Since Becky had helped a teenage girl called Stephanie get over a dog phobia at the seaside when she was three, they’d kept in touch by email occasionally, mostly when it was Christmas or their birthdays. But one day in the middle of the summer holidays, Stephanie emailed Becky to say she had a new friend called Zoe who’d never got over something that had happened a few years earlier, when she’d been carrying her baby brother at the station and someone had rushed past and knocked her over and she’d dropped her brother and he’d had to go to hospital and have stitches in his head. She would have nightmares about it, and sometimes think about how terrible it would have been if something worse had happened. Stephanie wondered if Becky could help her get over the memories.
Becky said she’d try to help. Stephanie suggested they all go out together one day. Her family liked Zoe, and after hearing about what Becky had done to help Stephanie, thought that maybe she could help Zoe. They decided it would be nice to take them to the seaside for another day out. They thought that after they’d had some fun, Becky could talk with Zoe, hopefully in the sunshine, and then they could all have some food together.
Becky liked the idea. She fancied a day out at the beach, and she thought it would be nice to find out if the things she’d been learning in her psychology classes actually helped anyone.
They met up one Sunny morning at Stephanie’s house, and Stephanie’s dad drove them down to the beach.
On the way, her mum made them all laugh by telling them about Cockney rhyming slang. She said she and Stephanie’s dad had both grown up in London, and she’d had grandparents who’d sometimes used a bit, and had taught them some. She said:
“I think I’ve forgotten most of what I got taught, but some things have stuck in my mind. In Cockney rhyming slang, a little phrase is used as a substitute for a word, and the last word of the phrase rhymes with the word; but then people often just use the first word of the phrase to mean the word, so it doesn’t rhyme at all and doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the word. Actually, an example you probably all know is that ‘apples and pears’ means stairs; so I suppose a mum might say to a child, ‘Get up those apples and go to bed!'”
They grinned. Then Stephanie’s mum continued, “I don’t know if anyone’s really sure why Cockney rhyming slang came into being. I think some people think it was made up by criminals or other groups of people in Victorian times, to keep what they were doing secret from people who heard them talking; but other people think it might just have been made up for fun. Anyway, I don’t think it was long before lots of people started using it. Some of it goes back to Victorian times, but people have carried on making up phrases ever since, and they’re still doing it today, not just in London either, but in every English-speaking country. At least, that’s what I’ve heard. I think a lot of people must think it’s fun to use.
“You can make some funny sentences with bits of slang. Another bit you’ve probably heard of is that ‘plates of meat’ is rhyming slang for feet. So someone might say, ‘Thanks for offering to let me borrow your shoes, but I don’t think my big plates will fit in them.'”
Then Stephanie’s mum said, “And cabbage patch means scratch. So I suppose someone might say, ‘I went to pick a load of gooseberries from that old prickly gooseberry bush we’ve got in our garden. It was nice, but I came out with a load of cabbages!'”
They laughed again.
Stephanie’s mum then said, “And mince pies means eyes, and fireman’s hose means nose.”
Becky giggled and said, “I wonder if that means someone could say, ‘My wife does look pretty; she’s got beautiful blue mince pies that often look thoughtful. She’d look even nicer if she didn’t have such a great big fireman’s hose sticking out of the middle of her face!'”
They all laughed again.
Then Stephanie’s mum said, “Baked bean means queen.”
They giggled again, and Becky said, “Does that mean that on Christmas Day, some people say, ‘Let’s turn the telly on; it’s time for the baked bean’s speech!'”
Zoe was laughing along with the rest of them and said, “Or I wonder if they’d say, ‘Let’s go and visit Buckingham Palace and see if we get to see the baked bean.'”
They all laughed again.
Then Stephanie’s mum said, “Biscuits and cheese means knees; so maybe you could say to someone, ‘Get down on your biscuits and pray!’
“And the word shirt is Uncle Bert. So you could say, ‘I’m just off to iron my uncle.'”
“And the phrase used for legs is bacon and eggs, so you might say, ‘Corr you walk fast! It must be because you’ve got really long bacons!’ Or if you were trying to dress a child, I suppose you could say, ‘Come on, put your bacon in your trousers.’
“And you’ve probably heard that the word phone is dog and bone; so maybe someone could say, ‘I’ll answer your question in a minute; I’m just going to answer the dog.'”
They all laughed again.
Stephanie said, “I suppose anyone could make up a bit of rhyming slang, couldn’t they? So maybe if I decided that a good slang phrase for cheese could be bottle of fleas or something and I told everyone, maybe if enough people got to hear about it and started using it for fun, it would make it into Cockney rhyming slang dictionaries and things.”
They laughed. But Becky protested, “You wouldn’t want to call cheese that! Cheese is nice! At least some of it. Maybe you could call that mouldy cheese something like that. I’ve never tried eating that; I don’t know how anyone dares! But some people must like it, and they’d probably think I’m really fussy for not daring to eat it. But maybe you could call ordinary cheese honey for bees or something.”
Stephanie’s mum said, “One slang phrase for money is bees and honey.”
Zoe said, “So maybe someone could say, ‘Let’s take some bees out with us; it’ll be good to have some in case we stop to buy ice-creams!'”
Then Stephanie said, “I remember you telling me that whistle and flute means suit, Mum. Maybe that means a person could proudly say, ‘I’ve just got a new job promotion. I’m going to buy a whistle for when I start my new job.'”
They giggled again.
Stephanie’s mum said, “I don’t know if I’ve ever told you, but the slang for daughter is ‘bricks and mortar’. So when you were smaller I could have told people, ‘I’m just taking my bricks to school’, or, ‘I’m just going to collect my bricks from school.'”
Becky grinned and said to Stephanie, “You don’t look much like a pile of bricks, but I expect they come in all shapes and sizes nowadays.”
Her mum said, “And the slang for son is currant bun. So you might say, ‘My currant’s nearly old enough to go to school now.'”
They all laughed again.
Then Stephanie’s mum said, “And the slang for street is field of wheat. So you might complain, ‘I’ve walked down this whole field and I haven’t seen a single bus stop!'”
Stephanie giggled and said, “Yeah, or maybe you might say, ‘I wish there weren’t so many cars whizzing along this field!'”
Her mum said, “A slang word for car is motor, and a rhyming slang phrase for that is haddock and bloater. They’re both fish. So you might say, ‘Let’s go for a ride in the haddock!'”
They all laughed.
They had fun talking about Cockney rhyming slang all the way down to the seaside.
When they got there, they all had fun swimming and playing in the sea, except Stephanie’s dad, who decided to sunbathe and read a book and guard their things instead.
When the others had finished having fun in the sea, they sat down to sunbathe too. Becky and Zoe sat a little away from the others so they could talk privately while the others chatted to each other.
Zoe had been feeling nervous about talking to Becky when they’d started out that morning, but the things Stephanie’s mum had said to make them laugh on the way down to the beach and the amusing conversation they’d had, and then their play in the sea, and the sunshine, had made her feel much more relaxed. She started feeling a bit nervous again as they sat down, but then Becky said, “Let’s just sit back and enjoy the sunshine for a few minutes before we start talking.”
They sat back and relaxed. Then Becky said with a smile, “Hey, how would you like a pet seagull?”
Zoe laughed and said, “I wouldn’t, thanks!”
Becky said, “Imagine if there were really big seagulls and you could go for rides on them! Would you want one then?!
Zoe giggled and said, “No way! It would be like going on a rollercoaster ride, wouldn’t it! Imagine being on a seagull when it swooped down into the sea to catch a fish, and then zoomed back up to its nest again! You wouldn’t need to go to a theme park for exciting rides, would you!”
They both laughed.
After a few moments, Becky asked, “So what did Stephanie tell you about me?”
Zoe said, “She told me you helped her get over a dog phobia when you were only three! I thought that was impressive! She said you might be able to help me with my nightmares and other things.”
Becky said, “Well, I can’t promise anything. I only know what I’ve read in psychology books. But I’ve read a few that talk about ways of getting over the kinds of problems I’ve heard you’re having; so I’ll do my best to help. Tell me what happened the day the thing happened that was so upsetting that you still have nightmares about it today.”
Zoe said, “Well, it was a few years ago. We thought we were going to have a really nice day out. We were going to go up to London and go to some museums and other things. We started out early in the morning because we wanted to spend hours and hours there. We were going to have a picnic in the park at lunchtime and see if there were any tame squirrels who might want to eat out of our hands. My mum said she went to London when she was a teenager and she was eating a jam tart when a squirrel came up to her and she gave it a bit, and it took it out of her hand. So I thought it would be cute if one did that to me.
“Anyway, we never got that far. My brother was still a baby, just beginning to get good at walking. When we got to the station, my mum told me to pick him up and carry him, because we were in a bit of a hurry, and also it was easier than trying to get him up and down all the steps in his buggy. So I carried him onto the platform.
“Our train came in and stopped. We spotted a carriage with some space in it and were heading for it, when a train door opened and a couple of young men jumped out the train and started running fast without carefully looking where they were going. One of them crashed into me and knocked me over. I dropped my baby brother with the shock and because I was knocked off-balance and fell over, and he fell on the ground. He got quite a few bruises and hit his head.
“The men just ran off without taking any notice. We took my brother to hospital. It looked as if his head was bleeding badly and it needed stitches. Then they kept him in for a few hours to make sure he didn’t have any symptoms of concussion or anything. Then we took him home, and he stayed in bed for the rest of the day.
“He was allright in the end and there’s nothing wrong with him now.
“But I keep having nightmares, where I’m carrying him along a train platform and then the young men jump out the train and one bashes into me as he runs past, but instead of falling on the platform, my baby brother flies off it with the momentum and falls on the rails and gets electrocuted. Or I dream that his head injury was worse and he got brain damage and never learned to talk and couldn’t go to an ordinary school and the doctors said he’d be mentally handicapped for the rest of his life. I always wake up feeling upset after those nightmares. Then I get depressed for hours, thinking about how bad it would have been if one of those things had happened.”
Becky said sympathetically, “That must be scary! But something some psychology books recommend people try when they’re having nightmares is keeping a notebook by the bed, and when you’ve just woken up from a nightmare, start imagining happier ways it could have ended, and write them in the book. For example, you could maybe fantasise that when you drop your brother, some nice person with quick reflexes sees what happens and grabs him before he falls on the ground, or if you dream that he gets flung onto the railway, you could maybe fantasise that some kind-hearted person risks their life by climbing down and grabbing him quickly and putting him back on the platform, and he’s allright.
“Or if you dream that he’s ended up brain-damaged, you could maybe start fantasising that it gets better and better and better over time and you’re all really pleased when you see signs of improvement, till he’s completely normal.
“Then if you write those things down in the notebook, it’ll mean your brain pays more attention to them than it would have done if you’d just thought them, since you might forget them again soon if you only do that; so they might stay in your memory better, especially because you can read them whenever you want, to remind yourself of them.
“Or instead of writing, you could draw pictures, like a picture of your brother fallen off the platform but some nice person climbing down to get him, or him happily running around or playing with toys not long afterwards, proving his brain was still allright.
“If you start fantasising much more about how things could have gone right or did go right than about what went wrong or how things could have been worse, you’ll start feeling less upset about it, so chances are you’ll have fewer and fewer nightmares about it.”
The conversation carried on.
The sun shone as Becky’s birthday party continued, with her friends telling her funny stories.
Gary told the next story. He said, “You’ll never believe it, but we had an especially talented girl called Jackie at our school too.
