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Teach on

There is one shelf in our household devoted to books of cartoons. And a wet Sunday is a good day to explore among the sketches of quintessentially English Alex Graham's "Fred Basset", all American Jim Davis' "Garfield", a Private Eye Annual and, of course, Giles.

The gentle humour of a 2001 Fred Basset cartoon is a politics-free zone. The 1987 Garfield compendium that falls to hand seems to come from another country than the fantasy land the current President of US wishes to travel to. Let him go alone, I say.

Private Eye in 2008 seems, as ever, prescient. Italy's Berlusconi stars on page 67. Putin is pictured casting a vote with the speech bubble saying, "You put a cross.. over your opponent's head". And in a reminder that Boris Johnson may be far from being a man who rose without a trace, the Eye quotes from (the imaginary) "boring" manifesto he put forward for his election as London Mayor, "Tough on cripes! Tough on the causes of cripes!".

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose ("the more it changes, the more it's the same thing").

But it's in the 1948 cartoons of Giles that we see the wielding of the political knife with flair and the mining of the classics for inspiration. Humour, intellect and learning can travel on the same bus.

For a picture of children with a "shining morning face, creeping like a snail unwillingly to school" (Shakespeare's "As You Like It") he quotes Lucretius. The 1948 cartoon text beneath his drawing is, "They return to occupy the high and peaceful temples of the wise, eager to be well fortified by learning".

After the longest school shutdown in my lifetime, we are now rushing to a resumption of classroom learning.

In one respect, I am an exceptionalist in this territory. I went to school, aged five, in February 1952. There was snow on the ground. Father drove me there, the only time that ever happened, in his new Sunbeam-Talbot 90. And in doing so, managed to drive the wrong way up a one-way street.

That was a remarkable achievement, as the school was literally over the back wall. All subsequent attendances were by climbing over it. The car journey was correspondingly brief.

I recall being told, by my sister I think, of father repeating this particular offence, decades later when he drove the wrong round Charlotte Square on a mercifully rare visit to Edinburgh. I previously wrote of his having a driving licence without a test of his driving skills.

I nearly emulated him in the issue to me of my first full driving licence. My motorcycle test took place in early 1963, the first test conducted in Cupar after several weeks of shutdown due to snow. In those days bike tests required the examiner to walk around a circuit, which was necessarily quite restricted in size, seeing the test candidate intermittently.

His first observation of my skill was to see my carefully coming to a halt immediately after I left the car park where my test had commenced. The milkman's horse had been spooked by a car and reared up and turned in front of me. Hence my stop. A couple of other observations of my driving, including his bravely stepping into the road in front of me to test my "emergency stop", at a very sensible distance may I say, coupled with the recommencement of snow from the heavens meant it was all over within about twelve minutes. I walked around the corner and had my first licence by ten o'clock that morning.

The 200cc Triumph Tiger Cub upon which I had undertaken my test became the next vehicle to take me to school other than on foot. That was eleven years later. The first four years of my secondary schooling presented no more travelling challenge than my infant school. I waited until the morning bell rang, and then crossed the road.

The main impediment to my school career was not travelling, but health. I had been put on a powder even before school. I recall this being a ground down M&B (May and Baker) tablet delivered within a spoonful of strawberry jam. My view of strawberry jam has changed over the years since then from distaste to now merely being the last choice.

I guess I missed about a third of my primary schooling with what was described as bronchospasm. So I read anything that came to hand. As an adult, that eclectic store of information remains valuable today.

For today's school students, absence from school may, if parents and household space made it possible, have similarly been an escape from the curriculum and an expansion of their knowledge base. But I guess that's only for a minority. Even the cleverest of parents are probably not omnimaths. There will be gaps in their knowledge and interests that they happily left behind when they departed from formal education.

So a parent who managed the transition perfectly into adult life and career may nonetheless be unable to wrestle, say, maths homework into submission.

I know that our local education folks seem to have been on top of the preparation for blended schooling. That's still there if it all goes wrong. And I hear that arrangements for a near-normal return to the classroom in the week of 11th August are on track.

For teachers, who have always been looked at with envy and rather falsely, for their long summer holidays, this year is probably one where their holiday is being curtailed by preparation for a modestly different style of working.

I understand that they will be advised to maintain distance from pupils. In primary school in particular, where the correct pedagogical response to a young student in difficulty may simply be a hug, and some soft words whispered in the ear, I can see a difficulty.

Not all problems in school are educational. Some emotional difficulties also fall to teachers for resolution. And with a break in the continuity of learning that will have set back some students, there will be an extra challenge for their teachers.

People, who like many others, have not been able to recharge their mental batteries to the extent that normal summer vacation would allow, are faced with bigger than their usual challenges.

Speaking of batteries. Life on the short-range has caught up with my spouse's car. A couple of days ago, the insertion of the key and operation of the starter simply led to a clicking sound under the bonnet and a veritable Christmas light display of flashing lights on the dash panel. Not good. And looking expensive.

By happy coincidence our local garage re-opened today. We had been able to book them to attend this morning. The car's sulkiness was simply Mr Honda's response to a battery not being charged for long enough on the series of recent very short shopping trips.

My friend, the mechanic, told me that he had a list of similar calls to make across the area.

I trust no teacher requires to be similarly wired up for a jump start.

We thank you for your efforts through the period of distance learning.

And want you to be supported when taking up classroom duties again.

Teach on.


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