Christmas is a time for journeys.
There was the one Mary went on with her husband to Bethlehem a couple of thousand years ago. There was another journey rather more recently that I took with my estranged husband when I gave him a lift to King’s Cross station because he was late for something. On the way, I got caught by a speed camera doing 25mph on Dalston Lane and, as a result, last Monday had to sneak out of school early and make a pilgrimage to the Angel to attend a Speed Awareness Course. (Which was a nice companion to the Driving Without Due Care and Attention Course I’d already been on.)
This is my first Christmas as a trainee maths teacher in a London comprehensive school. I’ve been so deep in exterior angles and Pythagoras’ theorem — leavened only by the odd driving mishap — I had barely noticed the festive season was upon us.
At my school there is no question of children being allowed to fritter away the last week of term watching March of the Penguins in lessons. Instead we went on making them do sums, exactly as normal, until the final bell went on Thursday.
This refusal to acknowledge Christmas until the last moment suits me well. Parkinson’s law dictates that most of us reach peak inefficiency in December. When I used to allow Christmas to expand to fill the time available, it sprawled forward, pitching me into frantic, pointless busyness for weeks. This year, my first day of Christmas is today. I have exactly 48 hours to devote myself to finding a tree, a turkey, some cranberries and some crackers, to decorating and cooking — which, given I have nothing else to do, seems delightfully leisurely.
One ostensible drawback of my new job is that my disposable income is not what it was. The 80 per cent drop is regrettable in some ways, but has provided an excuse to do what I have been trying to achieve for decades: to cease and desist with Christmas presents. Every year since my children were young, I have threatened austerity, and every year I have backtracked and gone on a panic present-buying spree.
This year they appear to believe me. My daughter sent me a link to a skincare set priced at £11.20. My son has suggested a grubby second-hand eBay hoodie that cost £6.50.
I’m not entirely confident about the success of the experiment. I dream of a modern version of The Railway Children. We will be freed from the usual guilt and gloom that descends on Christmas evening after too many presents, none of which ever manage to be quite what anyone wanted. Instead we’ll take a bracing walk after lunch, and if charades seems too much, then there is always The Crown on Netflix.
But if it all goes wrong, and if our empty stockings leave us feeling deprived and cheated, we can revert to excess next year having proved once and for all it’s more agreeable than austerity.
My favourite party of the season — almost my only party — was with my fellow middle-aged teaching novices, who have spent the past four months in assorted London secondary schools. Everyone looked a bit different. Thinner. Tougher. But also, I fancied, a bit younger. Given how tired we all were, this might seem surprising. Possibly, being surrounded by the young (the teachers) and the even younger (the pupils) rubs off on one. More likely, this is proof of what all the studies say: that learning new things later in life is not only the best way of fending off Alzheimer’s, but it also keeps us young.
“It’s been an incredible journey,” one of them said, as he drank his warm prosecco from a plastic cup. Then he gave me a defiant look: he knows how I feel about the “J” word. Starting again as a trainee teacher is lots of things. It is tiring. Exciting. Humiliating. Exhilarating. Rejuvenating. Relentless. It is fabulous to have made it through to the Christmas holiday. But it isn’t a journey.
Alas, no one in my new world appears to agree with me. There seem to be even more spurious journeys in schools than in business — education itself is now supposed to be one. I listened to a maths professor give an otherwise impressive lecture last week which she spoiled by saying it was the job of every maths teacher to take children “on a mathematical journey”.
I wanted to protest that my job is nothing of the kind. It is to teach students that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, and to persuade them that this theorem is a thing of beauty. Either way, there is no travel involved. But I kept my mouth shut. I am junior. I am trying to fit in. I mustn’t upset people. One of the reasons I so dislike the metaphor is that it is always used positively — often including some bogus element of discovery. Whereas actual journeys generally involve nothing of the sort. In my experience, getting from A to B is mostly mundane and frequently a dratted nuisance, especially if it results in being caught on a speed camera.
And then once you have been caught on camera and attended the speed awareness course, journeys become more tiresome still. The other day a newly speed-aware friend drove me through deserted London on a Sunday morning with the speedometer never budging above 20mph. Cars were spluttering in frustration behind her, and I found it so tough being a passenger I was almost inclined to get out and jog alongside the car. The last time I deliberately went so slowly on an empty London road was on the second least enjoyable journey of my life, following my poor Dad’s coffin to the crematorium.
One of the great things about being a teacher is supposed to be the school holidays. Only I’ve already spotted the drawback — they happen during the school holidays. This means that the rest of the world is also on a journey at exactly the same time. On Friday, the first day of the holidays, I was due to leave London bound for Cornwall. Every other schoolchild and teacher in the world was bound to be doing ditto. I anticipated 270 miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic. The only advantage: no opportunity to forget I’m speed-aware, and get caught speeding.
Lucy Kellaway is an FT contributing editor and co-founder of Now Teach
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