“Well, she wasn’t good at everything; but one thing she enjoyed at that place was PE and athletic things. One thing she was the best in the class at doing was balancing; from time to time the PE teacher made us all stand on a long beam – it was a piece of gym apparatus that was about six inches wide so we had to stand with one foot in front of the other, and see how long we could balance there. I could never manage it for much longer than two seconds; but Jackie used to be able to balance for ages!
“One day she managed it for 22 and a half hours non-stop! The teacher congratulated her afterwards and said she’d beaten the school record by 22 hours and 27 and a half minutes. Jackie had set the previous record herself. Poor Jackie was tired after standing there for all that time! But she was proud of herself, and everyone else was in awe.
“The thing we didn’t like was that the PE teacher made us stay there witnessing it for the whole time, and she wouldn’t even let us go to sleep. That was what the teachers were like at our school. I don’t know how the PE teacher managed to stay awake all that time herself, and it’s amazing that Jackie did! But every time one of us dropped off to sleep, the PE teacher would wring a flannel full of cold water out over our heads, and then make us sing all six verses of the national anthem. She said she was sure we’d be awake by the end of that!
“It was funny though, because none of us knew the words to all six verses of the national anthem, so we all just made up things, like, ‘God save our favourite beer, even though we don’t get none here; God save our beer.’ Each of us made up different words, and the ones of us who fell asleep more than once made up different words each time, because we couldn’t remember what we’d sung before.
“Oddly enough though, the teacher didn’t tell anyone off for singing the wrong words, which must either mean that she didn’t know them herself, that she thought what we were singing was funny so she didn’t feel like telling us off, or that the words were being rewritten every five minutes or so, and we were all making remarkably accurate guesses as to what the new words were, and the teacher somehow had a secret hotline to Buckingham Palace or somewhere so she kept being updated as to what the new words were. That’s what we assumed must be happening. It really was an amazing experience; for everyone to be guessing so accurately what the new words were must have meant we all had extremely good guessing powers or we were psychic, so it boosted our confidence no end, knowing we were so good at something.
“When Jackie couldn’t manage to balance on the beam any more after nearly 24 hours, we all celebrated our newfound abilities.”
Mandy was the next to tell a story. She said:
“Funnily enough, I had a girl called Jackie in my class at school too. She invented a new religion once. In our religious studies classes we learned a bit about different religions, mainly about their festivals, like the Hindu Festival of Light. Anyway, one day, Jackie stood up in a religious studies class and said to the teacher, ‘I’ve invented a new religion called Jackieism. I’ll tell you all about it, and then you’re going to have to teach everyone in the school about it. If you don’t, I’m going to take you to the headmistress and accuse you of discrimination, because you teach about other religions, and it just won’t be fair if you refuse to teach everyone about mine.’
“She gave the teacher a pile of information about her new religion and the teacher agreed to teach the whole school about it. It took two lessons. It had rules like, ‘Every Thursday night we must all be given our favourite meals for tea,’ and, ‘Every Friday, all the pupils in the school must be given a chocolate bar by the teachers before each lesson,’ and, ‘Every three weeks on Friday afternoon, there must be no lessons, but instead we must have a party, with games and a party tea’.
“Every single pupil thought it would be wonderful to have the school turned into a Jackieist school after we heard about the rules, so we camped in the corridor outside the headmistress’s office for days, clamouring for it to be turned into a Jackieist school. But the headmistress refused. She wouldn’t change her mind. So eventually we gave up clamouring.
“Jackie scrapped the Jackieist religion after that; she said there was no point in having it if we weren’t going to be allowed to practise it. So after we’d learned about it for two entire religious studies lessons, it didn’t exist any more. It was a shame. It was a great idea though!”
Sharon told the next story, saying, “Funnily enough, I had a girl called Jackie in my class at school too, who did things like all the rest of the Jackies you’re describing; and I went to a boarding school for naughty children just like some of you.
“Me and Jackie and another girl, Debbie, decided to play a game one morning. Me and Debbie picked Jackie up; I held her legs and Debbie held her top half. We wanted to see how near the ceiling we could get her. Or something. I must have been feeling lazy that day, just like I do every day, because I leant on a washbasin that was right behind me for support. With a great crash, it broke off the wall. Unfortunately, it pulled the bit of wall that was attached to it off too, and that pulled the bit of wall that was attached to it down, and that pulled the bit of wall that was attached to it down, and it carried on and on like a domino effect till the entire school fell down! It collapsed in a heap!
“Thankfully no one was hurt, because everybody hated the school so much, they tried to keep out of it as much as possible, so even in the winter, most people would be outdoors. Thankfully me and Debbie and Jackie didn’t get hurt either, because the water jets that came out of the pipes when the sink came off the wall were so powerful they flung all the bricks out of our way, so we were standing in the midst of all this rubble, with our way clear to fresh air, if only we could manage to climb up and clamber over it all. So we did that. It was quite an adventure really.
“Of course the headmistress wasn’t happy with us. She decided we simply must have been involved in a scandallous conspiracy to knock the whole school down, and declared we needed to be punished. But first, they got some emergency builders in, and they managed to rebuild the entire school before nightfall that day! It really was amazing!
“The headmistress decided we were all going to be punished by not being allowed to wash for the entire term, in case we were just longing to break another sink off the wall and the temptation would be bound to be too much for us if we were allowed to use one.
“She wrote letters to our parents explaining that we might look and smell as if we hadn’t had a wash for weeks when we came home, but it was only because we’d knocked the school down with a sink, so we couldn’t be allowed near one for the rest of the term in case we tried it again.”
After a couple of hours of story-telling, Becky told a story last. She said:
“Funnily enough, we had an especially talented girl called Jackie at my school too. And it was a boarding school for naughty children just like Shirley’s and Sharon’s. We used to be allowed to keep rabbits at that school; they thought that since we were away from home, it would be nice if we could have a few creature comforts. I had one once that could run really fast and kept trying to escape. When it did escape it was hard to catch it. It gnawed right through a rabbit hutch once and got out.
“Anyway, one day, it got out and managed to get right out of the enclosure the rabbits were in. Jackie offered to run and catch it for me. She was a very fast runner in those days, maybe the best in our class. But the rabbit was very quick too. It was a Dutch rabbit, and I think it might have felt homesick, because it ran right across London and didn’t stop till it got to the coast, where it got in a queue for the ferry to Holland.
“All that time, Jackie had been right behind it, almost catching up with it but not quite. That might have had something to do with the fact that Jackie had more road sense, so she would always wait at roads for the traffic to stop before crossing, whereas the rabbit would often just chance its luck, probably believing it was so fast it could skilfully outmanoeuvre any car that came along.
“Anyway, when it queued up for the ferry, Jackie thought, ‘Now’s my chance!’ But the rabbit must have looked round and seen her, because it quickly rushed to the front of the queue, and then, not even stopping to get a ticket, it dashed onto the ferry as soon as it could.
“Jackie knew she wouldn’t be allowed on the ferry without a ticket, so she thought she’d better run after it. She knew that if she ran as fast as she could, she’d almost be able to keep up with it. So when it started moving, she dashed into the sea and started running. She ran so fast that she didn’t sink, because there just wasn’t time to do that because her feet were only on the water for a split second each time she put one down. When the ferry got to Holland, she was still right behind it. She was relieved to have a rest when it stopped, though she knew she’d soon have to start running again.
“She saw the rabbit coming off the ferry. It must have believed it wasn’t being followed any more, because it just lolloped around for a while enjoying the sights and sounds of home. But that meant Jackie could catch up with it, and she picked it up.
“She was getting a bit tired, but she didn’t dare delay, because she knew that the longer she held the rabbit, the more chance there was of it leaping out of her grasp and running away again. Besides, she wanted to get home before it was bedtime at our school so she wouldn’t be late and have to face the wrath of the fearsome house staff. She was already late for lessons and knew she’d be told off by the teachers when she got back. So she started back across the sea immediately, running almost as fast as she had before. She knew she couldn’t afford to have a break even for half a second, because then she’d start sinking. But she managed to make it right back across the sea safely.
“She didn’t stop when she reached the land; she knew she was going to have to hurry if she wanted to make it back to school before the house staff missed her at bedtime; so she just kept on running, right across London and back to the school.
“She cheered as she put my rabbit back in its hutch. It wasn’t very pleased to be back where it started, and for a while after that it growled whenever Jackie went near it. But it got over it in the end.”
Becky’s friends enjoyed listening to her funny story.
When she’d finished, they had their big party picnic.
Becky had had a lovely time. Her mum had enjoyed it too. But her mum had never heard anyone telling stories like the ones Becky and her friends told. As they went home, her mum grinned and said to Becky, “You’ve got strange friends!”
Becky smiled and said, “I thought you already knew that. Anyway, They’re good fun to be with, so I don’t care who thinks they’re strange.”
Becky’s mum said, “I was only joking.”
The next day, the two of them went to Becky’s mum’s parents’ house and had more party food. So Becky had a good weekend!
Becky’s friends decided to throw a party for her birthday. They thought it would be fun to make it a funny story party, where each one of them made up one or more funny stories or told real ones to entertain Becky, and she could tell ones herself if she wanted. They decided to all tell stories about their schooldays. They’d got the idea from when Sharon had made up a zany story about her first day at school in one of Miss Ann Thrope’s early doomed lectures.
On the Saturday just before Becky’s birthday, they all sat outside together in the warm sun, with lots of party food. They put it under a bench in the shade to keep it as cool as they could and kept an eye on it while they first played around with a football, and then spent a couple of hours telling the stories before they ate it. Becky’s mum came along to hear the stories too.
Becky’s friend Jane – the one she’d spent a fun afternoon with at Christmas playing party games they’d invented, started the story-telling. She said:
“One day, the teachers at my school all gave us a lecture about how we should all be more interested in science. every one of them joined in the lecture, as if it was a song with people singing solos in turn, although they didn’t sing; it was just that one would speak for exactly 16 seconds, then the next one would speak for exactly 16 seconds, and then one would speak for exactly 32 seconds. they were speaking in a kind of rhythm, with exact timings, but managing to give us a good telling off at the same time. Being interested in music, I was somehow managing to calculate how long each one was speaking for instead of listening to a word they said. A girl called Jackie told me what they’d said afterwards.
“Anyway, after they’d finished, Jackie thought, ‘Right! They’re insisting we all be more interested in science: I will do something scientific, and show them just how interested I can be!’ So she decided to excavate the floor, to see if there were any ancient ruins underneath it or something. Considering how old that school was, not to mention how old all the pupils were, Jackie thought it was quite possible there might be some very ancient things underneath it indeed, or medieval false teeth that some of the teachers or the oldest pupils had dropped between the many cracks in the rotten old wooden floorboards or something. She thought she’d be in favour with both the science and the history teacher if she found some. At least, that’s what she told them afterwards.
“So, eager to please, she started pulling up all the floorboards in the school. We all thought it was a great new plan so we all enthusiastically helped her, till all the floorboards in the entire school had been pulled up, apart from the ones in the staffroom, where all the staff were having a meeting at the time.
“One teacher came out while Jackie was pulling up all the floorboards in the corridor outside because they wondered what the noise was and they asked her what she was doing. She stood up, turned towards them and shouted, ‘How dare you come out of your meeting and interrupt me while I’m performing this very important feat of scientific excellence! This is a scandal, and if you carry on standing there instead of going back into your meeting, I will have you reported to the home secretary! Since floorboards are generally associated with homes, I presume he’s the one responsible for them, so I’ll have you reported to him.’
