Back to School: The best days of your life, the worst of mine

Summer's over, the new term is about to begin. What are the nameless terrors lurking in the pit of your stomach, and why don't your children seem to share them?
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There is something about the first day at school which demands spanking

new shoes

by sophie Radice

Why do I do it? I, who always laugh at the herd-like instincts of the French blocking the roads of the nation as they leave and return from their holidays on exactly the same day. And yet, here we all are, once again in Brent Cross shopping centre on the run-up to the start of a new school year, grimly going from shoe shop to shoe shop while children weep and whine and mothers either shriek or go all glassy-eyed and retreat to that place in their head where mothers who don't shout go.

We could all have done this a couple of weeks ago, or indeed waited until next weekend or the weekend after that, but there is something about the first day of the new school term which demands absolutely spanking new shoes. Of course, their feet will have grown over the holidays, and, of course, most of us feel guilty about their having worn pounds 1.99 jellies for the whole of the summer ("little feet are precious and growing bones must be supported" said a sign in one shoe-shop), but there is more to it than that.

I remember the ritual of going to buy shoes at John Lewis (who now give out bleepers at this pre-school rush so that parents can "shop at their leisure" to pass the two-hour wait) and my feelings of fresh optimism and excitement being bound up in walking into my playground and lining up for the first time in ages with fine new shoes. Much of that first day would be spent spitting and rubbing the shoes in an attempt to keep them nice and shiny.

I suspect all the mothers clutching alarmingly high-number tickets in Russell and Bromley's Kid store while a Disney film blares out from strategically placed television screens have similar memories. Like our own mothers at the beginning of the school year, we all want to do absolutely the right thing by our child, as if making them feel smart and confident for the first day will set the tone for the whole school year.

At this shoe store they have not only trainers with light-up heels and laces but also nice, round-toed, medically approved leather ones. Both are horribly expensive, and I have to admit that when I have been skint at other times of the year I have just got the right size from Safeways and pinched the front bit to make sure there is enough room when I put them on my kids' feet. I have even put second-hand sandals on to my children's feet, and sometimes they only wear wellies for weeks on end.

And guess what? They have been fine: they have not developed bunions, pigeon toes, flat feet or strange postures. If I told this to the specially trained fitting assistants who spend their lives on their knees measuring the length and width of children's feet and feeling and prodding for a perfect fit, I am afraid I would be asked to leave. In fact, it wouldn't be the first time. Once my (then two-year-old) daughter was so dismayed at not being able to get some glittery red Doc Martens in her size, that she slapped the shop assistant who told her the bad news. They asked me to come back when she was in "better spirits" and her brother and I slunk away embarrassed, with her screaming abuse over my shoulder.

The woman sitting next to me has daughter problems too. Her prematurely teenage 10-year-old is sneering at her mother's suggestions for school shoes, refusing to try on a pair of lace-ups that they have waited an hour for. The mother gets so desperate at the thought of going to another shop and waiting for another length of time that she caves in.

"Go on, choose anything you want so long as it's black. You know your school insists on black." Sulkily the girl finds a pair with as much of a heel as you are ever going to find in a children's shoe shop and the assistant comes out of the store room to tell them that they don't have any in her size. "You could order them, madam," the young assistant offers helpfully. "But we need them now. She starts school on Wednesday, you see." The mother is nearly in tears, and as they leave her daughter appears to be smirking.

All around are similar scenes. Anyone who has only had experience of grown-up shoe shopping would be absolutely appalled at the chaos and publicly displayed emotions here. Children run about whacking each other while others just loll around holding shoes that they have taken off the shelves. Mothers do not seem to have any sense of camaraderie, but view each other as annoying hindrances to getting the shoes that they want. Add to this a team of overtired and increasingly surly assistants (and who can blame them, when you look at their customers?) and you get the picture.

When it is finally our turn, I have already promised my two all sorts of delicious bribes so they will desist from hurting each other while we are in the shop. They have both decided on their top four choices of shoe so that we will have something to fall back on if the shop does not have what they want.

Our nice young assistant admits that the pre-school days are "hell on earth" and that he feels like offering incentives for mothers to come back in a couple of days' time.

My children do not humiliate me this time. They both walk up and down when they are told to, so that the assistant can ask how they feel. Amazingly enough, it takes only 20 minutes for them both to be happily fitted into shoes that they are both so thrilled by that they sleep with them on their pillows.

Tomorrow - haircuts!

It all comes down to breaktime on the first day. You've got about 30 seconds to make an impression.

by John Walsh

It's like a scene from Vermeer or Pieter de Hooch: Interior with Seamstress, School Uniform and Cash's Name Tapes. In the middle of the kitchen sits the children's nanny, laboriously sewing little white tags on to a bewildering succession of garments.

"Games skirt - black," she recites, like a drill sergeant checking off recruits. "Shorts - black cycling. Tights - black footless(footless?). Jogging trousers - black with white stripe. Leotard - black. Kilt - grey. Lab Coat..." I assume she is winding me up (what are they trying to turn my gorgeous daughter into? A gym-haunting, Amazonian boffin with a penchant for Scottish dancing?). But no, they're all genuine school requirements; all part of the severe, monochrome wardrobe in which my daughter Sophie will soon be festooned, emblazered and be-knickered as she starts her first term at the Big School.

