‘It’s the WORST way to end a relationship’.
The sign kept drawing my eyes, over and over.
I was sat on one of those uncomfortable metal framed chairs. You know the ones, the material is canvas and the seat looks as though someone has nailed it on with metal spikes.
The cushion was dented, warm and I had noticed a suspicious brown stain. I shifted and waited. It felt damp. My eyes fixed on the sign again.
It depicted a passenger, the fatality of a car crash. Underneath was a cartoon drawing of a pint of lager. The victim’s head was severed, his mouth twisted and screaming. Below someone had scribbled on the wall: ‘I want what he’s having.’ And a felt pen arrow pointed to the drink.
The dead driver was not shown but I thought there must be one, unless it was one of those new Google self drive jobs. Which made it worse. Who wants a car to be pissed?
I waited. My chair was positioned by a battered double door arrangement. The room itself, inside the college building, was a very strange affair. A sort of metal box on stilts that was reached by a spiral staircase. Sort of secluded but still within, if you can picture it.
How did I feel? A bit tense, but not too bad. You try to anticipate their questions. Don’t arrive too early, time then to get twisted up with nerves. Not too late, though, bad impression and sweaty. So, okay, there you go.
Diana Ross played through my head. ‘I’m Still Waiting’. Faint scuffling noises from within could be heard: the candidate before me, I thought, so I listened.
Finally. The two doors pushed outwards and a dowdy looking woman escaped, visibly shaking. A woman followed her, dressed in a suit. ‘Thank you, thank you!’ she bellowed down the staircase, ‘we’ll be in touch.’
She looked at me, rolling her eyes. ‘Teacher? Dear me. Hopeless.’ She said this grimly, sizing me up. Did she mean me or the woman? Her expression changed and she thrust out a hand. ‘You must me Morris, right? I’m Doctor Saggers, come in, come in. Sorry we kept you waiting.’
I followed her confidently into the conference room. Behind a trestle table desk sat two other suits. She gestured towards them as they stood up to shake my hand. ‘James Bottomley and Proffessor Huffield, they’ll also be interviewing you for the post today’. Then she waved towards the far corner. ‘And this is the elephant in the room.’
At first I didn’t really look. Just one of those annoying clichés that senior teachers tend to come out with, like ‘blue sky thinking’, ‘paradigm shift’ or ‘run it up the flagpole’. Then I did. Look, I mean.
The elephant looked back from the end of the table. So big, it practically reached the ceiling. It stunk, to be fair. I watched as its trunk reached towards the floor and it took some straw from a scattered bale. It munched, trumpeted and eyed me with hostility. The stench was quite overpowering.
‘That’s an elephant,’ I said.
Bottomley and Huffield had clipboards and they were nodding and scribbling with pencils. I could well imagine their comments. No shit, Sherlock.
‘I mean, well, how did it get here? How, did it get…in this room, I mean, the stairs…’ I blustered, helplessly.
‘Why don’t you ask it?’ suggested Doctor Saggers. Her hand was underneath her suit, fiddling with elastic and her she was twisting her shoulders uncomfortably.
I walked towards the beast. As you do when you go to an interview and there’s an elephant. ‘Hello. The name’s Morris. Morris Minor. Er…so tell me, how did you get in this room, Mr…er...sorry, what’s it called?’
‘Chuckles,’ said Doctor Saggers, still twisted. ‘Damn!’ there was a sound of snapping elastic and Saggers’ frontage descended. ‘There goes another one. I should sue ‘Playful Promises’, I really should.’
Then the elephant charged at me. Looking back, it was quite frightening, it really was. I tried not to scream in panic. The trestle table split in two and one of the tusks caught my arm, ripping my jacket. I fell over and tasted a mouthful of soiled, half chewed straw and peanuts.
Huffield helped me up. ‘It attacked me,’ I protested.
‘Well of course it did. It interpreted your actions as hostile.’
‘Actually,’ said Bottomley, confidentially, dusting me down,’ elephants don’t really understand English, you see? They’re not brilliant at interviews at all. Most interviewees don’t try to engage him in conversation.’
Huffield glared at his colleague. ‘That’s not been scientifically tested, has it? You can’t prove that. Where’s your data? Some of Chuckles’ responses have been quite astute this morning. He understood me when I offered him peanuts. He definitely moved towards me.’
‘Yes, but you were jumping up and down waving a packet of ‘KP Original Salted’ shouting “here they are, elephant, here they are” weren’t you? That’s hardly scientific, is it?’ Flecks of spittle were coming out of Bottomley’s mouth and his fist was clenched around the clipboard.
‘He definitely moved his trunk. I saw signs of recognition.’