“The member of staff began to shake, and begged, ‘No, please don’t report me to the home secretary!’ Then she scuttled quickly back into the staffroom and shut the door. Some of the staff were scared of Jackie because she was so frightening when she told them off like that, so none of them dared stand up to her when she did that. So they left her alone, and she finished pulling up all the floorboards in the school.
“There was a whole load of rubble under them all, and she pulled it all out by hand. There must have been tons – it went down for feet and feet and feet under the floor, and she pulled out the entire lot and threw it out the windows onto the lawns outside, till they were all like slag heaps.
“Then, she suddenly discovered a Roman soldier, complete with armour. She lifted all the rubble off him and discovered he was very well preserved, so well preserved in fact that he was still alive. He said, ‘Oh, thank goodness someone’s come to rescue me after all this time! You cannot know how horrible and boring it’s been to just lie here for the past 2000 years! And I’m so hungry now! I don’t even know if I can move, I haven’t been able to move for so long because of all the rubble!’
“Jackie helped him out of the big hole in the floor and brushed him down, and then told him she’d give him a tour around the school if he wanted and tell him all about what went on there and about all the modern equipment people used. He said, ‘I can’t believe it’s any better than the things we Romans invented! We were the most superior people on earth, we were!’
“Jackie wanted to make him feel at home so she said she’d introduce him to the Latin teacher. He said, ‘Are you seriously suggesting you think I need to be taught Latin? It was my mother tongue, you twit!’
“Jackie said, ‘No, I just thought you might want to speak it with her. But never mind. If you’re hungry, come and have dinner.
“She took him into the dining room where dinner was ready. She sat him down at her table and got him a portion of food. He tried it, but then he said, ‘Ugh! What’s this rot?! We had better food than this in the Roman army!’
“Jackie said, ‘Sorry. It’s the only thing there is. It’s called Toad in the Bin. It’s a bit like toad in the hole, but it’s covered in leftovers that should have been thrown away days ago. That’s the kind of stuff they give us to eat round here.’
“Just then, a member of staff came over and shouted, ‘Jackie! Who’s that man you’ve got with you? You know you’re not allowed to bring men into the school! Get him out of here immediately!’
“Well the Roman soldier was fed up. He said to the staff member, ‘Oh, you didn’t mind me lying here under the floor for 2000 years, not being able to eat anything that entire time! But as soon as I poke my head out and try to get something to eat, you can’t stand me being here any more! What kind of a place is this! Not one I want to be anywhere near!’
“He got up and ran as best he could out the school, trying to avoid falling down one of the holes where the floorboards used to be and ending up back where he came from. No one knows what happened to him after that. He just ran away and never came back.
“The staff made sure all the holes in the floor were filled in quickly and the floorboards were put back, just in case there were any more ancient men underneath who might come out; it was a girls’ school, and we weren’t allowed to bring men into it.”
Becky’s friend Shirley told a story next. She said:
“I had a girl in my class called Jackie too. It was a boarding school for naughty children, and after lights-out once a week, she used to put her radio on and we used to listen to comedy programmes on the radio. You won’t have heard of them; you have to be as old as me to know about them. I’m 304. These comedy programmes were on the radio when I was little, in about 1695 or something. It was fairly early radio. Jackie had a radio in those days.
“Radios worked in a very different way in the olden days. Switching them on could take as long as ten minutes. People in those days would switch them on by lighting a fire and boiling a saucepan of cabbage on it, and the steam from the boiling cabbage water would rise up and turn a handle that would turn the radio on. It had to be steam from cabbage water; nothing else would work.
“So Jackie used to wander around the school grounds looking for wild cabbage, or sometimes she’d sneak into the vegetable garden if she felt unsqueamish enough to leap over the pit of worms they had all around the garden to deter people like her from sneaking into it. She was a very good long-jumper in those days. Maybe she still is. Not many of us would have dared to try to leap over the worm pit, but she was good at it.
“So sometimes she used to get some cabbage, and then after lights-out in our dormitory, she would get a pile of old magazines and schoolbooks she particularly hated, put it in the middle of the room and set fire to it. It’s lucky she was good at putting out fires so it never got out of hand. But when she’d lit it, she would put a saucepan of cabbage in water on the fire.
“When it boiled, the steam would rise up and turn the handle of a radio she’d cleverly fixed into the ceiling above it. Then the radio would turn on, and the comedy programmes would come on. We all used to gather round and listen. They were good.
“That was one of the best things that happened in that mouldy old place they called a school.”
Luke told a story next. He said:
“Funnily enough, I had a girl called Jackie in my class too who did some strange things. One day, she decided she was absolutely fed up of work. she hated it. Well we all did. But she hated it more than most people, and one day, she just came out and told all the teachers she hated their lessons and she wasn’t going to do any work ever again.
“Well naturally they didn’t like that, and each of them gave her a different punishment. The maths teacher, who was called Mrs Dragonbottom, honestly, made her climb up to the ceiling in all the rooms in the school, and take down every cobweb that was on there, one by one, by hand. When she’d done that, the maths teacher thought it would be a good maths exercise for her to count each and every one of them. She hated the idea but she did, because she was worried the maths teacher might make her pick up all the cockroaches from the bottom of the maths cupboard or something if she didn’t.
“So she counted them, and there turned out to be 46 thousand 534. The maths teacher was impressed with Jackie’s feat of counting, and decided it would make a great maths exercise, so she made us all count them. She said that if we got different numbers to the one Jackie got, we would all have to count them again and again till we all ended up with the same number. That really is the kind of thing they made us do at my school. So we all made sure we had the same number as Jackie, even though it meant one girl who ended up with two more decided to eat them quickly before any teacher could find out. She hated them. But she managed it just in time.
“After all that, the teacher was satisfied that justice had been dispensed, and she let us go to our next lesson. We were only 4 and a half hours late. Somehow none of the teachers seemed to mind. I think they might have been spending the time they should have been teaching us looking in the window watching us all counting cobwebs and having a laugh.
“Anyway, Jackie decided to make Mrs Dragonbottom a dress made entirely of cobwebs and give it to her for Christmas. She was the most skilful sewer in the entire school. She could take really delicate material and make some truly beautiful things. So she took all the cobwebs and made them into a really delicate-looking beautiful dress. She gave it to the maths teacher, without saying it was made of cobwebs, and the maths teacher loved it! I don’t know if she realised it was made of cobwebs, but every day for a year, till it started falling to bits, she wore it to school.
“All the other women teachers, and some of the men, admired it and asked her where she’d got it. She said Jackie made it, so they all asked Jackie if she could make one for them too. Jackie didn’t really like the idea of making lots more dresses made out of cobwebs, but she went around the school and collected millions more and made some, and the teachers she gave them to loved them too, and they all wore them every day for the next year till they started falling to bits too. Oddly enough, every single one of them started falling to bits exactly a year and a day after she’d given them to them. A funny coincidence.”
The stories continued.
On one Spring afternoon, when Becky and her friends were taking time off from doing their work to sit in a park chatting, enjoying the sunshine and the sight of ducks on a pond and the new flowers growing, one of Becky’s friends called Mandy said:
“I found out something interesting today. We all think of names like Gladys and Mabel as old people’s names that must have been popular years ago but are well out of fashion now. But I was reading a book that said they only came in at around the beginning of the 20th century! I wonder where they came from. They can’t have been fashionable for long then, if it’s true.”
Becky’s friend Luke said, “Like the fashion for clothes. I read a funny Oscar Wilde quote recently that said, ‘Fashion is a form of ugliness so unbearable that it has to be changed every six months.'”
Mandy said, “Come on, those names aren’t that ugly!”
Luke replied, “I didn’t mean they were; I just thought I’d mention that funny quote.”
Becky said, “I wonder where those names came from. Hey, imagine if the first letters of names had to change every year as a sign of how many years it was since the name was officially classed as being well-known in the country. So parents who wanted to call their baby girl Jane would have to call her Pane if she was born six years after it was classed as well-known. And a parent who would have liked to call their daughter Ruth would have to call her one that sounded like Tooth if she was born two years after the name was recognised. And every 27 years it would get back to the same letter.”
Luke chuckled and said, “So three years after the name Clare became popular it would be Flare, and the year after that it would be Glare. And one year, the name Deborah would have turned into something that sounded like Zebra.”
Mandy said, “What about some of the letters in between? In some years it would be hard to pronounce. Clare would be Dlare the next year.”
Becky said, “I expect some people would give up trying to pronounce them and give kids born in those years nicknames instead of the names their parents gave them. They might call Dlares Snares and things.”
Luke said, “Imagine how embarrassing it would be if you were a famous person with a funny name, like if you were called a name that sounded like Zebra because your parents would like to have called you Deborah but couldn’t!”
Becky said, “Or what if people got called ordinary names but they had to change them every year and call themselves something that began with the next letter of the alphabet, as some kind of record of how old they were. Actually that would cause chaos, like if everyone had to get their driving licences updated every year so they had their proper names on them, and weren’t allowed to drive till they had their new ones. And every year on Facebook, they’d have to update their name and tell everyone their new name. So for instance, Someone called Tony would have to tell all his friends he was Bony one year, and Fony another.”
Mandy said, “Just think, one year you’d have to call yourself Muke, Luke, and the next year Nuke!”
Luke laughed and said, “What a horrible system! I’m sure there would be lots of people trying to change the law that brought that system in!”
Becky replied, “I don’t know. If people thought that was the way things had always been, they might just accept it and not even think of trying to change it.”
Mandy said, “Maybe it would depend on how chaotic things got. Anyway, why would it have come into being in the first place? Mind you, I’ve been reading about stupid laws on the Internet, but I bet a lot of them aren’t real. I read that a supposed law that says it’s illegal to die in the houses of parliament was voted Britain’s most ludicrous law, but it turned out it doesn’t even exist! Imagine a law being made by people who were convinced everyone could tell when they were going to die, and that they could be punished afterwards if they broke the law! Surely you’d have to believe those things to make a law like that? Some websites say the law’s real though, along with lots of other laws other websites say are fake. I don’t know why people voted for that one instead of saying to the person who told them it was a real law, ‘Come on, I know politicians can be a bit daft, but I can’t imagine them enacting a law that silly! Why would they ever have done it?’
“Mind you, there are some real laws that would sound daft if they were applied today, but they made sense in the old days. I’ve heard that there was a law that said taxi cabs had to have a bag of hay in the back or they were breaking the law. It was only repealed in 1976. But I don’t suppose anyone got prosecuted for not carrying hay after people started using motorised taxis; in the old days before that, taxis were horse-drawn and the horses would need to be fed.”
Becky said, “Maybe the laws about name changing might have come in in the old days before people had birth certificates or could read and write, as a way to try to make sure people weren’t under-age when they went into a pub or something. I mean, what if someone called Mark went into a pub. When he was about 14 he’d be called Bark, and when he was about 16 he’d be Dark. So when they asked him his name, if he said Dark or Bark or Cark, they’d know he was underage.”
The others laughed, and Luke said, “You might have your maths a bit wrong there, but never mind. But anyway, I bet they didn’t have age limits in those days. I think most people left school before they were twelve, and most people drank beer – even the kids, because the water was so horrid and dirty and there wasn’t much else around.”
Mandy said, “Wow, they must have all gone around half-drunk! Maybe that’s how they got through life when the standard of living was so much worse than today.”
Becky said, “OK then, what if a tyrannical government with a sense of humour ruled, and thought they’d bring in some stupid laws just to inconvenience people, because they thought it would be a laugh? Maybe they’d bring in a law that said that it was illegal to do a fake Australian accent in a public place, and anyone caught doing one would have to confess what they’d done on the steps of the town hall at mid-day on a Saturday. Maybe that would be the punishment for lots of little crimes they invented, and Confession Time would become a public entertainment, and lots of people would go to listen just as people used to go to watch hangings. Maybe writing a public sign with no apostrophe in a word that should really have one would be another offence punishable by being made to publicly confess the crime at a Confession Time.
