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The Hairdresser of Finchley Road

Anne-Louise Mathie




Like everyone else here in North London, I feel stunned – by the sudden build-up of the virus, by the nightly reports from Italy, by the fact that my school is going to go into lockdown, which means that everyone will learn from home apart from families of key workers and children with special needs or those ‘at risk’.

Wow! I’m going to have to prepare work online, and not just for PowerPoint at school. I’m going to have to use Microsoft Teams, whatever that might be. I can see that I’m going to have to ask my children for lessons about it. Worst of all, I’m going to have at home three teenagers, Ben (17), Zoe (16) and Jack (13), as well as seven-year-old Lauren. I really like my job but the thought of having to teach my own children all day does not thrill me. To be more truthful, I wouldn’t mind teaching them if they happened to be little darlings who wanted to learn. But they aren’t. And they won’t want to learn from me.

And how to keep them motivated with the work their teachers will be setting them? Jack is thirteen years old and loves to go to school, but for one reason only: he wants to be with his friends. Even in normal times, he never does his homework, or at least he manages to do it, sitting at the back of the school bus with his mates. Fat chance of him achieving anything during lockdown with less inspiring company. Zoe will have her head in a book all the time and will be frustrated that she can’t get ahead in the curriculum. She doesn’t need other people to learn, but she does need competition in order to be pleased with herself. And she loves to argue, especially about politics. Ben is stressing about applying to university and what will happen to his exams at the end of his first year sixth. Probably the only one who will be happy will be Lauren. She still likes playing with her stuffed animals in the garden so is likely to want to do that all the time and even that has me worried; it can’t be normal to like playing with stuffed animals at the age of seven. Worst of all – her brothers and sister will tease her about it all the time.

A garden! At least we have a garden. Tens of other families in North London don’t have one. Imagine being a single mother with three children under the age of eight, who can’t even leave their flat. Apparently, we can all go out to the park together for an hour’s exercise. But which teenager will want to go out as part of a family group? Lauren is the only one who won’t mind. And I can’t really trust the others not to be meeting up with friends. As a final resort, I’m thinking ‘Thank goodness for Instagram and Twitter and Messenger!’ They might keep everyone sane.

Then there’s my husband, Jeremy. He’s going to be working from home too. No managing to get out of domestic bliss through a long commute. Other people complain about their tiring, sweaty commute into Central London or out to Canary Wharf. Jeremy loves it! He loves the jostling of humanity on the underground and walking through the Shard, and the excitement of staying on for dinner in a local restaurant before returning to the office for another late-night partners’ meeting. Maybe he should do lockdown in his office! I’m sure he’d be more stimulated by staying there, rather than being at home with us.

In our school English department meeting, when we were supposed to be talking about teaching strategy, my second-in-department said she and her partner were going to take it in turns to work at home, while the other one looked after their four- and two-year-olds. Good luck to that if you’ve got the perfect relationship! That sounds like the way it’s supposed to be. I think I’ve missed out on being modern. Imagine Jeremy saying, ‘I’ll supervise the children while you go online with Years 11 and 10 in the mornings!’ Probably for the best though. Our children would hate being supervised by him even more than they hate it when I’m in charge.

Our household will descend into chaos. No work done by anyone. What can they do to you anyway? Jack challenges me as resident teacher. ‘Think of all the families who don’t have laptops. They can’t insist you do the work, especially when you have a perfect excuse like that.’ It’s like not turning up to detention a million times over, I think.

I remember, in my first year of teaching, trying to follow up a boy who never did his homework and who legged it during some of my lessons. He had an old-fashioned tutor (form teacher we used to call them), called Mr Warwick, who drew me aside in a fatherly way in the staffroom one day,

‘Mia, a word of advice. I know you’ve spent the last week trying to chase up Paul Durrant, and making sure he’s in detention, haven’t you?’

‘Yes,’ I nodded, already feeling exhausted mere minutes into the day.

‘Who do you think is going to be the winner in all this?’

I shook my head dumbly.

‘I can tell you now, it won’t be you,’ said Mr Warwick confidently. ‘Paul Durrant will win every round.’

‘But I’m supposed to be following him up, aren’t I? We’ve been told to follow up truants,’ I announced with the moral superiority of a newly qualified teacher, who believes in the education of the downtrodden.

