And So It Begins …

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.

*kuma:

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Adam Cole at Monk’s Tap House, The Cave

The weekend of National Day … Friday night and I’m in, washing my hair, playing The Killers loudly enough to block out the sounds of people daring to have fun whilst I have no plans. Having left my hairdryer in the UK, I just wait for my hair to dry. On this particular Friday night I decide to do the social media circuit, in the order they appear on my iPad, whilst waiting for said hair to dry.

I only get as far as Instagram, however and only a few posts in because on scrolling down, a friend’s post leaps out at me and my night is sorted.

‘Can I just turn up?’ I message him, thinking he won’t reply because he’s about to get up and perform.

But he does: ‘Just turn up,’ he replies.

So off I wander, with demi-sec hair, down to the taxi station, to barter with a taxi driver over the cost of a five minute drive. On the verge of returning home to get my car and drinking fruit juice all evening, I reach a satisfactory conclusion with the taxi driver and off we go to Monk’s Tap House at The Cave, Darsait Heights.

A five minute drive but a ten minute farewell with the taxi driver.

‘I come later? Take you home?’

‘That would be good,’ I reply.

‘In one hour? In two hours?’

‘Er … I don’t know – I’ll take your number.’

Number taken.

‘Now you call me. A missed call.’

‘Why?’

‘Then I have your number.’

‘Why do you need my number?’

This goes on for some time until I tell him that it’s a nice night and I feel like walking home. Which is obviously a lie as that would mean walking down a busy multi-lane carriageway for quite some time, but I’m walking away from him anyway …

The Cave is a labyrinth of bars, clubs and restaurants pretty much inside a mountain. Hence the name. It actually is a series of caves. I found Monk’s Tap House and there was the star performer, sitting down to a platter heaving with … well, everything. He offered me a spicy chicken wing and I said ‘Aren’t you supposed to be performing?’

He looked around and looked back at me and I saw what he saw – an empty venue.

Adam Cole is one of the most relaxed people I know. Many would have reacted differently but when you’re as at ease with yourself as Mr Cole is and you have every confidence in your musical prowess (and quite rightly so) then why stress?

I joined him and his lovely wife and a friend of theirs (who turned out to be my niece’s friend’s uncle … and yes, it is strange that we managed to make that connection within minutes of meeting each other) and waited for him to make a dent in the heaving platter of everything.

At some point this happened and the show began … a few people had arrived by this time, so it was starting to feel like a proper gig. I was expecting one or two other band members to arrive but Adam is a one-man band. At times, he says, he is joined by a fellow musician or two, but not this night.

A few songs in and I realised that I had completely taken it for granted that I felt like I was listening to a full band. I only ever see Adam play a guitar but I know that he can play many instruments and this was evidenced in his elaborate set-up. He was lead guitarist but flanked by electronic representations of other instruments and considering the number of songs he played, this was clearly a reflection of many hours of preparation.

But what about his performance? Flawless, of course. This was my first experience of Adam at a gig; I have seen him play many times at his popular Open Mic sessions at Copper, but hitherto not at a gig.

Primarily a rock musician, we (not just the three of us – the venue filled at the same rate as our glasses) were treated to covers of Pink Floyd, REM, U2, Oasis … to name a few. All the best rock bands. And when it came to Breakfast at TIffany’s, I marveled at the fact that I had not heard that song for a number of years until the night before, when I was at another gig and here I was hearing it for a second time not 24 hours later. I came to the conclusion that rock music is a bit of a hit in Muscat.

I am in awe of Adam’s tenacity … he reminds me of one of those bunnies from the Duracell adverts. (Well, his tenacity does – you can see from the pictures that he doesn’t look like a bunny at all.) He just keeps going and he shows no signs of flagging and he even had the good grace to turn and smile, while I was taking pictures of his performance. By the time he finished, it was a full venue and by the way, it’s a cool venue. I did not sample their culinary delights but I could see that they were of a good standard. Pleasant staff (who even gave me the WiFi code because I ran out of data) and as with all the venues in The Cave, great ambience. Of course, being inside a mountain gives you a headstart but you have to get the lighting just right to get that ‘inside a cave’ atmosphere, which they do to perfection.

Adam Cole: catch him at Copper Restaurant (Sayh Al Malih Street) every Tuesday night and also performing all over Muscat, so look out for the posters!

Monk’s Tap House: https://www.facebook.com/monkstaphouse/

Reviewed by Lisa O’Connor on Friday 17th November 2017