“And imagine they made it illegal to make a spelling mistake in a letter or email written on a Monday or Tuesday. It would be allright to make them the rest of the week, but on a Monday or Tuesday the person who made it could be punished by being made to go back to school for a day with kids at their first year of primary school, and the kids would be told by the teacher that the adult was there because they’d made spelling mistakes even after years of education.
“Or what if it was illegal to wear a woolly hat between say, the 10th of March and the 23rd of October, because the law decreed that the weather would be bound to be too warm for it between those dates, and anyone who was caught wearing a woolly hat between them would be made to kneel in front of a field of sheep for several minutes and apologise loudly for misusing the products of their good bodies and beg forgiveness?”
The others chuckled and Mandy said, “Yikes, and we think our government’s bad!”
Luke said, “Just imagine if another offence was vandalising the grass by sitting or lying on it, and the punishment was to count all the leaves on a tree with a policeman watching, and if you lost count you had to go all the way back to the beginning and start again, and keep going back every time till you managed it. Becky, you’d get done for that!!”
Becky was lounging on the grass at the time. They all laughed.
It was a fun afternoon, one of many the friends had at university.
The students had been enjoying themselves talking while the new tutor who was supposed to be giving them a lecture was just listening.
Then the tutor said, “Come on, you might be an entertaining group of students, but I suppose I’d better get on and do the lecture I came here to give you!”
One student said, “Oh there’s no real need! You could give it next week instead!”
The tutor said, “Yes, but knowing what my memory’s like, I’ll have forgotten it all by then!”
They laughed. Then she said, “OK, we’d better at least get a Bit of work done! The only thing is, I’ve only got time to give you Half the lecture I was going to give you now. Shall I give you the first or the second half?”
She began to grin as she said that.
A few students joked, “Give us the second half.”
She joked back, “OK, here goes: … only wearing their pyjamas under their coat, so when they take their coat off in the restaurant, not realising anything’s wrong, the relative who’s taken them out will likely be embarrassed unless they … No, actually, I think my lecture might make more sense if I started it from the beginning, and just told you as much as I’ve got time for at the moment.”
But then she looked at the time and thought she might not even have time to give them half the lecture. So she decided to just give them the most interesting bits.
She told them she was going to give them a mini course on old people’s psychology, and that she was going to start by telling them about how psychology could help people look after others with dementia. She finally got down to some serious lecturing. Some of the bit of lecture she gave them went:
“Some people with dementia start getting aggressive. It can often be because as they find it more and more difficult to work out what’s going on around them, they can be startled more easily, and aggression’s a defence mechanism against what they mistake for a threat. Also it can be the only way they have left of coping with difficulties after their ability to voice their opinion and argue diminishes a lot. I’ll give you some examples, from a book you’ll probably find in the student bookshop if you look. I’ve listed it at the top in the handouts I’ll give you. You might find some of what I say upsetting, but hopefully you’ll get over it:
“Sometimes people with dementia get given anti-psychotic medication because their behaviour seems to be totally nuts and threatening, when actually a bit of psychology could prevent it getting to the stage where it seems to be getting out of hand. One thing that’s quite common is for that to happen in nursing homes after arguments that shouldn’t be happening happen.
“An example of the kind of thing that can happen is that a person with dementia might comment one morning to no one in particular that she’d like to see her mother. A nursing assistant might tell her sympathetically that her mother’s been dead for a long time, and the old woman might say she can’t be dead because she saw her earlier. The nursing assistant might keep trying to reason with her, to persuade her that her mother is dead, because they might have been taught that the healthy thing for nursing staff to do is to correct the mistakes the people in their care make so as to keep them grounded in the real world, trying to keep their memories as accurate as possible while they can.
“But for people whose brains are fast packing up, it’s more important to help them to Enjoy life while they can. Trying to reason with them and tell them things they won’t want to hear will likely only distress them.
“So the person with dementia will likely just get more agitated the more the nursing assistant tries to persuade her her mother’s dead, getting all the more upset because she’ll think they’re just being mean and nasty and telling her vicious lies. In times gone by, she might have given them a tongue-lashing for it, but if she’s losing the ability to put sentences together, aggression might be the only way she has of trying to stop things she doesn’t like from happening, so she might slap the nursing assistant. The nursing assistant might call for help, and the old person might be put in uncomfortable restraints, tied to a chair for hours and given anti-psychotic medication.
“But the situation could have been dealt with in a way that kept things calm. All that effort trying to make the person come to terms with reality would likely be a waste of time anyway, because they’ll likely have forgotten the whole conversation soon.
“What can resolve the situation far more happily is gently distracting the person. For instance, if a woman said it would be nice to see her mother, the nursing assistant could say, ‘Tell me about her.’ They could ask questions about her that encourage the person with dementia to reminisce. Then the nursing assistant could relate something she says to something that’s going on in the home. For example, if it’s just before breakfast, they could ask the person with dementia what her favourite meals were that her mother used to cook when she was growing up. When the person talks about it, the nursing assistant could say that sounds yummy, saying it’s making them hungry. Then they could ask if the old person’s hungry too, and if she says yes, suggest they go for breakfast. They could sit her down next to a friend of hers there if possible, and before long, she’ll likely be chatting happily to her, having forgotten all about her wish to see her mother.
“That kind of approach takes care of the emotion of loneliness and need for attention that might have made the old woman start longing to see her mother in the first place, instead of thinking of the unreasonableness of the request as the all-important thing and focusing on that.
“Another reason people with dementia can get aggressive is that as their sight and hearing begin to go, which will partly be because the deteriorating brain can scramble the signals it gets from the eyes and ears a bit, they can mistake things for other things.
“For example, a woman with a husband who’s got dementia might hear a crash and a yell from the other room and discover her husband’s just picked up a stick, smashed a lamp and seems to be shouting abuse at it. While again, this behaviour might seem totally nuts, what might have happened is that the man saw the shadow from a tree blowing in the wind crossing the window and mistook it for an intruder trying to get in, and picked up a stick and aimed it as best as he could at where he thought the intruder was.
“If the wife asks the husband what the matter is and he says an intruder was trying to get in, when actually there can’t have been one because the window’s shut, and the wife guesses what must have really happened, then rather than trying to convince the upset husband he’s wrong, it can be best to reassure him by saying the intruder must have run off, and then to distract him by involving him in something else, and then to buy thick curtains and always draw them at sunset so shadows can’t be seen through the window any more.
“Another reason people with dementia can get aggressive is if they’re startled and don’t know what’s going on; so moving slowly around them and explaining what’s happening, especially if you get close or touch them, can cut down the risks of that happening.
“For example, there was a helper who came in to cook dinner for a woman with dementia. She cooked her some warm soup and brought it into the other room to give her. But noticing she was enjoying herself looking through the window at the birds outside, it seemed a pity to disturb her, so she crept up quietly behind her and put the soup on the table in front of her without saying a word.
“But the woman with dementia was startled by that, and because her powers of reasoning were dying so she couldn’t just work out what had really happened, she immediately assumed she must be under threat, jumped up, picked up the soup and threw it in the helper’s face, ordering her out of the house and saying she’d better go quick or she’d call the police.
“The helper went out, sat in her car for a few minutes, wiped her face, took her soup-splashed jumper off, and then went back to the house. She knocked gently on the back door, and when the woman opened it, smiled and said, ‘Hello, I’m Carolyn. I’ve come to do some chores for you. Where do I begin?’
“The woman with dementia welcomed her and suggested they had a cup of tea together.
“Sometimes it isn’t easy to work out what’s making a person with dementia aggressive, but it can help to write down everything that was happening just before they did something aggressive each time, including what was going on outside, whether there were any unusual smells or noises, and so on. Then people can look back over what they wrote later and try to work out patterns. For instance, it might turn out that it happens a lot when someone turns the television on loudly, or when it gets darker so it’s more difficult to see, or when the house is unusually busy or something. Working out what leads to the behaviour can mean there’s an opportunity to do something about it, for instance going with the person into another room when the one they’re normally in is busier than usual because it’s being tidied in preparation for visitors, and so on.
“There was a man whose wife had dementia, and one day he had visitors, and she was with them while he went into the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Suddenly she got up, went over to the visitor sitting opposite her, and shoved her repeatedly on the forehead shouting, ‘Stop it! Stop it!’
“The husband came in and led his wife into another room. He apologised to the visitors and they left.
“Before he knew much about dementia, he would have assumed the disease was making her hallucinate that the visitor was doing something bad. But instead, he sat where his wife had been sitting to try to work out what had upset her, and discovered the sun was shining directly in his eyes, so it must have been shining right into hers, coming from where the visitor had been sitting, and she must have been trying to beat the unpleasant sensation away in the best way she knew how.
“He closed the curtains, and both he and his wife started to feel calmer.
“If a person with dementia is already worked up, it’s often best to speak to them as calmly as possible, and slowly, in short simple sentences, to help them take in what’s being said.”
The tutor talked on for a while, and then had to stop because it was time for the next lecture. The students thought what she had to say was interesting, and thought it might have been better if they’d kept quiet before and let her give the full lecture. But she said it was allright, because she could tell them the rest of what she’d been going to say another time.
She met Becky and a few other students as they were going out the door. One of them looked worried and said to her, “It’s horrible to think that some of us might be just like the people you described in your lecture one day! Old age might creep up on us more quickly than we think!”
Becky said, “It’s my birthday in a few weeks.”
Miss Ann Thrope laughed and said to her, “Somehow I don’t think old age will creep up on You that soon! And by the time it does, they might have found a cure for dementia, for all you know. So try not to have nightmares.”
One student asked her, “Talking of nightmares, are you going to give us any lectures about dream interpretation?”
Miss Ann Thrope said, “No. Psychologists don’t really know all that much about that, and the deeper you delve into it, the more likely you are to come across quackery.”
“So it’s hard to avoid quacks then?” said the student who’d asked about it. “Hey, I wonder if ducks ever dream, and I wonder if other animals do.”
“Wow, just think!” said another student with a grin. “If you woke up one morning and discovered you’d been sharing your bed with a spider, you might think, ‘Oh yuck!’ and want to kill it, but it might have just been innocently dreaming about making webs all over you or something!”
The next time Miss Ann Thrope came to do a lecture, she didn’t complain about all kinds of irrelevant things for ages like she had the first time she came in, but instead got straight down to business … almost. Before she started the lecture, she just said, “I’m going to give you another lecture in my series about psychology in old age; but I don’t want you to feel too depressed at the prospect, since I think what I said depressed some of you a bit last time, so here are a few funny quotes I found on the Internet about old age:
“Someone said, ‘Time may be a great healer, but it’s a lousy beautician!’ And someone else said, ‘The older I grow the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that old age brings wisdom!’ Someone else said, ‘You can live to be a hundred if you give up all the things that make you Want to live to be a hundred!’ And another person said, ‘All diseases run into one – old age.'”
The students smiled.
Over the next couple of months, it turned out that the tutor gave quite a few interesting lectures, so they decided she was good at teaching after all. And she started enjoying their company. One day, she told them to stop calling her Miss Ann Thrope, saying she was getting to like people more since she’d met them.
During the lecture that was supposed to be happening but wasn’t, one student was talking about a sailing trip he’d been on at school but hadn’t enjoyed.
