Neil Campbell

J.W. Lees bitter

After my PhD it didn’t work out.
     I had to look for jobs in colleges. I took some agency work as a note taker at a place in Rochdale, taking notes for a young deaf girl called Emma. I hadn’t been in a college environment for years.
     The morning passed without incident, and I went out through the barriers to enjoy the spring sunshine and pick up some lunch. I sat on a bench beneath the neo gothic splendour of the town hall, eating the two pies I’d bought from Gregg’s and washing them down with a large tea. As I’d walked through the town centre I had seen dozens of young girls pushing prams. There seemed to be a childbirth epidemic in the town.
     The kids in the class were being prepared for the workplace, picking up literacy skills they’d missed out on at school. They were being prepared as good citizens; good, conforming citizens. The trouble was there was too much life in some of them for that.
     I made notes on the support worker laptop but was dismayed by the teaching standards, especially since I would have killed for such a job myself.
     In one of the classes the lecturer set a group exercise based on the question, ‘why do you think they have built the new hospital in the town centre?’ The lecturer then gave them twenty minutes to work on it. After half an hour the lecturer was still looking at her phone. The kids had stopped talking about the hospital long ago, and many of them were also on their phones.
     Finally the lecturer asked them to give feedback on the group exercise. There was a young girl from Rossendale, and she had an endearingly broad Lancashire accent. I had chatted to her briefly, and had overheard her talking all morning. She was about five feet tall and worked behind a bar. She was eighteen but looked closer to twelve. When she spoke you immediately realized she was eighteen after all. ‘We don’t know. Nobody knows,’ she said.
     Why don’t you know? I’ve given you twenty minutes. At least twenty minutes.’
     ‘The note taker doesn’t even know,’ she said, pointing at me.
     ‘I’m not allowed to join in. It is not my job.’
     ‘You mong,’ she said. At this point the kids burst out laughing but the lecturer looked seriously alarmed.
     ‘No, no, no,’ said the Rossendale girl. ‘I don’t mean mong in the way you mean it. Not the old way. It is a Rochdale thing.’
     ‘That is not an acceptable word,’ said the lecturer, animated – but too late. ‘We don’t use words like that.’
     ‘Okay but it weren’t meant in the way you thought.’
     ‘Any more feedback then on the group task? Why do we think the new hospital has been built in the town centre?’
     ‘I bet you don’t even know, Miss.’
     I was getting bored, and though I shouldn’t have, I piped in with, ‘She wouldn’t set an exercise or ask a question if she didn’t know the answer.’ I wasn’t being sarcastic, although that is a significant element of my personality.
     ‘I thought you said you weren’t allowed to join in,’ said the Rossendale girl.
     ‘Don’t be a mong,’ I said. And all the kids laughed, and it was meant as a joke. I was just so bored. I’d been a naughty kid at school, and even though that was many years before the classroom setting seemed to make me revert to type. The rest of the lesson passed without incident, and the lecturer didn’t actually give an answer for why the new hospital had been built in the town centre. I smiled to her on the way out, as a way to say sorry for adding to the disruption.
     But when I got back on the tram I felt a bit sad for those kids. They were being short changed in that college. In that class anyway. The kids had no motivation and the lecturer seemed to get away with being shit. Nobody complains about the lecturer at that age or in that environment. The kids don’t really know that they can.
     The next morning I got on the tram heading back to Rochdale. There was still a week left on the temporary contract and I really needed the money. I was on the tram for ages. I forget exactly where it was, but there was a stretch of the tram line that ran through marshland between low hills. More than once I’d seen the flashing brown of a kestrel in the skies there, and now I spotted it perched on a wire.
     I got off the tram and walked past the town hall on my way to the campus. I let myself into the building with my swipe card. As I went to the student support office to pick up the laptop the staff in there didn’t seem as friendly as they had been. Then I had a call on my phone.
     ‘Hello?’ I said.
     ‘I need you to leave the campus right now.’
     ‘I’m sorry?’
     'I need you to leave the campus right now.’
     ‘Why? Who is this?’
     ‘It is Veronica from Hunt Education.’
     ‘But I’m here. I’ve just come an hour on the tram. What is this about?’
     Just then Emma appeared outside. I didn’t know sign language so I did my best to communicate to her. She seemed lost. Instead of integrating with the rest of the class I had noticed that she sat on her own at break times, and between classes would always wait around outside the student support office. There was normally an interpreter around who would walk with her to class, but she travelled from the Wirral and hadn’t arrived yet.
     ‘Veronica, I’ve got the student here in front of me.’
     ‘I need you to leave the campus.’
     ‘But why?’
     ‘I’m not prepared to discuss this over the phone.’
     I felt sick to the stomach. Surely there had been some mistake? I tried as best as I could to explain to Emma that I had to leave, then thankfully her interpreter came. I put the laptop back in the locker in the support office. I am a child of the 70s. A City fan with three master’s degrees. The tram had reached Piccadilly before I finally admitted to myself that I’ve never been good with people.

 

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Published April 8 2015