And then he threw a table at me

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There’s a line in Tolkein’s The Fellowship of the Ring when Gandalf returns from his first encounter with the Balrog and tells his companions that he has ‘never felt so spent’. Well, I just got back from an hour spent looking after nine Iraqi children, and I think I have a fair idea of what it must have been like to face said fire demon.

But don’t get me wrong. I signed up for this. Willingly, even.

After three weeks of teaching English at this church my Swedish colleague Andreas introduced me to, I’ve been enjoying it so much that when one of my co-workers called in to say that she’d be absent, I leapt at the chance to try something new in looking after the children of our students for a change. They looked pretty fun, they sounded like they were having a good time with the girls, and Firas’ youngest is just about the cutest little thing on the face of the planet, even with the super-saiyan hair. The year abroad is all about new experiences, right? And I’m not afraid to say I’ve always been rather good with kids. I guess it’s my willingness to de-age mentally by about twenty years whenever I’m in that kind of position. Clown mode, or something like that. Kids love it. It’s supposed to be foolproof.

These kids don’t exactly speak much English, but I’d been told that they could introduce themselves and that they knew a few basic words, like colours, animals, the parts of the body… that kind of thing. So I thought I’d get the ball rolling with a song and dance kind of game. ‘I get loose’, to be precise. It always went down a storm in Durham, and that was with twenty year old students. Once they finally understood that they were supposed to be copying me – Maryam, the oldest of the girls, had to explain it to them – they seemed to be enjoying it. But one of the kids, Fadi, wasn’t having any of it. He just stood looking surly in a corner saying ‘ba’ over and over again, getting louder every time. After a few minutes of this it became almost impossible to think, so I shot him a dark look. He just yelled even louder at me, and then ran over and started hitting me with a microphone that he’d picked up from who knows where. I scolded him for it but he kept at it, and in the end I let him tire himself out until he got bored of smacking my arm. At least, I thought he had. Instead he ran to the other side of the room, grabbed the nearest small object – a piece of wooden train track – and threw it at me. Luckily, he missed, which is more than can be said for the dollhouse, the microphone, Noah’s ark, the drum, the foam floor mat and three chairs. When I looked up from teaching the girls (whose attention was quickly beginning to wane by this point) and saw a table flying at me from the other side of the room, I guess I realised that we had gone beyond the point of no return. At least he didn’t get his hands on my iPad, or I might really have lost it.

And then the screaming began. Whether Maryam had lost faith in my ability to control the class, or whether she was angry that it wasn’t Susie taking the class, or whether she just revelled in the chaos, I don’t know. But the next thing I knew all five of the microphones that Fadi had been using as missiles had found their way into the hands of the older girls and they were all screaming at the top of their voices into them. Fortunately, they weren’t on, though for all intents and purposes, they might as well have been. I tried everything – disappointed face, changing tack, feigning ignorance, even getting strict – to no avail. They just waved a massive thumbs down in my face and the screaming continued.

It was at this point that Andrew stepped in to lend a hand. For a few seconds the kids stopped, judging how he might react – and then unleashed a new barrage of screaming on him instead. Between the two of us we made absolutely zero headway and eventually Andrew retreated back to the Bible study group. Five ear-bleeding minutes later Kate came to my assistance and we tried again. More screaming, only this time they got tactical. ‘We’ll stop screaming if you dance’. So I danced, and they stopped screaming… for a grand total of two minutes. ‘We’ll stop screaming if you sing’. I whipped out the Circle of Life for them and they actually shut up, until the English lyrics, at which point the screaming started up anew, not least of all because one of the girls who had slipped away during the chaos had returned with five cups of water. Ammunition to renew the war on the hapless Substitute.

There was a point when Kate and I just looked at each other in an expression of utter helplessness. What could we have done? We were flat out of ideas, not that it mattered anyway. The kids were mutinous in the extreme. They weren’t having any of it; no Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, no introductions, no colours, nothing at all. Just screaming. When their parents came in to tell them to shut up, and they got the screaming treatment just as bad as we had, Andrew, Kate and I threw up our hands in defeat. We’d tried everything. The kids had overwhelmed us. And when the clock struck five minutes past five, I can honestly say I’ve never felt happier to have finished something.

So the next time I jump at the chance to teach kids, somebody stop me. Please. My ears, at the very least, would be grateful. BB x

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