The tutor said, “I went on a sailing holiday once, just with my sister. We somehow managed to nearly get in the way of a ferry and had to struggle to get out of the way quick! But other than that, we enjoyed it.”
“Your life seems to be full of mishaps!” said one student, grinning.
“Well she’s not the only one!” said the student who’d been talking about his sailing trip. “I fell off the pontoon the boat was tied to and went somersaulting into the sea the last night we were there! Well, more like I was knocked off it! We’d all been into the town near where we were moored up, and we bought some food and had a bit of a picnic in a park in the evening. The skipper who talked a lot but a lot of what he said we couldn’t understand bought a couple of bottles of wine and drank them there. He refused to give us any, saying we were too young to drink. He offered the teachers some, but when one accepted the offer, he seemed resentful and just poured her a little bit, as if he was only asking out of politeness and really wanted to drink it all himself. He often seemed to drink quite a bit; every day as soon as we finished sailing for the day, he would open a bottle of wine and drink most of it himself.
“Anyway, by the time we went back he was a bit drunk. I was one of the first to get to the boat, and he charged up past us to open the gate onto the boat, which was just a flimsy wire thing, part of the flimsy wire rail around the boat we could hold onto when we were near the edge on there if we wanted a flimsy way to try to stop ourselves falling overboard. When he went past me, he knocked into me. I stumbled sideways a bit and fell in the sea! I’m glad I can swim! Actually I didn’t really mind it in there because it was quite warm – or maybe it partly felt like that because I had my clothes and a coat on.
“When I got out, they told me to go and have a shower in one of the loos on the boat. So I did. But I didn’t know how to pump the water out, so that loo turned into one of those loos people had to put boots on to go in if they wanted to keep their feet dry while they were wading around in it too. And I was covered in soap when the shower water ran out. They managed to pump more water into the tanks and then I managed to rinse myself off.
“I didn’t mind falling in the water myself – I mean in the sea, not in all the water on the floor in the loo that people ended up having to paddle around in. The only thing was, my mobile phone and my watch got ruined! I deliberately didn’t have them on me all the time we were sailing, assuming that if I was going to fall in, it would be while we were actually sailing. But I had to fall in at the very time I had them on me! I was annoyed they got ruined.”
The tutor asked, “Did the company you went sailing with offer to replace them?”
“No,” said the student who’d been talking. “I didn’t know they were ruined beyond repair till after I got home. My teachers knew they’d gone in the water, but they didn’t say anything about seeing if the company would replace them.
“Still, I learned a lesson, and that’s that if I ever go on such a trip again, – not that it’s at all likely! – but if I do, I won’t take things like that out with me unless I’m sure I’m going to use them! Mind you, part of the reason I did was because I wanted to protect them from the damp that was all around my cabin from the condensation, and from our clothes that had got a bit wet when it rained and we hadn’t quite managed to get them dry. Maybe I could have wrapped my things in something as dry as I could find and left them there though.”
One student joked, “Ah yes, but just think! If you’d left them on the boat and it had started to sink, those ‘Bombs’ might have gone off, and then they’d have been ruined anyway!”
The students laughed.
Then another one grinned and said, “What did the foreign skipper say about all the water on the loo floors? ‘Don’t worry about the water; we’ve got bombs in the loos we can get rid of it with.’ You’d think, ‘Blowing them up is a bit of a drastic way to clear out the water’, when really he’d just have meant there were pumps in there it could be cleared out with.”
The students laughed again.
Then the one who’d been talking about his sailing trip said, “Talking of doing damage, actually it’s strange: I didn’t hurt myself when I fell in the sea, but a few days after I came back from the holiday, I hurt myself from just lying in bed! I think I must have been lying on a bed spring that was poking out of my mattress all night. I sat up one morning and something in my chest made a cracking noise and started hurting. I think I pulled a muscle or tore a bit of cartilage somehow. It took a few weeks to get better. I slept in a chair for a few days till I was over the worst of it! It didn’t hurt most of the time when I was sitting still when I first hurt it, but it did when I used it a lot, and it really hurt when I sneezed! I suppose it must have been putting some kind of pressure on it.”
One student advised, “If you put your tongue on the roof of your mouth, or squeeze your nose, or put your finger over the holes in your nostrils when you feel as if you’re about to sneeze, the urge goes away. It might not work all the time, but I think a lot of the time it does.”
“That’s interesting. I’ll try that,” said the student who’d had the pulled muscle or torn cartilage. “I don’t know if falling off the pontoon into the sea or trying to get out when I did that could have weakened or jolted it a bit somehow and that’s why it seemed to get damaged so easily later. I wouldn’t have thought it would happen so easily at my age though. Maybe I’m getting old!”
“What, at 18? … Actually I suppose you must have been even younger then!” said one student with a chuckle. “Oh dear, I really hope people don’t start falling to bits with age as young as this!”
One student joked, “Maybe some seawater seeped through the pores in your skin and corroded your insides a bit.”
The students giggled, and the one who’d had the injury said with a chuckle, “Don’t be daft!”
Then one said, “I suppose it’s lucky in a way that you were the only one that skipper knocked into the sea; imagine if he’d come charging up and bashed into everyone as he went along, knocking everyone in one by one.”
There was more laughter.
The tutor was quite enjoying listening to the students talk, and she started feeling less despondent about her own problems with misunderstandings after hearing about the skipper on the sailing trip. But she was a bit concerned that for the second time in a row, she seemed to be losing control of the class. She reflected that yet another life lesson she’d just learned was that if a teacher wants respect from a class, it’s probably best not to tell them all you hate them and discuss your shortcomings immediately you introduce yourself to them. She said,
“It’s interesting hearing what you’ve got to say, but since I came here to teach you, I suppose I’d better get on with it.”
“Oh you don’t have to!” said one student with a grin. Then he asked, “Since you were saying last time you decided you were no good at counselling, what made you think you’d be good at teaching other people how to do counselling and that kind of thing?”
The tutor said, “Well, the advantage of teaching is that You can set the agenda … I mean I can set it. So I expect to be able to do a better job at this. I can think through what to say before I have to say it. People aren’t going to keep coming up with unexpected things I have to deal with without being able to think about it much. I can plan beforehand what I’m going to say, and make sure I’ve memorised everything I want to talk about, and then make sure we stick to the topic.”
So far, she hadn’t been any good at keeping to the topic of what she was supposed to be lecturing them about, so how good she was going to be in the future was anyone’s guess.
One student said, “It might not be as straightforward as you think though, just as counselling wasn’t. I mean, for example, we have discussion groups where we can bring up anything we like, even if You choose what the lesson starts off as being about. What would you say if one of us asked you out of the blue a question like, ‘If a person with body dysmorphic disorder was out in a thunder storm, would they be more likely to want to rush home like most people, or would they want to stay out there hoping the part of their body they hated would be struck by lightning and got rid of?'”
The tutor said thoughtfully, “Well, apart from the fact that I imagine they’d be just as keen to get to shelter as anyone else, because if they got struck by lightning, they’d know the Whole of them would probably be toast, if you asked me a question I didn’t know the answer to, I’d tell you to go and look it up, and you’d probably think I was telling you to do that as some kind of initiative test, not realising it was because I didn’t know the answer. So I don’t suppose there would be a problem.”
She began to grin. But one student said with a chuckle, “You’re too honest for your own good! Now we’ll know that if you ask us to go and look something up, it’s probably because you don’t know the answer!”
Another one asked the tutor, “Have you ever taught psychology before?”
She said she hadn’t, and the student said, “I think you ought to know that even if a person can do a thing well, that doesn’t mean they’re going to be good at teaching it, because to teach it, people have to be good at explaining things, not just doing them.
“My sister went on a course, and the tutor had done some impressive things in the industry he was teaching about, but he wasn’t very good at teaching about it! One thing that annoyed her was that whenever she asked him a question, he would say, ‘What do you think?’ Well, she said she could have come up with forty possibilities as to what the answer was, sitting on her bed thinking about it all day! But she thought, ‘What would be the point of that?! What I want to know is the actual Answer!’
“And he did other things that annoyed her.”
The tutor looked discouraged and said, “Well I’ll try my best.”
Another student said, “Mind you, even when someone’s got a teaching qualification, they can still be rubbish at teaching! There were a few teachers like that at my school, as well as ones who got remembered for all the wrong reasons! I remember one at my primary school who annoyed me once, because we always had a break in the afternoon between lessons and we were allowed to eat sweets in it, but one day I was busy doing something and I didn’t have time to eat my sweets till near the end. So just as her lesson was starting I shoved three in my mouth at once, hoping I’d finish them before she came in. But she walked in not long after I’d started them. She saw me chewing and asked me what I was eating. When I told her, she told me to spit them in the bin. Just why she thought it was best that I did that, I don’t know! And anyway, I’d always been told spitting was bad manners! But I obediently spat them in the bin, feeling annoyed. Doing that certainly didn’t help me concentrate on her lesson more! And actually about the only thing I remember about her lessons now was the time she made me spit my sweets in the bin!
“She died not long ago, and there was a notice in a letter we were all sent asking us to send in our memories of her, because they were going to have some kind of commemoration service. The only thing I could remember about her was the time she made me spit my sweets in the bin, but I thought she probably wouldn’t appreciate being remembered for that, so I decided it might be best not to write in and tell them that memory! I wonder how she’d feel knowing that was the only thing I remember her for!”
One student said with a grin, “There you go, Miss Ann Thrope. Don’t ever stop us eating in your lectures, will you!”
Another one chuckled and joked, “Yeah! How about you let us all eat in your classes! We could bring burgers and chips and chocolate and things in here and have feasts while you’re talking to us!”
The tutor said, “I expect it’s been decreed from on high that people aren’t allowed to eat in lectures.”
One student joked, “What do you mean ‘from on high’? You mean God’s commanded it? Do you think maybe one day Jesus stood up and said to the crowds, ‘Thou shalt not eat in lecture theatres!'”
Another student laughed and said, “Somehow I don’t think they had lecture theatres in those days!”
Another one joked, “They might have done. Maybe Jesus spoke in lecture theatres all the time, and we’ve just misunderstood what the Bible’s saying about where he was. You know, like sometimes it says he was standing on the Mount of Olives; well maybe the Mount of Olives wasn’t a mountain but a pretty decoration made of dried olives, mounted on an exquisitely-designed velvet pedestal in a lecture theatre, and Jesus went and stood on it to do his talks one day, the vandal!”
It was anyone’s guess whether the lecture they were supposed to be having would actually take place.
The students in the latest lecture that was supposed to be happening but wasn’t were listening to one of them telling them about a sailing trip he’d been on at school where the skipper wasn’t good at English and some of the things he said sounded like other things entirely.
Another student said, “That story reminds me of a song I heard. I don’t know what it really says, but it sounded as if it kept saying over and over again throughout the whole song, ‘My lemon ain’t quinine.’ It made me think about how funny it would be if the whole song kept saying different things that sounded like other weird things but weren’t really, like, ‘My orange ain’t washing-up liquid; my chocolate bar ain’t a can of drink; my car ain’t a toothbrush; my computer ain’t a block of cheese; my toothpaste ain’t a hose pipe; my chair ain’t a radio; my bed ain’t a box of cornflakes; my house ain’t an aeroplane.'”
The student who’d been talking about the sailing trip he’d been on at school said, “If it had been talking about that sailing holiday I went on, it might have said, ‘This sailing boat ain’t a palace you know!’ That would be an under-statement! There were about four boats with people from our school on. There were about eight people to each boat, including a couple of crew members, one or two teachers, who were supposed to be caring for us, and us.
