Academic Circus

My school liked nothing better than impressing parents. Showing off at any given opportunity. the school’s precious reputation was at stake you see (and for a school that accepted sixth form students with as few as only five GCSE’s at C grade, that’s so important. For those unfamiliar with the British system, your average person will have about nine or ten GCSE’s). The school is now classified as a very prestigious academy, which means there are many kinds of changes, the foremost being that it’s gotten worse. A lot worse. This is ironically the best metaphor for my school’s behaviour toward parents; puffing up their chests and bragging in front of something less than adequate. Somehow, incredibly so, it worked. (Go ask George Orwell. If you tell people two plus two is five for long enough they start believing you). But for all their flourishing, there is one thing that might struggle to polish; the students themselves. We had a torturous thing called ‘open nights’ where after school hours we would be forced to return in uniform, and perform academic tricks to impress parents who visited, with the intention of judging the school for their own child. Whatever subject you were assigned to meant that for an entire evening, you would jump through hoops to show off your supposed intelligence as well as the weird and wonderful types of lessons that we didn’t do.


Year 7, age 11, Open Night


I was assigned to the English department, and our lucky task of the evening was journalism. Such fun. The English teachers explained to us that we were to write reports on recent news and then present it through a pretend news channel. We would sit at the front desk, wait for parents to gather at the back, and then tap a set of notes onto the table and announce the news:
Good evening, this is Poncho with fake BBC news. Our headline today, escaped llamas on the loose in Greenwich park. Cute distraction, or sinister plot? Tonight we have with us Mr Jones, an expert on llama psychology. Mr Jones, should Londoners be worried? – Yes Poncho, it’s no laughing matter. Llamas are cruel devious creatures, luring victims in with their peculiar facial expressions  and oh so soft hair. But don’t be fooled. If given the chance, they will break into your homes and murder you and your family in your sleep. – Thank you Mr Jones. More information on furry conspiracies later tonight.


It was terribly accurate stuff. Journalistic integrity was our priority without a doubt. There were a few hiccups however. For one, we had no time to rehearse and no time to proofread our hastily scribbled reports. So naturally mistakes were inevitable. I was given a task to write about the Australian singer ‘Kylie Minogue’ on her new tour and latest album. It was particularly big in the news at the time, thanks to a lot of sexualised music videos and other drama. However, I had to perform in less than five minutes of having to write, and realised with horror that I didn’t know how to pronounce her name. I was eleven years old; I’d never heard of her let alone, heard of such a name. But without time to ask for help or prepare, I bravely took my seat in front of the audience and did my best. My best dammit.


Good evening, this is Poncho with fake BBC news. Our next story is on famed Australian singer, ‘Killer manoeuvre’. Currently on her tour around the United States, she’s been a massive hit, destroying the charts with her latest songs. Some controversy has arisen from her dangerously close to explicit videos, but it seems that in spite of a few complaints, the majority aren’t seeing this as a life or death situation. Now ‘Killer Manoeuvre’ intends to…


As soon as my teachers realised my mistake, one of them hung her head while the other muffled her laugh with a hand and desperately escaped so she could collapse out of sight of parents. The parents in question, merely cocked their heads and later discussed how they weren’t familiar with my generation’s taste in music any more.


Year 8, age 12, Open Night


I was assigned to the Design Technology department this year. Excited, I arrived early expecting to get stuck into a creative project. Carve a boat out of wood maybe? Build some sort of toy, or maybe design a model house? Alas no, that was for other students, the one they trusted less (because you should always give a hack saw to a child you trust less). For me, a student with a very record within the department, was given a more delicate task. Operating machinery far more expensive and precious. Technology far beyond anything we had ever studied. Lego blocks (I really wish that part were sarcasm). Glorious lego blocks. But there was more, the teacher promised me, indicating the motor hidden behind the bricks. It was connected to a computer, and it was my job to build an arm out of lego, and then write the program on the computer to instruct said arm, to lift a lego brick up and deposit it somewhere else (of course I tried building a toy robot instead. What do you take me for? Unfortunately it was never meant to be, as are the most beautiful romantic tragedies in our lifetime). Do I have experience building lego? Yes, I was a boy once upon a time. Do I have experience in programming? Not so much. But fear not, my teacher told me when I expressed this. You’ll figure it out. I’d have much preferred picking a fight with a lump of wood armed with a chisel, but hey, we’re here to show problem solving skills aren’t we. This is future CV material.