For a moment it looked as though the two might start fighting, but Doctor Saggers intervened with a smile. ‘Shall we get back to the interview?’
‘Do you always have elephants?’ I asked, warily, taking my seat in front of what was left of the table. Chuckles paced to and fro, pawing at the floor, crashing clumsily into furniture. He began to dismember an overhead projector and toss bits around the conference room. He looked bored.
The three seated opposite me ignored the elephant and looked back at me as though I’d been very stupid. ‘Of course not,’ snapped Bottomley.
‘Some sort of initiative test? How will the candidate respond upon encountering an elephant?’ I asked.
‘Don’t be thick, Morris. That would be cruel.’ Bottomley frowned. ‘Do we look like we’re cruel sorts to you? In point of fact, we heard the expression ‘the elephant in the room’, liked it and thought we’d try one out.’
‘And it’s been a complete success,’ bellowed Huffield, slamming his clipboard down in triumph. The noise startled Chuckles. He trumpeted and turned his gaze upon us. I felt my blood draining from my face. I looked at the exit doors.
‘Now, now, Morris, don’t be alarmed,’ soothed Doctor Saggers, placing an arm on my shoulder. ‘You’re a teacher. In our profession we are often called upon to face challenges like an elephant in the room. It’s Friday afternoon, period 5. It’s been raining all day. How are you going to ensure the elephant understands the lesson’s learning objective? How are you going to show that the learner is making progress?’
I honestly didn’t know what to say. The elephant trumpeted again. It sounded annoyed.
‘Did you check your data? If you did, you’d have noticed that Chuckles has Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and ADHD,’ continued Doctor Saggers, patiently, waiting for my response.
‘And Irritable Bowel Syndrome,’ added Bottomley.
‘And a missing eye, with an eye patch, like a pirate,’ shouted Huffield,
Shaking with fury, Bottomley stood up and grabbed Huffield by his tie, pulling him close so that they were toe to toe. ‘It does not have a missing eye. I said no to the missing eye scenario, you bastard. We agreed. No missing eye and no eye patch.’
Huffield shoved him in the chest forcefully and Bottomley descended. He struck his chair. ‘I want the missing eye. I’m allowed the missing eye. I’m having the missing eye.’
‘It’s not realistic,’ screamed Bottomley, standing up. ‘You don’t get elephants with eye patches, Professor.’ And, with that, he launched himself at Huffield, Kung Fu style, with his arms and legs extended.
But, ready, Huffield countered and neatly side-stepped with an Ali-shuffle. Bottomley smacked into the mid riff of the elephant, feet first, arms flailing and dropped his clipboard. I cowered in the corner. Seeing a metal waste paper basket, I seized it and placed it over my head in one motion.
Chuckles glanced around, from where he had been chomping on an Interactive Whiteboard, mildly irritated. He gazed balefully at the prostrate Bottomley. He reached down with his trunk. The gesture didn’t seem too friendly.
Quickly, Doctor Saggers stepped towards me and rapped on my protective basket. ‘Now, Morris, come out from under that dustbin and tell me: how will you deal effectively with this situation?’
‘I don’t care.’ I heard myself saying. ‘You show me.’ I knew I’d blown it. There was no way they were going to give me the position. You can tell, can’t you? I watched as the animal’s trunk encircled the screaming Bottomley and raised him high above its back. I thought it was going to chuck him out of the window.
Doctor Saggers approached the elephant firmly. ‘Now. If you do this, Chuckles, you will have to accept the consequences. It’ll be a phone call home and a detention. Put James Bottomley down and we’ll discuss it in a restorative justice session with me, Professor Huffield and your parents. You’ll have a chance to state your case. Proceed and I’m afraid we might even be talking about a fixed term exclusion and a parental interview before we readmit you to the college.’
Chuckles snorted in derision and flung Bottomley through the air. He landed painfully at my feet. Huffield gazed in contempt at his prostrate colleague from behind the protection of an overturned swivel chair. ‘He understood that all right, didn’t he? Hah!’
Then the beast moved towards me and Doctor Saggers. I seized my chance. Flinging the bin in its general direction I hurtled for the door. Made it. Out. As I descended the spiral staircase I could hear the three of them still squabbling.
Now, looking back and me telling you all of this, you might ask why I hadn’t made a better fist of my interview, why I put that bin on my head and why I decided that teaching wasn’t for me? Well, listen, I’ll tell you.
I caught a glimpse of Doctor Saggers’ notes in all that mayhem and what was written on Bottomley’s discarded clipboard. Both clearly said, ‘other phrases we like the sound of:’
‘Release the Tiger’.