“I came away having decided that sailing is a barbaric, outdated, slow, primitive method of transport that belongs firmly in the past where it came from, which probably wasn’t what our school, or the company that organised the trip, or my parents who paid for me to go on it, were hoping we would end up thinking, but still!
“One of the first things they told us when we went there was how to use the loos. There were two on our boat. They didn’t call them loos though; they called them heads; they said it was because they’re called that on boats because in the olden days, like the days of Nelson, they used to put them at the front of the boat under where the head sail was, where not many people went, because they didn’t have the technology in those days to make them smell OK, or maybe it was just because it was more private there; so when anyone wanted to go to the loo, they’d say something like, ‘I’m just going up the heads’.
“I don’t know why they didn’t say bog or stench pit; well maybe some of them did; but heads just seems like quite a delicate euphemism for hardened sailors; but anyway we were told that’s what they called them. I started calling the loo the room of doom. Someone else called it the loo of shame.
“One of the first things we were told when we got on the boat was that we needed to be careful about how much loo paper we used, because the loos couldn’t cope well with non-human waste, for some reason.”
Everyone was quiet as the student talked, including the tutor, as if she was enjoying the story and somehow forgetting she was supposed to be giving a lecture again.
Then another student said, “It’s nice that we can talk about toilet paper and loos and horrible smells in lectures at university. Imagine how much we’d have been told off if we’d tried to do that at school! It’s good that they treat us more like grown-ups here and don’t mind us doing that kind of thing.”
Actually they didn’t normally do that kind of thing at all, so they didn’t really know how the other lecturers would have reacted. Miss Ann Thrope was really pondering whether she ought to bring the conversation to an end and start giving the lecture she was there to give them, but she thought that since she was going to be teaching them for the next several months, it would be nice to find out what they were like; so she let them continue for a while.
The student who’d been talking about sailing said, “Yeah, it’s nice that the tutors aren’t so fussy about what we say. Anyway, these loos were special seawater loos. There was a pump instead of a chain. I suppose it was good technology really, at least it would have been when it was invented, however many hundreds of years ago that was. Or maybe it was only about 50 years ago or something. I suppose we should have been grateful that there was a way we could flush stuff away. I don’t know if they would have had that luxury in the olden days. Well, maybe people just did things in a bottomless tub and they just went hurtling straight into the sea or something.
“Anyway, they told us that what we had to do when we wanted to use the loos was pump some seawater into the toilet bowl to help it flush afterwards, and then when we’d done what we went there to do, push a switch over to the other side to change what the mechanism did and pump everything out, and then switch it back and pump a bit of fresh seawater in for the next person.”
The tutor wondered just how graphic the description of what happened was going to get. But she thought it was a welcome relief from telling the students about her own woes, thinking she’d perhaps spent a bit too long doing that last time, and she was finding it quite entertaining, so she let the one who was talking about it carry on.
He continued, “We tried to use the loos the way we were told to, but they got blocked. I got the blame at first, because I was the one who was using them when they did. Twice! The foreign skipper, funnily enough, seemed to have all the right pronunciation when he gave me a lecture on how I must be using too much toilet paper and how it just had to stop. But when no one on the boat could unblock the loo it had seemed I’d blocked, someone from the organisation that owned the boats came in, and they spent over five hours unblocking it!
“They said it wasn’t just one person who’d blocked it, but that the pipe the waste was flushed down had got narrower and narrower over time, because people had put bleach down it to clean it and also not pumped wee out of it properly, and both those things were bad because when bleach and wee mixed with seawater, it made minerals that went solid and stuck in the pipe so it got narrower and narrower till there just wasn’t enough room for waste to go down it. So it turned out not to be my fault after all that it got blocked. They had to take the whole pipe out.”
The tutor supposed she really ought to be bringing the class to order and giving her lecture, since that was what she was paid to be doing, so she said, “This is interesting stuff, but I think I should be starting my lecture now.”
But after groans of disappointment from the students, she decided to let them carry on for a little while longer.
The student who’d been talking about the sailing trip, an extrovert who never had any shame about speaking plainly, continued, “Anyway, after they got the loo unblocked, they decided that to be on the safe side, it would be best if we didn’t use toilet paper in there at all, just in case it Was toilet paper that blocked it next time. The skipper got these great big bin bags, and they told us that every time any one of us went in there, we had to take one of them to put our toilet paper in. They seemed very big for just a few bits of loo roll, but maybe they thought, ‘Well it might not have been their fault the loo got blocked That time, but we know what they’re like! They’re probably still using way too much paper! We’d better give them a great big bag to use each time in case the blighters use an entire roll each time they go in there!'”
The other students laughed.
The one telling the story continued, “Hardly anyone washed, all the days of the trip, because there just wasn’t really room in the tiny loos. But there were showers in there, surprisingly. They were just things that could be attached to the tap, and then the water would come out all over the floor, and a pump could pump it all out. Thankfully it was a mixer tap, so people could just turn it to whatever temperature they wanted. One evening, someone used one, but the pump broke, so there was a load of water all over the floor for ages, literally ankle deep, and one of the crew put some boots outside the loo, and anyone who wanted to use it without getting their feet soaked had to put them on every time they went to the loo, so they could wade around in there and stay dry.”
The student talking knew the tutor must have expected only a Short funny story. But he expected the lecture to be a shambles just as the last one was, so he thought he may as well go on for some time. He was enjoying the fact that the other students were finding it entertaining, so he continued,
“Anyway, the loos weren’t the only problem. The sleeping cabins were tiny. I had to share one with a teacher. I had to sleep with him in this little double bed thing. He kept me awake every night snoring! Sometimes he sounded like a tractor, and I thought that if the BBC ever lost their tractor sound effects that they use in their radio plays whenever there’s a tractor in them, he could visit their studios and go to sleep and they could record him snoring and use that!
“Then at other times he sounded like a cat purring loudly. I wondered whether if he recorded himself snoring and played it to a cat, it would wander around the room trying to find the other cat it would think must be there!
“Then sometimes he’d be a bit quieter, but then he’d sound like an air bed being blown up!
“And it wasn’t just his snoring that bothered me; he would sprawl out in his sleep and dig his elbows in my back. Or he’d snuggle up to me as if he thought he was married to me or something.
“And that wasn’t the only thing! Great big drips of condensation would drip on us at night. After the first couple of nights we opened the window in the ceiling a bit to try to stop that happening, and hoped it didn’t rain!
“Anyway, after a couple of nights of hardly any sleep, I thought I’d try sleeping with my head up the opposite end to the one where the teacher’s head was. I didn’t hear him snoring so loudly, but in the middle of the night, he rolled over in his sleep and made it so there was hardly any room for me to move. I couldn’t bend my knees up! I was uncomfortable in the cramped space, and kicked him gently a bit in the hope he’d turn over in his sleep so I could have more room. I couldn’t get comfortable, so I kept moving around. And I pushed my knees against him a little bit when I tried to bend them up. But he started waking up. He even swore at me! Not very teacherly behaviour really! I won’t use the swear word he used, but he asked me why I kept kicking him in the bum. I told him he’d rolled over so much I couldn’t bend my knees up, and he told me to stop complaining and get back to sleep! You know, it was as if there was a new school rule we didn’t know about before that says, ‘You shall not bend your knees up when you go to sleep on a boat, and if you try, a teacher will be there to discipline you and restrain you so you can’t bend them up any more, and if you try you shall be sworn at!'”
The students laughed, and one said with a grin, “Imagine a school rule that said part of a person’s punishment was to be sworn at by a teacher!”
The conversation continued.
It was time for the new tutor, the self-named Miss Ann Thrope, to give what was supposed to be her second lecture, even though she hadn’t managed to do her first one yet. The students went into the lecture theatre where it was supposed to be taking place, curious to know what would happen.
Miss Ann Thrope came in, stood at the front and said, “Hello again. I was thinking about the things you said last time after our meeting and I realised I should have shown more appreciation for them, just like you were saying people should, because what you said was interesting, and I’d like to hear more.”
Some of the students wondered if she had already forgotten that She was the one who was supposed to be talking to Them.
She continued, “I ran a little recovery group for people with anxiety problems when I did counselling for a little while, and before we started talking about anxiety, we would always have a little friendly chat to put everyone at ease. Perhaps we could do that here before my lectures.”
One student said eagerly, “Oh, tell us about your recovery group. What worked best to help people, and do you have any idea what kind of success rate you had?”
Miss Ann Thrope said gloomily, “I really don’t know what my success rate was, because I never spoke to any of the people in the group after it had finished. We all went our separate ways. They were all nice people, so I hope the group helped them. But I don’t think I’d run a recovery group now. I’ve grown less confident about being any good at helping people over time.
“I tried to help a few of the people I know recently, but that went wrong. Even little things I said seemed to have the opposite effect to the one intended. I mean, one example is that there was one woman whose son got arrested for assault, and he got remanded in custody till his trial. I was trying to be sympathetic and wrote in an email to her that I could understand that it was going to be daunting for her having to tell her relatives about it. I meant it to sound sympathetic, but maybe it was because when you’re reading things you don’t pick up the tone of voice someone would be saying something in, or that it brought it home to her all of a sudden that it might be horrible so it wasn’t nice to read, but she got all upset and angry with me for saying it, and told me that actually she had no intention of telling them. Mind you, she wasn’t a very nice person.
“She often got depressed, and she would email me telling me about how grotty she was feeling. I would sometimes email her back hours later sympathising. But by then, she was often feeling much better, and she’d get annoyed with me for reminding her of her problems. I realised that instead of interpreting what I was saying as sympathy, what was happening was that what I was saying was reminding her of her problems and triggering off the depressing thoughts that were making her feel miserable all over again. Even if I just said something like ‘I hope you’re well’ it would do that, because it would remind her that she wasn’t as well as she’d like to be and that other people were feeling better than her, so she’d start feeling hard done-by and get depressed again; or if she Was feeling well, it would make her start worrying about the possibility that she might not be well soon, so that would upset her too.
“And then she would assume that since she’d got upset right after she’d read something I’d written to her, I must be the cause of her being upset; so she’d get angry with me for saying what I’d said. So I decided that communicating with her was just too difficult and stopped having much to do with her after that.
“I realised that trying to help people was a lot more difficult than I’d thought it would be. So I started thinking I might have made a mistake going into psychology.
“But it wasn’t just when it came to things to do with psychology that annoying misunderstandings happened. One example is that there was one time when I went out to dinner with some friends of my husband, and we’d had a nice meal, and the person who owned the house said he’d make us a cup of tea after he’d washed some things up. We said that would be nice and just chatted. He was washing up when someone who knew how much I like tea saw me drinking some water and said, ‘I bet you wish that was tea, don’t you!’
“I said, ‘Oh yeah’ enthusiastically, and the man doing the washing up seemed to interpret that as meaning I was impatient for a cup of tea and wanted one right there and then. He said in an irritated tone of voice, ‘I told you I’d make you one when I’ve washed up!’
“But I hadn’t been hinting at all, and was perfectly happy to wait! So that just made me feel more fed up of people.”
The students sympathised for a few seconds, though some were wondering whether those were really good reasons to start hating humanity and calling herself a misanthrope.
The more the tutor carried on talking, the less confidence they had in her ability to teach them, although they thought she’d given them a Bit of useful information the last time she was supposed to be giving a lecture. They wondered if there was any point in paying attention to much of what she tried to teach them at all most of the time though. And it seemed she was telling them some things that should have been kept private, or at least not told to a bunch of strangers she’d only just met. One or two wondered if she’d counsel people and then go and blab their problems to random strangers outside on the streets! They hoped she wasn’t that bad!