‘Mia, you’re supposed to be educating him. But you won’t be. All you’ll do is drive yourself into the ground – chasing him or telephoning his home when there’s no one there to care about him. Even if you succeed in getting him into one detention, the work will be of an abysmal standard because he won’t have been in the lesson. Believe me – you can’t win on this one.’

‘But what am I supposed to do?’ I asked despairingly. I had a feeling that Miss Pearson’s advice would not have been the same as Mr Warwick’s. She was tasked with rounding up those who never went to lessons or did their homework, and she believed in statistics.

‘Leave him alone,’ replied Mr Warwick, confidently. ‘You’ll then have the time and energy to educate all those who want to be educated. Yes, there are a few!’ he grinned at me. ‘Paul Durrant doesn’t belong to that group and he’ll be much happier without you chasing him.’

‘But he’s got to learn sometime!’ I objected indignantly.

‘No doubt he will, but you won’t be the one teaching him. He might learn through maturing, or even by being sent to a special school or through the attention of a good youth worker. And you won’t have had a nervous breakdown in the process.’

Ever since then, I’ve followed Mr Warwick’s advice. Do what you can. Be inspiring if you’ve got the chance. Don’t kill yourself when you can’t. Lesson learnt – you can’t solve everyone’s educational problems.

In earlier years I’d already found out that I can’t teach my own children when they don’t want to learn. I can force them to stay at the kitchen table and recite facts for a test, but I can’t force them to learn. When I look into the future and what might happen during the lockdown, I think either my children are going to be delinquents or I’m going to have a nervous breakdown. I need Mr Warwick to keep me grounded.

And I won’t even be able to complain to the other staff about how awful the children are, because there won’t be a staffroom.

The chance to complain is the lifeline for all teachers. When someone is badly behaved in your class, they are likely to be the same in someone else’s class too. How comforting to be able to have a good moan about them over a cup of tea in the staffroom! It makes you feel entirely justified in your attitude. So now, my only fellow sufferer is going to be Jeremy, and I don’t think he’s going to be as sympathetic as my staffroom colleagues. And I can’t even blame the criminal or negligent parents! The fact is there will be no one else to blame apart from ourselves for our children’s lack of interest in their education. How depressing!

I don’t even care that much about their education. I love teaching, but I’ve always thought that education isn’t half as good as it’s cracked up to be. Not the sort of opinion you want to share with a lot of earnest teachers, and certainly not with the people who do the adverts for Teach First! It’s when you see all the hoops which teenagers have to jump through and the ‘correct’ responses they have to produce, that you realise that going to school is like following a recipe. I’m not sure that it’s the same thing as education. Being led out is apparently the original meaning of the word. Led out to where? Only to where the system wants you to go, apparently so that you can plant the right answer on an exam paper.

Now, with the Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement, I’m in a state of shock.

First of all, there are people dying all over the place, and I’m worried about my Auntie Annie in Tower Hamlets who doesn’t have any children and who doesn’t ‘do’ computers or mobile phones. I’ve already phoned her on her landline, and, as befits her practical, no-nonsense attitude, she told me not to fuss and that she’s the one keeping an eye on the others in her block of flats.

Then, for 24 hours a day, I’m to be imprisoned with a husband, who doesn’t want to help. I’ve got to share my house with four young people who don’t want to be there. And I’ve got to produce quirky, engaging lessons for 11-18-year-olds online, notice whether they are achieving targets and fill in the graphs.

The biggest shock of all? They’re going to close all the hairdressers! Panic! What am I going to do about hair colour? This could go on for three months and I still have to appear online with my students. Radical measures called for! Before all supermarkets start shutting down on supplies, I have to stockpile hair colour. We can live without pasta and make do without toilet paper (when I was on my gap year in Africa, newspaper did us nicely) but I will go into a serious depression if I go half grey. Even my children will taunt me. Jeremy probably won’t notice, and Lauren is too busy playing with her stuffed animals and still loves me with no strings attached – the only person to do so in my entire world. But the others?

And if the hairdressers close, then my outlet for gossip, exchange of views, complete freedom of expression and outrageous arguments is also shut down. Some people say they can’t survive without Twitter, but I can’t survive without Johnnie’s.

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