The HR Juggler

Day 21: A Christmas Carol Concert

Posted on: December 21, 2011

Day 21 already…it’s starting to feel a lot like Christmas!

It’s no secret that I love Kevin Ball’s writing. If he were to write a book, I would absolutely buy it, read it and recommend it. So it’s a huge pleasure and privilege to have Kevin guest blog on here with a very special Christmas-themed post. If you look very carefully, you may find a #connectinghr influence behind the hero of this post…;).

You can connect with Kevin on Twitter (@KevinJBall) or via his slightly neglected, but truly wonderful blog.

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It seems a strange thing to say about anyone, but Eleanora was a woman whose life had been ruined by kindness. Growing up in old-fashioned grandeur, she had sucked a sense of entitlement and superiority from the very air she breathed as a child. From the stern chilliness of boarding school, through the numbing poverty of University and a succession of bafflingly unsuccessful careers, she reached her middle age without every enjoying anything as much as her early years. Unlike her boisterously numerous siblings she’d inherited neither the energy nor the intellect to recreate the privilege of her upbringing and so added bitterness and envy to the less endearing traits of her maturity. She became an angry and thwarted woman quite unlike the adored and sunny child who had basked in the fond neglect of her distracted mother and the distant charm of her seldom seen father.   

Sad to say that by the age of eleven Eleanora’s best years were behind her and by the age of fifty even she was aware of a deep emptiness and disappointment which seemed to colour her every day a tired shade of beige.

Without the wherewithal to live the life of luxury for which she’d been prepared and like generations of well educated but unapplied people before her, teaching was where she finally settled her working life. After a couple of false starts her very good degree and her reserved and chilly air found a perfect home in a small private school of middling reputation at the end of a branch line in the muddy English countryside. Her sensibilities were soothed by the forced courtesy of the pupils and her eccentricities accommodated, perhaps expected, from parents brought up on a diet of Mr. Chips and ‘Malory Towers’. While the twenty first century raged tweets, texts, and nudges around her, she still deputed a member of the lower fifth to manage the video machine and refused to give up her ink pen in favour of on-line marking. With the pupils she obliviously strode the line between respect and fear through sheer disregard; with her peers, her regal politeness won her peace from chatter and nothing close to the friendships that her longevity would have assured in any other woman.

It might have always been the same. The endless stream of cheeky teenagers, geeky Asians and intimidating Russians might have flown through her years like time-lapse film: flirty girls and earnest ones; sporty boys and spotty ones speeding through their rites of passage before her as she paced her classrooms. Each year a little greyer, each year a little stiffer, each year a little less tolerant of the boiling Petri dish of passions before her eyes, she might have seen her time though unchanged, were it not for the most surprising of conversations with the most surprising of men.

The autumn term of 2011 was not like any other new school year for Eleanora. The doe-like fear of the 11 year olds and the accidental lupine menace of the new sixth form boys were familiar enough but the lack in the centre of her had been joined by a lack in her home as the last of her children set sail away from the safe harbour of home and off to University. Her husband had long given up hope of finding comfort in Eleanora. He had pursued his pleasures alone for many years and with her children now at cardinal points of the country her meaning was diminished to the lowest of ebbs. Even the cooking, cleaning and sheep-dogging that she had borne so reluctantly in her maternal role ceased to have purpose. Part of her was pleased at the new quiet in her house; part of her afraid that it meant she’d acquired a new insignificance, and she reached a rare and horrible moment of self-appraisal on her first morning’s commute of the new term as she wondered what on earth she was on the earth for. In their closer years her husband had joked over a birthday dinner about how he now qualified for the newspaper cliché: ‘Middle-aged father of four’ and she  wondered now how the headlines would report her after some crime or tragedy ‘Elderly teacher?’ maybe not yet, but no longer ‘Mother’ surely? That part of her life felt over and it seemed wrong that she, the most reluctant of careerists, should now have to fall on her occupation for the journalist’s shorthand description of her. And of course the school, with the bristling new paint and the bustling of the summer in every ‘hello’ from the staff, was the worst place for her to be. The damned, determined optimism of the place was a constant affront to her isolation and, in the way of these things, drove her further into herself and further away from the world.

One of the comforting aspects of her venerable and part-time status on the teaching staff was the option she had, held close like a UK/EU opt-out, to ignore the dreaded INSET days when they fell outside her normal three day working week. The start of this term had given her the opportunity to exercise this avoidance of the management’s attempts at direction-setting and team-building and she had frostily ignored the agenda and paperwork when they arrived over the summer. So it was that when she arrived on the Thursday of the new term, she arrived on the same day as the pupils. The senior staff, busy directing lost newbugs and settling into new routines, had no time to bother her with their schemes and plots to interfere in her work. She parked her car in the usual place. Left her coat in her usual locker. Drew her usual cup and saucer from the cupboard and sat in her usual place in the staff room before the teaching timetable drew her into the island of her classroom where she could steer through the calm waters of Milton and Wordsworth while the stormier seas of the school raged outside her door.

