Toenails and Tracks

On New Year’s Day I cut my toenails; I really wish that I hadn’t.

Or rather I really wish I had managed to cut them properly.  I somehow slightly misjudged the angle of one little clip.  Instead of cutting straight across the top, I had somehow managed to cut diagonally into the side of the toe.  For reasons unknown, this resulted in the underside of the nail becoming infected, and over the course of the next two days I saw the nail bed progress from healthy to burning red to a white hot patch.  Luckily, a few days later, things came to a head (literally and metaphorically), and some improvised minor surgery with a sterilised pin, plenty of Dettol and hot water, and, some questionable language later, the mess that was causing pressure underneath the nail oozed forth in a stream of puss.  The relief was great; although the smell wasn’t.

As I get older I keep thinking that running’s real gift is finding new ways to taunt me with dubious injuries.  It’s a generous gift too; it keeps on giving.  Only a couple of months before I’d broken a different toe without ever fully understanding how I’d managed to do it.  The resulting missed training was only slightly less frustrating than the fact that the only explanation I could give for the intense bruising of foot and blackness of mood was that, ‘I put my foot down on an uneven bit while running downhill’.  On saying this for the hundredth time (by way of accounting for my ungainly lumbering around at work), I got a glimpse of someone looking at me as if they thought I was vacant.  Or simply an idiot.  Either way, nothing reminds you more about the weird things that happen to your body as you approach a certain age than, well, the weird things that happen to your body as a consequence of running.

Mind you, I don’t need to be running.  When I started getting active again a few years ago I somehow managed inflict a bewildering injury upon my back while turning in my sleep.  This sort of decrepitude was simply unfathomable in my youth.  I approached my health and general wellbeing with the insouciance and diffidence that characterised my younger self.  Perhaps we all do.  The beauty of running is the comforting contradiction that it brings: we can rage against the dying of the light, but there is no guarantee that our bodies will always hold up.  But mostly they do.  And that is comforting.

Apart from my right calf.  That’s not comforting.  Unless you count the alarming regularity with which it starts to throb and nag away; then it’s only comforting in its predictability.  Just days after a track session it started to tighten again.  In a way, I’m pleased that it did.  Looking back over my Strava for the last year it is clear what causes it to complain.  It’s not running hard, or races, or marathons.  It’s the track.  There are two positives here.  The first is the fact that I have no desire or ambition to run or race on the track.  The second is that I don’t need to train on a track in order to make progress in the marathon.  The negative is the fact that the local track session on a Wednesday is brilliant.  It’s a great mix of people, speeds, talents and efforts.  It would be great to be able to do these and get something out of the sessions, but alas, it’s not to be.

There is another reason why I’m pleased that it throbbed.  It reminded me of the importance of setting a clear objective for the purpose of each session.  To be honest…I let this slip.  I’d planned for a fartlek session, which given that I was still on holiday, I could have done off-road and in the light.  This would have allowed me to run a bit quicker in a less structured way.  At this stage in marathon training it was precisely the session I needed to do.  There was a reason I had planned it.  Instead I mistakenly opted for the track; l ended up slipping my way through a session which, at this stage of marathon training, was inappropriate.  It wasn’t even a vaguely relevant session.  Result: aching right calf.  And, like the toenail incident, it meant not missed runs, but much shorter, easier ones.  Lesson well and truly learned.  It’s the last time it will happen.

Other than that this has been a productive few weeks.  As I write this on Tuesday 23 January I’ve run every day this month for a total of 152 miles.  I’m not going to obsess about the fact that I’d planned for around 35 more at this stage.  Pleasingly, yesterday’s run with the Burnden Road Runners marathon training group was a hilly 9.5 miles with the last 3 all under 7 minute miles.  To be close to marathon pace at the end of a hilly run (even if it was only 9.5 miles) is a nice little confidence boost.  But the real value of this month has been the timely reminder not to take any of this too seriously.   Yes, I want to make progress; yes, I want to fulfil my potential, particularly in the marathon; but perhaps most of all, I want to remember to wear my glasses the next time I cut my toenails.

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A work in progress

I wrote the following in September 2002.  I was new in post as Second in English at Darwen Moorland High School (which closed in August of 2008).  I was a participant in a project that was coordinated by the Excellence in Cities initiative.  The writing was an attempt to reflect on learning, teaching, and progress in a school that, twelve months later, would be placed into Special Measures by Ofsted. 

“Yeah, it works. The plug’s a bit funny though. You might need to push it into the socket really hard.”

And with that my colleague leaves, heel-clicking his way down the ‘O Block’ corridor while happily singing a line from ‘Home On The Range’.