So I build the arm out of lego and pretend I’m five years old again, carefully hiding the fact that I’m wearing a tie and suit like an adult. When it’s finished I’m left to experiment on the computer. Do-It-Yourself programming performed buy the boy who still got excited by the way iPhone screens flip when you turn them over. Push a few buttons and see what happens. Very logical, trial and error experiments. The motor was a little bit powerful for my liking but the one thing I never worked out was how to slow it down or how to end a programme. Instead, to stop it moving I would be forced to unplug the electricity directly each time (that’s right machine. I decide if you live or die). There were regrettably though, some occasional accidents that were entirely not my fault.
One student decided to look closely at the arm as I ordered it to turn. A little too closely though, when the arm spun round at sudden high speed and struck him in the nose. Nothing serious but a little light bleeding (this was the class where I fused molten metal onto my thumb and another student very nearly severed his thumb off with a chisel. We could take on a nose bleed, I assure you. We were tough twelve year olds). So although he laughed it off with blood slowly streaming down his face, it was a little shocking to some parents who came in to see a student with hack saw in hand, covered in blood and laughing manically. Also a little shocking later on when I explained to one curious parent that it was not paint that stained the yellow lego arm.


I also managed to throw lego bricks. The arm couldn’t be stopped but I could spin it and throw the cargo from the hand. I got pretty accurate at that too. Not so fortunate though when the arm threw the lego brick into a young boy’s face, his shoulders clamped down by his flanking parents. By the end of the evening, it was time to show a larger audience, a fresh audience who hadn’t seen my experiments. The arm picked up the brick, spun to the box and deposited the lego perfectly. They all clapped and nobody saw my hand under the table with the unplugged electricity cable tight between my fingers.


Year 10, age 14, Open Night


I was assigned to the Japanese department because, you know, who else would? There were only three students in it after all. The task was rather simple; write guest’s names in Japanese katakana. We had brushes, ink, flashy paper designed for calligraphy. Not that any of us practiced calligraphy though. The school’s attitude was; most won’t know what nice Japanese writing looks like so you’ll be fine.


There were not so many who wanted their named emblazoned into Japanese so we were left with writing random words to show off. They started small at first. Flower, autumn, tree. Lots of nice, beautiful sounding words. But the night dragged on and we were getting bored (and the devil makes work of idle hands). Our Japanese teacher returned after a teachers meeting and found us swamped in parents, perhaps because Japanese is a great way to end an evening. The table was covered in pages of painted words and shapes, and our teacher looked down in horror to see what we had drawn. She was a good liar though, and translated them kindly. Until a Japanese boy entered the class, and declared he could translate. He went round the table picking them up as he went and translated for the other parents, while we the writers, tried to figure out a way of escape.


Let’s see, this one is ‘fireworks’! And this is ‘winter’! And this one is…’who ate my cheese?. He picked up the next: ’I’m sorry I’m not listening…I’m just more interested in this milkshake’. And the next: “Doraemon is overrated”. And the next: “We’re watching you” (at which point the poor child recoiled from us, while we politely smiled reassuringly back). It ended with the last page: “And this one is….this isn’t Japanese. It’s just a picture of a squirrel”.


We were fine though; the school had absolute faith you see.


Later year Open Nights


The older I got the less tasks I was assigned with, but I could never escape the circus entirely. Whether it was guiding parents around the school and telling them very honest truths the school would rather I not say (the school and I had a debate regarding my phrasing. I’m clever you see; I never lie, and it’s hard to be accused of wrong when you’re perfectly and painfully honest). One year we attempted to escape by occupying an empty room but the plan was foiled by the volume of our merriment and those pesky curious kids who thought secondary school was exciting. Poor deluded kids. The British system will knock that out of you, just you wait.


Even as you read this, my school is undoubtedly trying to impress a new set of parents and their children, lifting up the tatters of clueless student’s work and describing it as creative art. But parents should be impressed; spinning stories positively is indeed a very useful skill to have, and I alongside my fellow students, have that in spades.

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