Imagine being the bus driver that had to tell Rosa Parks to shift. Or the tank driver on Tiananmen Square that fateful day that really could have done with a louder horn and a lollipop lady. Okay, so that one doesn’t really work. Let’s go back to the Montgomery bus driver instead. There you are - with a timetable to keep to and a set of rules to stick to and, I dare say, a pay packet to get back to a wife and family and all of a sudden there’s someone sitting where they’re not supposed to be who’s about to spoil your day. Okay, so she was also about to set in motion a chain of events that would ultimately result in leaps forward in the Civil Rights movement and humanitarian principles in general. But at the end of the day, a job’s a job and someone’s got to bring home the bacon.
Well, this is in essence how I felt last Thursday when I went into work as usual, patrolling the gate for latecomers; wet-wipes in hand ready for the make-up-wearers, only to walk slap-bang into the middle of my own Reg Varney/Rosa Parks scenario.
But let me back up a bit first. Context is everything in this story and the last thing I want is for you to get the wrong end of the political stick. Historical context, for example, kind of argues against my Alabama example above as it was probably very likely that the bus driver in question was a racist as racist views were part of the status quo - socially, culturally, everythingally. And as Vice Principal in the largest school in the biggest academy chain in the North - not to mention a ‘Life’ teacher to boot, (that’s ’Religious Studies’ in old money), one thing you can categorically say I am not is racist. Bradford and Halifax are in our catchment area, for Heaven’s sake. It’s more than my job’s worth.
Funnily enough, ‘Jobsworth’ was one of the least hurtful and offensive things Tweeted and Facebooked about me by bedtime last Thursday night. You see, to get to where I am today you have to believe in the rules you tell others to follow. Value systems and standards of accountability - I’ve done the training. And it’s more than just lip-service - classrooms are full of teachers paying lip-service that will croak before retirement. And it’s more than merely ‘buying in’ to a system. You’ve got to truly believe in the rightness of the institution you represent. And that means everything - from the expulsion of violent bullies or sixth form drug dealers to correct uniform and lateness at the gate.
So what was the momentous moment that spoiled my day? The controversial confrontation which turned me - in the space of a few hours of Troll-led keyboard clacking - from Brian Cant to Genghis Khan in the eyes of an entire school community? What else but Palestine.
The flare up of the Israel-Palestine crisis from evictions and rockets in Gaza had been all over the news and - crucially - the Internet. Protests spread across the globe in support of the Palestinian cause. The big difference this time compared to previous protests, though, was how it managed to capture the political imaginations of young people. Schools across the country - and the world - organised peaceful protests; and our academy was no exception.
A core group of Sixth Form and Year Eleven girls were at the centre of the protesting. These were, generally speaking, good girls. Conscientious, hard-working, law-abiding girls. Model students who were about to bag us a shed-load of fantastic GCSE and A Level grades any day now. Of course they were - they were from Muslim families who all wanted them to be doctors, for Heaven’s sake! So not your usual gang of ne’erdowells we in management have to haul over the coals on a daily basis in Isolation or Detention. This was going to take a whole new Modus Operandi, this one. Softly, softly…
We’d already had the dress rehearsal on the Wednesday. Someone had been leafleting the walls - sticking pro-Palestine slogans up anywhere they could find, until myself and the rest of the Senior Leadership Team took them down before the Principal’s almost clinical aversion to Blu-Tak sent her into one of her funny turns. One of the fly-posting ringleaders was Chas Quint in Year Ten - he, sorry, she; no - I should say ‘they’ - asked me straight in his - ‘their’ usual classroom-sassy way why they shouldn’t be putting up pro-Palestine posters. I respectfully yet firmly told them that it was against school rules to stick posters up without permission and that any notices from either staff or student groups should be emailed to the Pastoral Department for consideration to be included in the telescreen notices situated around the school campus. I also added, with my Subject Specific hat on, that if the fly-posting Palestine supporting protesters really did want to express their support for the dispossessed of the Middle East then there are valid arenas in which to do so. They can debate the issue properly in an organised meeting wherein all parties can have their say and an unpartisan mediating facilitator can arbitrate. Of course, they would have to submit their proposal for said Discussion Group to the Enrichment Programme Decision Making Committee for consideration first.
“Fuck that!” said Chas, “We want some Direct Action, Sir.” So I had to nick him.
As I frogmarched Chas away to throw the book at him/her/them, not only did I think how the ‘Sir’ following the swear word was rather a nice touch; but I also thought to myself how there really isn’t a rule book any longer. Here I had a Gender-fluid, Trans lad who told me he was gay in a Life lesson back in Year Seven supporting a cause - a religion, mind you - that would have him jailed for his sexuality if he ever happened to mistake the Las Vegas for the Gaza Strip. The rule book has been ripped up and used as confetti in a Civil Ceremony. Which is a good thing, of course. I would never suggest otherwise.