How bad can it be? The school is not a boarding school. Sophie will not be lost to her loving family, communicating only in tear-stained letters written between Practical Torture class and double-period Pagan Rituals. She will be home every evening. The school isn't far; she can practically walk there. Many of her friends from Junior School will be starting alongside her. She has met the new class teacher, who is "terribly nice". Mr Blunkett's proposed new strictures about enforced homework and mandatory bedtime will not affect the school since it is private. Everything will be fine. So why am I so nervous about this small step along the highway of my daughter's education?

It's partly because she is. As she circles the pile of name-tagged uniform, marvelling at its comprehensiveness ("What's the white apron for, Sophie?" I ask. "Cookery? Dusting?" She fixes me with a stern eye. "Carpentry, Dad," she says. "Just carpentry."), two kinds of alarm are gradually stealing over her.

First, the fear that she won't do well. "I'm afraid of messing up the exams. I don't want to be put in with the thickies," she says. As if. And there's the other fear, equally irrational, that she won't have any friends, that she'll be ignored, disliked, picked on, dissed, found wanting or made to feel unpopular in one of the thousand ways 11-year-old girls can suffer for not being exactly like their peers.

It all comes down to that moment at break-time on the first day, when you first walk out into the playground. It supposedly decides who will be your friends and who your enemies; who will be the leaders and who the led; who will be style dictator and who style victim for the next few years, if not the rest of your life. "But sweetheart," I said. "You'll all be wearing school uniform. You won't be taking part in some trendiness contest. Nobody will be in pedal pushers or cargo pants or All Saints combat tops, or belly chains or hair extensions or blue-sparkly nail varnish or...."

"Daddy," she said. "That isn't the point. Everyone will be looking to see who seems nice, who laughs too much, who looks cool, who looks as if they might be friendly, and who looks a complete dork. You've got about 30 seconds to make an impression."

Me too. If ever there was a time when parents felt themselves under the scrutiny of the Big School down the road, it's now. Junior School is a breeze for parents - because the scholars are so young, parents and teachers can pretend to agree that tiny delinquents are merely incorrigible and yelling neurotics. Merely highly strung. But once they're past 10, and are at least in the gravitational pull of puberty and moral choice, there's no hiding place. Your little angel is on a downhill race to being grown up, and will be either a good or bad advertisement for how you've brought them up.

So as the first term approaches, the parents read the school's printed material far more nervously than the children at whom it is aimed. "Read the School Rules and the Uniform List," snarls a communication from the Head to all new pupils. "You have to obey them." Crikey. I sit and read the "Parents' Practical Guide to Homework" as if it's the Ten Commandments. I peruse the "Dealing with Asthma" letter as if it were a newly discovered missive from Shakespeare to the Dark Lady. I nod submissively as I'm told precisely where to find this item of clothing, and precisely how to pay for it. (And take your hands out of your pockets, you grubby little man.)

Smarting beneath the lash of the music department's scorn ("Please do not apply for piano lessons if you do not have, or are not prepared to obtain, a piano"), I watch my daughter talking to her mother about hem lengths. She has tried on the new school skirt and discovered it is an inch below the knee. Aaarrgh! Sophie knows it is social death to have a skirt anything longer than two inches above the knee. And some of the first-year girls are phoning each other in tears, because Peter Jones has run out of Big School blazers and they must suffer the indignity of their Junior School ones for the first week. Poor them. Poor her. Poor me. We are all heading for a nasty learning curve.

The older children darting past us are so large, rough and careless. What if one of them ploughed into her and cracked her head open?

by Maureen Freely

Things will be easier once she starts school. For four years now, this has been our mantra. Not to worry about the huge sums we've had to shell out for nannies, childminders and nurseries. Pay no attention to that stack of letters from irate bank managers, concerned credit card companies and unpaid accountants. Come September 1997, we won't have to pay for childcare anymore and our outgoings will be cut in half. We'll be able to start clearing our debts, stop working quite so hard, remember how to breathe.

Pandora is the second child of a second family. My eldest is already at university, so it feels as if we've been at this forever. It's hard to imagine what life is like for people who don't have little children, and it's hard to believe that we're soon to rejoin their ranks. But now the big day has arrived, it is Pandora herself who shocks me.

There's half an hour to go before we have to leave but she's already standing at the door, gazing with admiring disbelief at her shiny navy shoes and her new navy pinafore. Her hair, which she's been wearing long and wild all summer, is in a neat, sensible ponytail. There is not a single trace of the baby left in her face. When did this transformation happen, and why didn't I notice it? I do not ask this question out loud, but Frank seems to be thinking it, too, because after a very quiet breakfast, he says that he wants to come too.

