate to have a small homeroom group, as I can see at a glance during assembly if all are present. Assembly begins with the National Anthem and all students face the Omani flag. Music is not on the curriculum and this is evident when one is listening to their rendition of the National Anthem! A colleague has since sent me a phonetic version, as I would like to join in with this. The start is identical to the start of the hymn: ‘One More Step Along the World I Go’, which fascinates me, but that is a whole other story …
There are eight lessons in a day, each lesson being forty minutes long. There is a 20 minute break in the morning and a 10 minute break in the afternoon. Lessons finish at 1.50pm and then there are prayers for 20 minutes. The students are free to leave at 2.10pm and we have until 3pm for planning, marking, etc. I supervise girls’ prayers with a female colleague and during said prayers on the last day of the first week, she invited me to join her on the beach straight after school. This sounded like a good idea as I had not yet devoted any time towards topping up my tan. And so it became a Thursday thing; Thursdays are like our Fridays and indeed, on these days we can leave half an hour earlier at 2.30. So it is possible to be prone on the beach by 3pm.
In this first week we lost our deputy (aka the man with the peaceful aura) to another school in the same small group of schools, which was sad. On one of the inset days Scottish Colleague and I, disappointed in the lack of lunch, asked Peaceful Aura man if there was a shop nearby selling food of some description.
“I show you,” he smiled and we followed him to the gate, expecting him to point down the road and impart directions which neither of us would remember (Scottish Colleague and I share a terrible sense of direction, which means we should never travel in convoy, which we have done too many times). Instead he remotely unlocked his car and invited us to travel to a nearby cafe with him. Again, our expectations (grabbing a sandwich and returning to school) did not match the outcome, which was a pleasant lunch, paid for by the man with the Peaceful Aura.
So it was sad to see him leave, not just because he bought us lunch once.
So the first week finished and I survived.