But booking Chas for a bit of effing and jeffing was as nothing compared to my brief on the day of the protest itself. The protesters had planned to meet at the school gate at 8.25 - VMG time, (that’s ‘tutor time’ in old money) - with their placards and their banners. We had got wind of this and were willing to turn a blind eye to the fact that officially they were actually missing Registration which is a legal requirement so long as their protest remained peaceful. And it would have done too if it remained limited to the core group of girls and their sympathetic entourage, but as tends to happen whenever human beings attempt to resolve matters in a diplomatic and peaceful manner : a bunch of mindless thugs turn up and all Hell breaks loose.
The bloody Internet was to blame again by all accounts - excuse my French. News of the protest must have seeped out of whichever Chatsnap or Intergram website it started from and spread to a Dark Web full of Year Ten criminals-in-waiting looking for a ruck. So it was that at around 8.15am a veritable army of fifteen year old hooligans swarmed through the school gates, swamping the protesters and starting a riot; using the protesters’ attempt to draw their fellow students’ awareness of an International Humanitarian catastrophe as an excuse to put the boot in and throw some eggs around.
As a Senior Management Team we quickly divided up our responsibilities. The Principal stood on the roof of the Reception block with a loud hailer while my fellow Vice Principal Ian waded in to the sea of scrotes to crack some heads. He would later brag about the number of suspensions and expulsions he logged that day - like he was still on the force boasting about his arrest record. He also scoffed at me that while he was doing his ‘Sweeney’ act with his invisible truncheon amongst the Delinquents all I had to do was “deal with a few uniform infringements”. This was the understatement of the year as my agreed assignment was definitely the short straw while Ex-PC Ian Dowling’s straw was as long as the Arm of his Law in comparison.
There was no comparison. His mission was like carpet bombing whereas what I had to do was more like trying to defuse a bomb. And I didn’t have a clue which wire to snip!
Uniform issues on the gate are usually quite straightforward to deal with - confiscating ear-rings and handing the Oompa-Loompa Girls wet-wipes while handing out detentions. On Protest Thursday, though, my job was a tad trickier. I had to corral the Year Ten Islamic protest group of understandably passionate and frankly frighteningly fiery and feisty females into the foyer of the school auditorium and ask them to remove their headscarves.
Academy rules clearly state that Muslim students who wish to wear the hijab may do so as long as said hijab is coloured navy blue or black or, of course, the corporate purple of the Academy. Not black and white chequered. And certainly not the black, white, green and red of the Palestinian flag.
When I told the girls this they asked me why. Why should they wear purple as an allegiance to their school when they actually feel a more fervent allegiance to their Palestinian roots? I have to admit this stumped me for a bit. Bloody teenagers and their clever arguments, excuse my French. There’s no place for cleverness like that in Our Academy. Danger in free-thinking.
In the end I just fell back on the good old rule book. The power of What Has Been Written. The Tried and Tested. The Status Quo. I felt confident I had the support of the Head and the Board of Directors and even the CEO himself behind me as I told them they must go to the girls’ changing rooms where suitably coloured headscarves would be found for them to wear and any student refusing such a reasonable request would find themselves on a Detention Referral. Friends in High Places, you might call it.
“So let me get this straight, Sir”, said Qadira Salah who got ninety-odd percent in a recent RS Option paper for me and wants to leave us Post Sixteen because we don’t offer Law. “You want us to remove our own scarves - the ones that belong to us - our own possessions - and allow them to be replaced by scarves in Academy purple?”
“That’s right, Qadira.”
“The all-powerful Academy with the might of the Capitalist Corporate Conglomerate behind it? And you want us to just roll over and take this without standing up for ourselves? Our rights?”
I looked out of the widow, out towards the gates where Dowling’s stormtroopers were dispersing the gangs of bully boy thugs who had hijacked Qadira and her comrades’ peaceful protest.
“Is that what you want us to do, Mr Davids?”
I looked her in her dark, brown eyes. “Yes, I do.” I told her, noticing her crooked school tie. “And while you’re about it you can do your top button up, too.”
Proud but defeated, the small knot of good girls turned to be led to the changing room by their Learning Manager, (that’s Head of Year in old money). At the last minute, though, Qadira broke away from the group and strode back to me.
“Mr Davids - just as a matter of interest : what do you think?”
I did a degree in Theology. What does she think I think?
“I think you’d better run along or you’ll miss Registration.”
“No, I mean : which side are you on?”
I didn’t have to think. In a heartbeat I replied : “The Rules, Qadira. I am on the side of The Rules.”
She looked like she was about to cry. But then she swallowed it and walked away. I walked off quickly in the opposite direction. Thanks to all the excitement I still had the home time buses to organise. This is a school, after all. We’ve all got a timetable to keep to.