Graham Higgins Illustration - Literate Graffiti Dept.


September 15, 2011


Pea-Brains 12-10-11

Ah, the life of Supply Teaching. Here’s a thing. Quite an old thing, from last term, long enough for the simmering ‘Wha…? Wha…? Tuh!’ and worse – oh, pay no mind to my coarse mariner’s oaths, rough as a plug o’ Navy Shag me, lor luv yer, ma’am – to subside.
Left with a Literacy Learning Objective to experiment with story introductions other than ‘once upon a time…’ I remembered I had Andy Stanton’s “Mr. Gum And The Cherry Tree” in my briefcase, opening line: “Yes! No! Maybe? What! Hello.”
Mr. Stanton’s ouevre is jolly good fun to read aloud so long as you can more or less keep track of the voices in his jostling cast of cartoon characters.
To prime my Yr.3 class in adventurous writing and share my admiration for Mr. Stanton’s Puckoonish style, I read on and by the time I thought we’d all heard enough and had some serious writing to do there was clamour in the auditorium and demands for more. Firm but fair, I denied Year 3 further guffaws and told them to write their own, the kind of writing they’d like to read.
Job done, I thought; the primed class set to work and there was enough time to read out some of the results before the end of the lesson.
Next day – now here is The Thing in question, sorry to keep you waiting – I had a call on the class phone from the Deputy Head, telling me that she’d had a call from the mother of  ‘one of our more sensitive children’, complaining that I’d called the class ‘pea-brains’.
I suppose I should look up exactly what a flummox is but for a second or two I was definitively flummoxed. You don’t need etymology to know you’ve experienced the woozy felt-mallet concussion of a sudden flummox.
‘Pea-brain’ when I first heard it as a child was certainly one of my favourite funny phrases and as a sensitive child myself, far preferable to cretin, moron, numbskull and worse (yes there were worse insults to the intelligence which I won’t repeat here even as social history. Political Correctness is often only a particularly puritan relabelling of Common Decency).
However, colourful and pithy as ‘pea-brain’ may be, it hasn’t been in my vocabulary for decades.  ‘Pea-brain’ seems even to me as dated as ‘oh, capital!’ for approbation ; the yout’ today routinely use ‘sick!’ as a term of approval. I don’t, though even I know that when adults these days imagine that pronouncing their services, products or educational materials ‘cool!’ they may as well be saying ‘with-it’ or ‘all the rage’. Cool. Yeah, right.
Disentangling myself from the flummox (how does one unflummox, or is that deflummox? In short I was in recovery from a condition of flummoxedness. I’m sorely tempted to claim that I achieved aflummoxia ‘in a trice’ if only I was clear about the span of a trice, so it may have been two) I had two questions: first (note to self) was ‘pea-brain’ sufficient to unsettle even a sensitive child? And second (official report) when had that salty curse occurred?
I remembered our Mr. Gum exerpt. There wasn’t time to haul out the book and read it over the phone to the Deputy Head, but here’s Exhibit A – apologies to Mr. Stanton for the possible copyright infringement (it’s page 2, so you can check this in any book shop worth the name):-

“… And what a freshial, special morning it was in the town of Lamonic Bibber, my friends! The sun was shining, the birds were playing Quidditch in the treetops and the ground was sort of just lying there letting people walk all over it. It was a glorious, give-me-morious, start-of-the-storious sort of a Spring morning. And as you can imagine with your tiny little brains, everyone was looking forward to it like a rascal.”

“Tiny Little Brains”, uprooted from its native text and relayed via child to parent to school and back to me loses something in translation. I only found out that there’d been a final stage in the relay when I asked the teaching agency if they’d  heard from the school at all recently, because I liked it there and had looked forward to visiting it again, only to be told that the folklore had taken root. I’d called a class ‘pea-brains’.
Supply teachers are an expendable resource, so it was probably easier to drop the teacher than explain to the parent that she or the child had probably not been using appropriate skill and judgement, or, perhaps even responded with the  cerebral finesse of a small legume.
I reserve the right to feel less than sanguine about losing paid work because of this whisper-down-the-alley (an acceptable neologism I’ve discovered recently as a culturally neutral substitute for ‘Chinese Whispers’ – a parlour-game, young’uns, from a bygone time when houses had parlours and we were driven to make our own entertainment). However, when educators stroke their chins and wonder why teaching fails to attract graduates, here’s a possibility. Working in a classroom is not made any easier when you have to watch out for concealed tripwires of etiquette while keeping an eye over your shoulder and an ear to the ground for the approaching grumble of disgruntled parents. Good heavens, this example is the very least sinister of the range of accusations that a teacher might have to account for.
(Are we allowed to say ‘sinister’ or am I being gauche? There may be activists in some cadre of the left-handed lobby who might take up ergonomically modified cudgels on my kack-handed behalf. I’m allowed to use The K Word, see? First elect yourself into an oppressed minority, then you’re allowed to identify with its marginalised constituency, patrol its borders for trepassers and ‘reclaim’ its insulting signifiers as your own, K?.)
To the concerned parent I’d wish that she could read this and take righteous satisfaction that as a result of her prompt action the offending teacher has been summarily dismissed from the premises and her sensitive child has been spared exposure to the perils of ambush by literature. I’m still a fan of Mr. Gum and – call me reckless – I look forward to using his disgraceful example again in Literacy.

  1. It’s a shame that this otherwise entertaining tale doesn’t have a happy ending. Considering that Miss Quinlan, assistant head at my senior school frequently addressed our English class as ‘blockheads’ and famously denounced Geraldine Parsons as ‘Sausage Parsons!’ for climbing on a desk for fear of a mouse. (Delivered in front of the class in a broad Irish accent with all the fierce force of an anathema, this was no laughing matter – until she was safely out of the room.) I think being collectively called ‘pea-brains’ would be nothing worth worrying about – even if you had used it.

    When reading your substitution for ‘Chinese whispers’, my first thought was ‘So what’s wrong with “bush telegraph”?’ Then I realised that the C21 supply teacher would probably have to waste a lot of time explaining ‘telegraph’ to the kids – and then probably have to waste even more explaining to the parents and teachers that, no, this was nothing to do with American politics.

    Words, don’tcha just love ’em?

    Comment by Sue Jones — September 16, 2011 @ 8:48 am
  2. I’m all in favour of parent participation and would have been happy to discuss the offending passage with the parent. I was surprised that the conversations and decisions all took place without reference to the reality. Maybe the reality is that the school gives the impression of decisive action, the offended parent is mollified and I – a here-today, gone-tomorrow supply-teacher – can be very effectively excluded from the conversation so that all concerned are free to congratulate themselves on the effectiveness of their response.

    Comment by admin — September 18, 2011 @ 1:07 pm
  3. Well, that’s one of the little ‘joys’ of temping, Graham. The temp, even more than the employee who has most recently left, is a very, very convenient person to blame. ‘X is no longer with the company…’ It’s not nice, but we have to live with it. Of course, if they suddenly find they need you back again – and would prefer you to a new face – then it will all have been an unfortunate misunderstanding, channels of communication broke down, sorry about that – can you start Monday? Hey ho.

    Comment by Sue Jones — September 19, 2011 @ 6:53 pm

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