One of Becky’s special friends, Sharon, plucked up the courage to say, “Um, I don’t really think you should be telling us so much about yourself and the faults of people you know.”
The tutor misunderstood what she meant and thought she was saying it was selfish to talk so much about herself and she ought to be finding out more about Them instead. So she said, “Sorry. I’d love to know more about you actually. Tell me all about yourself.”
Sharon didn’t want to tell her anything about herself; after all, she didn’t know who might end up hearing it! So she decided to make something up instead. She said:
“Allright. Well one of my first memories is jumping onto a train on my first day of school. I was walking there but got tired, and I wondered if the train might get me there quicker. I had no idea where it was going, but just hoped for the best. So I jumped on the roof, and then thankfully found a trapdoor right down into a carriage and sat there, and as luck would have it, it took me right to the school gates! Then it carefully took me into the school building, and stopped right in front of my new desk. I just stepped out the door and sat down at it. Then it went out backwards. Everyone in the class was really jealous that I seemed to have my own personal train and wondered how I’d got it to do just what I wanted it to. That was especially because it had started raining so the others had all got wet on the way in.
“But it was a special kind of rain. It was such a miserable cold day that some drops froze as soon as they fell on them or onto the ground. Some people had picked up handfuls and still had them. They looked pretty. One boy had left his school bag open and it was full of them. They weren’t unfreezing. Someone tried to eat one and they tasted just like boiled sweets.
“I rushed out and grabbed handfuls off the ground. Lots of them had been broken by then because people with no appreciation of beauty had trodden on them. But they’d broken into all kinds of interesting shapes so they looked even more beautiful! I picked quite a lot of them up, and I’ve still got them to this day!
“Not all my memories of school were that good though. I went to the loo once, and sat down, and the entire thing came off the wall, would you believe it! I tried to get off it, but I couldn’t! So I had to walk back to class with the whole thing stuck to my bottom. No one knew how to get it off, and health and safety regulations said they weren’t allowed to pull loos off people anyway in case they damaged them, So I had to walk around for the entire day with …”
The other students had been grinning, and so had the tutor, but then it seemed she’d finally decided to call them all to order and interrupted Sharon and said, “That’s all very interesting but I don’t believe a word! Listen! I want to warn you all that you might think it would be a nice rewarding career to do a job where you’re doing your best to help people and give them therapy, but it might not be anywhere near as easy as you think. It’s so easy to say the wrong thing and upset people! You might end up being as fed up of everyone as I am!”
Some of the students started feeling a bit worried. But one smiled and said, “Well, at least things haven’t been as bad as they could have been. You’re upset about the misunderstandings that keep happening to you, but misunderstandings can be even worse if you don’t even speak a language well. I heard about a German man who was in a cafe in England waiting for some dinner, and he thought it was taking a long time to come. He saw other people being given bacon and sausages and things, and wondered if he’d been forgotten. He wanted to ask when he’d get his dinner, but he wasn’t sure how. The word for get in German is bekommen, so he thought the English equivalent was likely to be become. So he asked, ‘When do I become a sausage?'”
The students giggled.
Then he said, “Something a bit like that happened to someone I was with once. I went on a sailing trip a few years ago with a few of my classmates at school and a couple of teachers. I don’t know why, but the school thought it would be good for us. The skipper of the boat couldn’t speak English well at all! I don’t know if anyone at my school knew that before we went. He knew quite a lot of words, but his pronunciation was really bad!
“He was giving us some supposed safety information when we first went on the boat, and he was trying to tell us not to worry if the boat started sinking because there were pumps to pump the water out. But instead of pumps, he said bombs! So he said, ‘You don’t need to worry if the boat starts to sink because we’ve got bombs on board!’
“I thought, ‘Oh, you mean we can blow the boat up and put ourselves out of our misery quickly so as not to prolong the agony of dying?’
“Then he said, ‘Let me show you a manual bomb!’ I thought, ‘I’d rather not see the bombs if it’s OK with you! I don’t know what might set them off!’ Mind you, I knew what he meant really.
“The trip lasted a few days, and the last day we were there, the skipper said, ‘There’s no need for spit!’ meaning, ‘There’s no need for speed’. And then sometimes he’d talk about trimming the sails, but instead of trim he’d say dream, so he’d say, ‘We need to dream!’ He sounded like some motivational speaker trying to get us to imagine a better future or something!”
The tutor laughed, along with some of the students. But one said, “I don’t think it’s fair to laugh at that man; he was probably doing his best.”
“Maybe you’re right,” said the student telling the story, thoughtfully. “Actually, I blame the company for what happened, not him. There could have been bad safety consequences if he’d been trying to communicate something important and we couldn’t understand him. They should have made sure all their crew members were easily understandable, and our school should have made sure the company they sent us with did that.
“Mind you, laughing about what he said did serve one purpose: We needed to find Something to amuse ourselves with while we were there, because there wasn’t much else that was funny. Mind you, a few other funny things did happen.”
The conversation carried on.
In the lecture that was supposed to be going on but wasn’t, the students had started discussing how kids could best cope with being teased. Then the tutor had said their conversation sounded more interesting than the lecture she’d been going to give so she might just let them carry on. Then they fell silent, embarrassed that they’d taken up so much of the time talking about other things.
The tutor said, “Oh, well, if you’re not going to talk any more, perhaps I will give what I can still fit in the time we have left of my lecture after all.”
The student who’d started the conversation about bullying said, “Actually, there are still some things I’d like to say before you do. I didn’t quite finish before other people started talking.
“I just want to say that I don’t know how often making friends with bullies can easily be done. When it doesn’t seem easy, maybe another way of dealing with it could sometimes be confronting the teaser.
“When people are teased I think it can sometimes be a natural reaction to feel demoralised and upset that people are being nasty, but some people might not get nearly so upset if they’re taught from an early age to think, ‘What’s the matter with this person that they want to say things like this?’ instead of taking it seriously and thinking there must be something wrong with Them.
“Maybe kids could be taught to ask the person teasing them questions like, ‘What are you hoping to achieve by teasing me? Do you truly believe what you’re saying? Even if there’s some truth in it, why is it worth making such a big deal about? Why are you even using the word as an insult? Or if you just want a bit of fun, why don’t you try thinking up ways you can have fun without upsetting anyone? Or do you think you’d find that very difficult? Or if you’re teasing me because you’re annoyed with me about something, why not just come straight out and tell me what you’re annoyed with me about and we can have a chat about it and maybe sort things out?’
“If the teaser says they’re just teasing for fun, and insists that it’s enjoyable so they don’t want to stop, the kid on the receiving end could maybe ask them questions as if to get to the bottom of just why it’s enjoyable. For instance, if the teaser says it’s fun to see them get all worked up, they can ask, ‘Well why is that fun’, and keep asking questions like that till the teaser can’t think of anything more to say. Or they could maybe say something like, ‘Well that’s just what people do when they’re upset; do you think you look funny when you’re upset?’
“So they can try and keep the focus of attention all about what might be wrong with what the teaser’s doing, instead of getting demoralised because they don’t like the fact that someone else thinks there’s something wrong with Them.
“Mind you, sometimes just laughing things off might work better than taking the teaser’s behaviour at all seriously.”
One student said, “Hmmm! I agree with most of what you say, but somehow I think expecting the mum of that little boy who got teased about his red hair you were talking about to teach him to react like that might be a bit much, considering how young you said he was. I came across a website the other day where people had written in about funny reasons their toddlers had had tantrums. They were reasons like, ‘She couldn’t take her footprints from the beach’; ‘I wouldn’t let him drive the car into town’; ‘I stopped her inflating herself with a bicycle pump’; ‘I wouldn’t let her lick me and she felt as if she just had to lick someone’; ‘he wasn’t allowed to wear his bike helmet to bed’; ‘he wasn’t allowed to put his ear wax back in his ear’; ‘I wouldn’t let her eat a candle’; and, ‘he felt sure the sun was following him’.
“I mean, there might have been a bit more to the tantrums than that, but maybe not much more. So expecting a kid who hasn’t yet got much past the age where kids might have that level of reasoning to put some complicated anti-bullying techniques into operation might be a bit much!”
The students tittered. The one who’d been talking about teasing blushed and grinned and said, “Yes I know that. I wasn’t really suggesting kids that young do what I was talking about; I was talking about kids in general. Maybe at primary school they ought to be taught techniques like the one I was talking about. I didn’t mean I think the mum on the train I was talking about should have taught her little kid to say all that.
“Actually, I can’t really say that mum did anything wrong, because even if I thought the language she used in that little message she put on that forum was over-sentimental and she made being taunted by those boys sound like a disaster when it wasn’t, thinking about it, it doesn’t necessarily mean she was using language around her boy that made Him think it was a disaster so he took it far more seriously and thought it was something to get far more upset about than he needed to. And actually, she asked people on the forum to comment on a photo of the boy to tell him he actually looked nice, and loads did, so that must have made him feel a lot better, and it probably made him take any more insulting things about his hair colour less seriously after that.”
One student said, “That’s good. I agree with what you said about how the mum could have made a joke about the silly insulting things the boys were saying about her son’s hair colour. Actually, when you think about it, kids bully each other for reasons that sound just as daft as the reasons those toddlers were having tantrums, like, ‘she couldn’t take her footprints home from the beach’, as if they haven’t grown up since they were that age; I mean, when you think of some of the reasons people say they were bullied, like, ‘I wore glasses’, or, ‘My clothes were a bit scruffy’ or, ‘I talked a bit slower than they did’, they sound like stupid laughable reasons for bullying someone, don’t they. When people are on the receiving end, they can feel as if those things mean there’s something defective about them; but if they look back later in life, they might realise those things are really stupid reasons to pick on someone. If they’re taught to think about how silly the reasons are at the time, they might not get so upset by being taunted about them in the first place.”
Another student said, “I’ve read that one reason bullies bully people is that they interpret some things as more hostile than they’re intended to be. For instance, if someone goes past a bully’s desk and accidentally knocks a book off it, the bully might leap to the conclusion they did it deliberately and jump up and attack them or something, whereas a more laid-back person might think it was probably an accident. Maybe part of anti-bullying strategies ought to be teaching bullies to try to think of several possible different explanations for why things might have happened and then try and find out which one it is before they react.”
They were all thoughtful for a few seconds.
Then another student said, “That stuff about interpreting things in different ways reminds me of a questionnaire thing in a magazine I did once. It was funny. It was all about whether we had the right balance of Yin and Yang, which I think are attributes given to stereotypical female and male personalities in Chinese folklore or something. Apparently everyone, whether they’re male or female, should have a healthy mixture of Yin and Yang characteristics according to that. They say if you’ve got too much Yin, it means you’re too feminine and that makes you timid and shy and not assertive enough or something, and if you’ve got too much Yang, you’re too masculine so you get too angry and you’re assertive to the point of rudeness and you can be reckless or whatever.
“Anyway, this questionnaire said we could find out whether our Yin and Yang were in a healthy balance so we had just enough of each, or whether we had too much of one or the other. We got points for each question, and the more points we ended up with, the more Yang we supposedly had. For every question, there was a choice of three answers, and answers that were supposedly a sign of having Yang characteristics scored the most points. I would have scored as having too much Yin, if it wasn’t for just this one question, that gave me enough points to put me up into the range where we supposedly had a healthy balance of Yin and Yang.
“The question was about whether if we were working on the computer or some other piece of technical equipment and we had a problem getting it to work the way it should, would we ask someone for help, or go and look at the manual, or just give up on it or something. I put that I’d prefer to look at a manual, and that scored the most points.