I look up hoping to see twenty nine faces.  Instead what meets me is an assortment of youngsters, most of whom are looking anywhere but at the front of the room; all I can see are the sides of their heads.  They look like they would rather be anywhere else but in my GCSE English class.  They aren’t misbehaving…yet.  They do look decidedly disinterested in what I am about to impart. Some chew gum; some attempt an impromptu experiment to test the strength of chair legs; some look timid, shy, embarrassed to be here; and others look like most teenagers I’ve worked with previously: a bewildering mixture of confidence, timidity, nervousness, arrogance, wit, and intelligence.

I push the plug in to the socket as hard as I can.

The TV screen is tiny. It is one of those TV/VHS combos and it represents the extent of the technology that I have to work with; oh, I also have a black marker pen.  Other than that it is going to be relationships, relationships and relationships that will get me to a position where I can teach well enough for the students to complete the five pieces of missing coursework.  At least I think that it is five.  No-one really seems to know exactly what they have completed.

I’ve devised a piece of media coursework that compares two film texts.  More specifically it aims to compare the  CGI violence in some scenes from Gladiator with the slapstick violence in There’s Something About Mary.  I think that the choice of material, alongside the focus for the assessment, will generate some interest, and by using that as a starting point I can build some momentum with a group that the Headteacher describes as ‘challenging’.  It’s little wonder.  They have had a succession of supply teachers throughout Year Ten, including one who liked to play guitar to them.  What they haven’t had is the structured opportunity to complete any of their coursework.  Now, with their final year underway, they know that they are behind.

I press play.

Someone shouts, “It’s crap, this.”

I press pause.

Problem.  The comment is loud and aimed in my direction.  I have no idea who said it though.  It is to be my first test.  But, before I can do anything about it it happens again, only this time it is accompanied by laughter.

“It’s crap, this.”

Now I’ve only been teaching for two years.  I don’t have the experience to defuse this situation with a group that I don’t know.  I do however have my marker pen. So I decide to write it out on the whiteboard.  Large, thick letters.

IT’S CRAP, THIS.

Not a sound; no-one laughs when I repeat it clearly.  I can sense the room shift slightly.  Chairs are being lowered.  Voices are hushed.  I have their attention.  It can be uncomfortable when 29 pairs of eyes stare in your direction; for a teacher it is a gift.  I take full advantage.

“What’s the problem with this statement?  Why would we not write this about the films in our coursework?” I ask.  It’s a risky question, but at this point in time it is all that I have.

A lone voice, “It’s not good English.”

“Great.  What would be a better way of phrasing this?”  I tap at the board paying particular emphasis to the very word that has unexpectedly initiated the discussion.

Some hands.  Great.  Some shouting out too; but I can live with that for now.  At least I can see their faces.

“Why don’t we write down some better ways of saying this.”

Then another voice, “But what if I like the films?” and, “We’ve not even seen the films yet.”

And so it starts.  We look at the clips; we read lines of dialogue that I’ve typed up.  Over the next few weeks they start to trust me enough to enable them show me their efforts. They are raw.  They know about films, they understand the violence, but they don’t have the language to be able to write effectively about them.  So I model phrases relentlessly.  My conversations with them are peppered with the key words that I’d like them to use eventually in their own responses.  Perhaps most importantly, I explain that what they do now, as Year 11 students, will have an impact on their final grades.  This is the purpose of coursework, I explain: you can make progress now that we can measure, and this will contribute towards your final grade.  The thoughts that you have now, the very thoughts that you write down, can help you to write pieces of work that will have an impact on your final grades.

I repeat my mantra, “Together, you can make progress.”

They say that they are enjoying the work.  I ignore them because it is still the honeymoon period where classes will often flatter you in the hope of getting you to ease off the pace later on in the year.  But at heart I know that they are enjoying it because they are starting to ask about grades.  This is a tangible benefit of coursework: you can structure it to contribute towards a purposeful working environment.  And boy do they need to be purposeful.  For most the notion of writing at length is novel and they are initially reluctant to do it; but as they start, cross out, and start again they start to see the point.  A couple of students look like they might actually be enjoying it.

Another benefit of coursework: imagination and enjoyment.  The only limits to what you can do are practical.  In a school like this, with resources as poor as outcomes, these practical considerations are real, frustrating, and serve to further the all too evident inequalities between schools.  But with a teacher’s imagination and resilience, coursework becomes the place where risks can be taken and where students can find their voice in ways that the examinations simply do not have the flexibility to accommodate.  I take every opportunity to explain that this is what writers do: think, draft, redraft, edit.

So, I’m making the most of the fact that these Year Eleven students are behind.  I’ve changed my mindset: they have five opportunities to demonstrate that their efforts will contribute towards their final grades in a meaningful way.  I enjoy the fact that students are peppering their conversations with me with references to grades, drafting, and redrafting.

Nobody has repeated that it’s crap, this.  That appears to have been edited out.