He takes a picture of Pandora alone outside our door, and then he takes another picture of her with her almost six-year-old sister, Helen, as they head up the path. When we get to the school grounds, Helen's best friend, Ella, joins them, and the three girls pose for the camera together, as stiffly and proudly as if they were at a wedding. The two older girls have jaunty smiles. Next to them Pandora starts gnawing her fist and suddenly looks tiny. When the bell rings and I offer her my hand, she holds it very tight.

"Don't worry, everything will be fine," I say as I lead her into the building, but I have a hard time believing it because now I am seeing everything through her eyes. The older children darting past us are so large, rough and careless. There are so many coatpegs lining the classroom wall and the teacher is so tall. But she has taken steps to reassure us - there on the low table, is the album with the photographs she took of Pandora and her classmates when they came in for a visit last term. And there, in the corner, is a pillow with Pandora's name on it.

Helen had this same teacher last year, so I already have confidence in her. I remind myself that the school has nothing in common with the school where my eldest had his first day 13 years ago. He didn't stay there long: the playground bullies had knocked out all his front teeth by the end of the month; by the end of term his teacher still hadn't found out that he already knew how to read. But when I took him to school on that very first day, everything had seemed perfectly fine.

How can I be sure my sense of security now isn't just as false? What if one of those rough older children ploughed into Pandora by accident and cracked her head open?

When I put my key in the door and hear my phone ringing, my first thought is that it's the school calling to tell me to go to casualty, but guess what, it's that angry bank manager, and then it's the concerned accountant. I've only just finished telling them how much I'll get paid for work already contracted, when the people who've contracted it start calling to ask me where it is. I don't have time to tell them why I am going to have so much more time for them in future, as now I glance at my watch and see with horror that today's ration has already run out.

For the first seven weeks, Pandora's only going to be doing half days. This is an excellent idea from the child's point of view, but how am I going to pay the bills if I only have two and a half hours of work time a day? By the time I reach the schoolgates, I'm almost foaming with panic. How do these other mothers manage to look so calm, and move so slowly? Perhaps they're all pretending, just like me. But on our way home, I stop pretending. Because Pandora was so glad to see me, and so proud to show me the drawing she did, and I'd forgotten how nice it is to amble down this lane in the middle of the day. I'm glad I'm going to have Pandora to myself this afternoon. There are so many ways we could fill it but what I really want to do is lounge around and do nothing. Before long she will be at school full time, a prospect which I regard with dread.

It's not the teaching that pushes you over the edge, it's the welter of nonsense that surrounds it.

by Jack Stone

Iam back again trying to teach English calmly in an inner city comprehensive. It is a struggle. First comes the class register with its usual drizzle of interruptions. The contemptuous latecomers; the louche, in-my-face bursting of bubble-gum; my demands that students divest themselves of hats, headphones, crisps, coats, breakfast and gum before we can start. Everyone seems to have PhDs in attitude.

It's not the teaching that pushes you over the edge, but the welter of nonsense that surrounds it: Ofsted, think-tanks, non-think-tanks, the fever for new strategies, monitors, appraisers and performance relaters, stress management and relentlessly dysfunctional electronic registers, Lady Porter selling cemeteries rather than financing a school play and articles which denounce us for promoting turpitude, illiteracy and the breakdown of the family.

And I have Jiri in my class. Jiri is a traveller from Eastern Europe, a recent immigrant from a war zone. It is his first day in an English school. He is 11 and resembles Oliver Hardy.

He is sitting in the corner chewing gum. His life has led him from the bleak rigours of Prague to the bleak licence of Queensway. Jiri has been hounded by various political systems. It has made him dizzy. He is losing his own language, gaining little else and becoming an unelected mute. He has never been to school in his life. His introduction to the Western intellectual tradition is the downtown Beirut of this inner city classroom. He can't decide if he's been shopped by the secret police or has escaped to a circus jumble sale or Checkpoint Charlie.

Jiri is bored. A curious smile plays across his vacant face. He is putting gum into the hair of the pupil in front of him. This pupil attempts to divest himself of the gum. He is unsuccessful and merely redistributes it more widely. He starts to weep. It is his only language. Jiri starts to laugh. It is his only language.

But for me this is one too many of the little acts of unkindness I have confronted all day long. It may be interesting, significant or even poignant, but I have had it. Jiri has ruined the lesson. Stig of the Dump dies in such stuttering incoherence that even the Band One pupils abandon hope, and join the fierce preoccupations of the less dedicated: the appropriation of pens, the shame of modest trainers and a relish for QPR's plunge into oblivion.

The lesson falls apart and so do I. The red mist descends. My mind brims with medieval punishments. Instead I bark threats at a model pupil who has become legitimately bored and uncharacteristically chatty. She looks puzzled. This is followed by my taxi-driver tantrum to the whole class on the perils of illiteracy in the jungle Out There. It does no one any good. Jiri understands none of it.

I have spent so much time accommodating behaviour which runs counter to most notions of civilisation, that I end up with this red mist, a touch of the Cantonas, Joyce Grenfell on whizz. I could return to my office and hurl a National Curriculum, the latest devious syllabus or the electronic register out of a closed window. It's the first day of term. I may plump for early retirement.

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