Mr Bilinki and 'the panel beaters'

It’s about 7 am on a bleak rainy Manchester morning. As I was getting myself ready for whatever the day might bring, I went to the small cupboard in the kitchen which contains the assortment of medications which are necessary to maintain me in an upright position. As often happens, due to the growing number of tablets and pills, a pile of boxes fell on the floor and I thought of Mr Bilinki.

It was the first day of my teaching practice at a college on the outskirts of Manchester. I’d been allocated my classes and told to talk to the relevant lecturers whose duties I was about to take over. Mr Bilinki was one of these, a small balding man heading quite shakily for a clearly well-deserved retirement. When I told him which classes I would be taking over, he seemed so pleased that I felt that I was genuinely taking a burden off his shoulders. At a certain point, I told him that those classes included the 'panel beaters', at which he got so excited that the books he was getting out of his locker for me, spilled across the floor. Trying to stem the flow, he grabbed the top shelf at which point the collection of other academic accessories on it also tumbled out. As this included a board duster and a box of chalk, the sight of Mr Bilinki in a white cloud was much like a perfectly choreographed piece of slapstick comedy Frank Spencer, Rowan Atkinson or Benny Hill would’ve been proud of.I helped him to sort out the mess, smiling inside, but a little concerned as to what sort of creatures the panel beaters could be. Every college has a group of students notorious for their bad behaviour and proactive disinterest. Later in my career, I encountered the 'butchers', often referred to as 'meat 1' which made them sound even more visceral than they already were. These groups usually have one thing in common which is that they are only in college to 'attend' not appearing to study anything relevant to their everyday working life. I think the theory is that a day per week in college might stuff some form of learning up them.

So off I went to meet my students. They were all around 17 or 18 years of age in a classroom which looked more like the pits at TT races than an educational institution, as it was strewn with crash helmets, in vivid colours or decorated with skull and crossed-bones. Not one of them was sitting at a desk, their defiance and resistance to discipline and conformity being displayed by sitting on the desks, or lounging across them like an extra from Grease. Welcome to the world of academe at the chalkface.

Teaching them seemed an unlikely option. Some sort of participation would’ve been a good start, but I couldn’t even get their attention. In the next few minutes as the noise grew louder, I sat looking at my notes and wondered whether I was cut out to do this sort of work and secondly whether Mr Bilinki was actually as old as I'd thought or was he a 30 year old simply eroded by stress. Suddenly the uproar was disturbed as the classroom door opened and the principal walked in. He was a small man but with piercing eyes that gave him the charismatic presence of an Eastern European dictator. The room fell silent – if anything, it was quieter than silent. In my memory, I hear his shoes clicking on the wooden floor, but that might be my imagination adding dramatic effect. Nevertheless it was an entrance to be proud of. The principal took me outside for a chat, and explained that I simply needed 'to keep them quiet by whatever means possible'. As the burble of conversation behind me was beginning to get louder, I wondered whether I could use some psychology on these guys or would a cattle prod be more effective. I walked back into the room, and this time they were more attentive, as I think they sensed the possibility of a firing squad or some other form of mass execution. I said 'Okay guys this is a deal if you don’t behave, I won't pass my teaching practice and you will not get paid'. So for six weeks we discussed all manner of subjects of their choosing from motorbikes, inevitably, to music and clog dancing. So in the end logic triumphed over brute force or was it just the money? Whatever – to be spoken with teenage indifference . . . . .

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