“But I’m guessing that it scored the most because the person who wrote the questionnaire thought of it as a sign of Yang things like initiative, independence, confidence and that kind of thing, and they thought asking for help would be a bit Yin because it would be a sign of reliance on other people, or lack of confidence in technical abilities or whatever.
“But actually, the reason I’d prefer to look at a manual and work things out myself is because I’d feel awkward and maybe a bit nervous about asking someone else for help, because I’d worry that they might think I was silly for not knowing how to fix the thing, or they might be busy and think helping me was a burden to them. So really that’s a sign of having Yin for me.
“So it just shows you how people can take things in different ways depending on why they think they’re happening.”
The tutor said, “This is an interesting conversation. I can identify with what was being discussed earlier about feeling differently about things according to the interpretations we put on them in our own minds, and that thing about taking things too personally. My mum forgets my birthday sometimes. Or at least, she says she does. I remember a few years ago, the day after my birthday I told her it would have been nice if she’d said happy birthday to me the day before, and when she told me she’d forgotten, I got annoyed and said, ‘How could you have forgotten my birthday? It’s the anniversary of when you actually gave birth to me! I bet you haven’t forgotten doing That!’
“It didn’t help; she forgot it the next year too. I used to take it personally and think it must mean she didn’t care about me; but then I realised it was probably just that she’d lost track of what date it was that day; she’s always asking what the date is when she writes a cheque or has to write the date on something else. …
“But anyway, I was talking about birthdays being rubbish before, wasn’t I. It was some time ago now, wasn’t it! But anyway, I want to finish what I was saying earlier about why I call myself Miss Ann Thrope and I’m fed up of people, because even the bits of life that are supposed to be the best ones are rubbish sometimes, because so many of us are rubbish at knowing how to enjoy them, including me.
“On my last birthday, my sister came over to see me, and I thought it might be nice, but she ended up getting all curious about an old classmate of mine who’d been injured in a house fire. So talking about that was never going to make for a nice birthday celebration!
“But I’ve realised I’m just as bad! I went to a Christmas party for the people where I worked, and ended up spending ages asking someone about her first marriage that ended in disaster! Thinking about it, she probably ended up feeling the way I did after my sister asked me all about my old classmate who got injured. I think I’m miserable company at parties! Actually I probably am most of the time, and just as likely to say thoughtless things as other people, despite best intentions! So I don’t like myself any more than I like anyone else!”
Then the tutor looked at the time, and realised she had no more time to give the lecture she’d intended to give.
She looked embarrassed and said, “Oh no! I haven’t got any time to give the lecture I was supposed to be giving now! I’m not very good at this, am I! I shouldn’t have said so much about other things and let other people talk about what they wanted to! Mind you, it was interesting and useful. Perhaps I’ll give my lecture next time. Or perhaps I’ll give it a miss and see what else you come up with.”
The students wandered out, wondering what on earth would happen next time.
The students in the lecture that was supposed to be about psychology in old age had been inappropriately but interestingly talking about totally different things including anger, and how people could get more angry than others did about the same situation because they were assuming things about the causes of it that the others weren’t.
The student who was talking continued, “Mind you, sometimes anger’s good in moderation, because it gives people the energy and motivation to do things they might not be bothered to do otherwise, like say if they’re always being shortchanged by someone in a shop, and when they first notice, they might feel angry and want to see the manager and complain, but if they wait till later in the day, their anger might have died down and they don’t complain because they feel nervous about making a fuss and think it might be a little thing to make a fuss about anyway, so they just put up with it and it keeps on happening for months, not just to them, but to lots of other people, whereas it might have been stopped if they had complained when they felt like it because they were angry.”
One student said, “That’s interesting. And I expect that thing about having different reactions depending on how you interpret a situation can work the other way round too; I mean, if someone just assumed the shop assistant must be just bad at maths and couldn’t help giving them the wrong change, they might not get angry, so they might not be motivated to complain – well unless they thought the shop owner should have employed someone better at counting; but if they suspected them of giving them the wrong money deliberately and it kept happening, they Might get angry and complain, and something might be done, so their anger will have turned out to be a good thing.”
There was a pause while they all thought about that for a few seconds. Then one student smiled and said, “My dad gets angry and shouts a lot. I sometimes joke that he can go from nought to 120 decibels in three seconds, and that he can make the windows shake. I was thinking the other day that it would be funny if he was standing by the window and he started one of his shouting fits, and the vibrations from it smashed the window, so the conversation went, ‘What do you mean by saying …’ Crash!”
The students sniggered.
Then one got serious and said, “You know, it’s not just anger where people can feel very different things depending on how they think of things. I read a message on an Internet forum by a woman with a little boy, about three years old, who said something like, ‘My heart broke in two today! I’m devastated, because my son was upset on the train today by two teenage boys who teased him about his red hair. One said he ought to be taken away from me by social services because if I was producing boys with hair that colour I must be a bad mother, and the other one said that if he had a child with hair that colour he’d kill it. People have teased my boy about his hair colour before, and now he’s asking me why his hair has to be red and if he can get it changed. I think it’s really upsetting, because I got teased for my hair colour when I was younger and I know what it’s like.’
“The thing is, I can understand her being a bit upset about it, but to use language that makes it sound as if it was a catastrophe like heartbroken and devastated makes it sound as if it was a disaster, and I thought her attitude might hurt the boy far more than the bullies did, because if he learns to think of it as something catastrophically upsetting, he’s going to be far more upset about insults like that as he goes through life than he will be if he learns to just laugh them off. Just because She was upset about being teased about her hair colour when she was growing up, it didn’t mean her son would be bound to be affected in the same way, especially if she taught him not to take it seriously.
“I mean, when the boys said those stupid things, the mum could have laughed, even if she didn’t really feel like it, and said to her little boy, ‘Gosh, did you hear that funny thing? There’s a boy there who believes there’s nothing wrong with killing a baby, but he thinks that having a hair colour he doesn’t happen to like is a terrible, terrible thing! Isn’t it a strange old world! I wonder if you could be with him for a week, hearing lots of bad things on the news, and he wouldn’t think any of them were bad, but if someone walked by with a hair colour he didn’t like, he’d think it was a terrible, terrible thing!’
“She could make exaggerated horrified faces and speak in an exaggeratedly horrified voice and pretend to shake violently when she said the word terrible, and her son would probably giggle his little head off.
“I mean, maybe it would be better to wait till the boys were out of earshot before she said that just in case they got nasty, but I don’t know.”
“If he giggled his head off, he wouldn’t have to worry about his hair colour any more, would he,” joked one student, laughing.
The students giggled. The one who’d been talking grinned, but said, “Come on, I’m trying to be serious here. I think that if instead of taking taunts of bullies seriously, kids are taught from an early age to look for what’s absurd, illogical or laughable in unkind things that are said to them, they’ll be far happier as they go through life than they will be if they take insults to heart. I mean, I know it’s difficult not to get upset about them sometimes. But I think people will be better off if they realise from an early age that a lot of insults are just stupid, and that they’re not really being bullied because of their physical appearance or whatever; the insults have far more to do with the bullies, and they say far more about what kind of people They are than they do about the person on the receiving end of them.”
One student said, “That sounds good, but I can’t imagine a three year-old enjoying a lesson about how to deal with bullies; imagine it: Their mum comes in and announces, ‘Son, I have to tell you that one day you may well be bullied! I want to teach you how to cope with insults.’ The kid might say, ‘Thanks for letting me know the cheerful news Mum! And all I wanted to do with my day was play with my toy cars! Can’t I do that instead?'”
The one who’d been talking before said with a pained expression but then a grin, “There are probably other ways to teach kids than that!”
Another student said, “I don’t know how much three-year-olds could learn about it, but I think it’s probably a good idea to teach older kids to laugh at some of the things other kids try to insult them with, instead of thinking they’re worth getting upset about. When you really think about some of the things people get called, they sound daft! Like ‘four eyes’ for people who wear glasses. ‘What, you really think I’ve got four eyes? Well that might be nice, but sadly you’ve mistaken the lenses of my glasses for extra eyes.'”
One girl said, “There was a girl at my school who used to call some people cowbags. I don’t know to this day just what a cowbag is supposed to be! But one day she called me one and I said for fun, ‘How many cows have I got in me?’ She wasn’t amused! I think she told me not to be stupid! She probably didn’t get the joke.”
One student said, “Imagine if someone did an experiment to see how daft insults had to get before kids didn’t get upset by them but just laughed at them. ‘Tennis ball nose!’ ‘chewing gum stick fingers!’ ‘Celery legs!’ ‘marzipan head!’
“Some kids might get upset and go home and say to their mums, ‘Mum, do you think my head looks like marzipan?’ ‘Mum, do my legs look like celery?’ ‘Mum, have I got a really really big nose, like as big as a tennis ball?’ ‘Mum, what is it about my fingers that makes them look like sticks of chewing gum?'”
The one who’d joked about the insult ‘four eyes’ said, “It’s funny what kind of words some kids use as insults sometimes, like swat, used for people who work hard, as if working hard’s a bad thing! In a school where most kids don’t think it’s worth working, anyone who does want to work hard might get called a swat and looked down on by some of them, and because when kids are young teenagers I think they tend to assume the other kids in their class know what they’re talking about, they might come to think, ‘Hard work must be bad!’ Or they might think that since kids around them seem to think it’s bad, they’d better try to fit in and not work so hard in future. But maybe they could put the other kids off teasing them sometimes if they treated what they were saying as compliments, even though they knew full well they weren’t meant to be really.
“So when they were called a swat, they could pretend to be really pleased and say things like, ‘Wow thank you; that’s really nice of you to say so. It’s great to know people notice I’m working hard!’
“And if any of the kids laugh in a sneering way and say, ‘That wasn’t meant as a compliment!’ they could still pretend to be pleased and say, ‘Oh you’re too modest! That was one of the best compliments I’ve ever received!’
“And maybe they can keep on pretending they’re really pleased until the teasers get confused and walk off.”
A lot of the students grinned and chuckled. But one said, “I think it’s the contempt in a teaser’s voice that’s partly what upsets someone on the receiving end though. And often it’s not just teasing; other kids might fling their books around and push the victim about and things. I think every school ought to have a good anti-bullying strategy, and teachers should be specially trained to deal with bullying. It shouldn’t be up to kids to have to work out what to do.”
The one who’d been talking before said, “Oh I know. But it’s still good if kids know some techniques they can try to stop behaviour they don’t like.”
“Like martial arts,” said one student with a grin.
Becky said, “My auntie Jackie started learning a martial art when she was at school. Some girls used to tease her and throw little bits of clay at her across the room in a lesson after a pottery lesson they had, but as soon as she told them she’d started learning the martial art, they stopped, as if they were scared she’d already know how to throw them across the room or something.”
One student said, “I’ve heard that some kids laugh at the way they’re insulted sometimes and they end up being friends with the people teasing them. I heard a boy say he was called a chicken at school, and he did an imitation of a chicken in the playground, and the kids who’d been insulting him laughed, and they were friends after that.”
The person who’d started the conversation about bullying said, “I suppose that’s the ideal, isn’t it, making friends with the people who are teasing you.”
“Actually the ideal is to prevent people bullying in the first place,” said another student.
The one who’d started the conversation blushed a bit and said, “Yeah, there is that.”
The tutor said, “This is such an interesting conversation, I think it might be more worth having than the lecture I was going to give you. So perhaps I won’t even try to give it now!”
The students felt a bit embarrassed, remembering that was what they were there for, and silence fell over the lecture theatre.