But while older hands knew enough to leave her for the first few days or weeks the inevitable new teacher, barely older than the students to her jaded eye, sat next to her and so desperately persisted in trying to join her in conversation that she was reluctantly forced into folding the TES and acknowledging his enthusiasm. Joe Marley was soft spoken, red faced and so obviously nice to his core she knew it was only a matter of time before he spoke about how wonderful the ‘young people’ were; knew instantly that the sixth form girls would be a little in love with him and the sixth form boys a little in awe of him. She could imagine his brilliance on the sports field and heroic holiday pursuits. He was bound to have a lovely wife and some adorable toddlers; certain to believe that the school was for the children and not the curriculum or the parents. She was sure that he played the guitar. Where her preconceptions foundered, however, was on his courtesy in calling her by her surname and, when she began to pay attention to his prattling, on his apparent claim to know her from elsewhere. Closer attention revealed a pupil inside the man and with a slight shock of surprise she saw him as he had last been before her: an earnest and diligent student on his way to a good University. While his chatter flowed around her she was transported back the ten years or more that had passed to turn this boy into a man. She saw her classroom and her younger self and saw with some surprise the passion and patience through which she tamed the lower sixth with Chaucer and Shakespeare.  As if he was a ghostly presence in her remembered classroom, she saw the younger Marley rise to her promptings, heard his engagement with her teaching and felt his very soul develop and turn like a sunflower towards the warmth of her own abundant energy. And here came her second surprise: she recognized that the self she saw there was not the same as the one she would have expected to find. This younger version of Eleanora was certainly less stiff, less grey and more tolerant but, more, the younger one had an inner drive, a belief and a certainty that until then she would have believed she had never possessed. She was surprised to find that she was rather a good teacher; rather witty and rather skilled in finding talent in her pupils, even those less clever than the hypnotic young Marley. She saw them stretch to rise to her expectations, heard them grow beyond hesitation and into opinions strongly expressed, felt them bask in the glow of her affection in ways that she had forgotten was in her past.

Of course the rest of the staff room recognized the attraction of Joe Marley but they all found his growing friendship with Eleanora remarkable. No-one really believed the innuendo of the more scandalous gossips but they all struggled to find a plausible explanation for the pair’s increasingly regular lunchtime trysts. Those with longer memories remembered Marley as a bright young student but could remember no particular bond he had with Eleanora and those who had only known her as the determinedly self-contained and rather formidable woman that she was now could see no particular reason that Marley could thaw her more than the other bright young things that had passed through the school over the years. Yet friendship there was. Over instant coffee and lunchbox sandwiches they chattered like old friends. As autumn became winter and the end of year exams marked the beginning of the end of the term, Eleanora could feel herself stretch and rise towards Marley’s energy and attention as she remembered him rising to hers in their shared past.

In years gone by it was now that she began to feel her most weary. Now that the days grew shorter and darker  and the whole school willed itself towards the finish line of the longest term was the time that Eleanora had felt herself the most cynical, the most lonely and the most isolated by the excitement in her classroom. The end of term for the pupils was Christmas: gifts, family, presents. For her it was heavy marking and nagging exam classes about the approaching mocks. But this year Marley had lightened her mood and when he spoke with her about one of the pupils they shared she didn’t bristle but listened, alarmed at what Marley knew that she did not.

Roberts was one of the least inspiring of her uninspiring year eleven set. In what she’d assumed was an act of malice from her head of department she’d been assigned the bottom set to drag unwilling through their GCSE and Roberts was the dullest of the dull. Always late, always with the wrong book, always smelling slightly of rugby field mud, Roberts was the butt of many classroom jokes, not least her own. As the term had gone on she had set her expectations of him low and marveled at how consistently he under achieved them. They hadn’t reached half term before he was spending most of her lessons waiting outside the Headmaster’s office to be reprimanded for some misdemeanor or other. Yet Marley, who taught History to the boy, spoke of a different character altogether. For Marley, Roberts was a story of triumph against parental adversity. There was an unfortunate divorce and an ‘arrangement’ over fees to keep Roberts at the school. Marley had taken him on and he was doing well – rising above the bullies who despised him for his relative lack of wealth and swagger. Doing well, that is, except in English. Eleanora confessed that she knew none of this and wondered how until Marley spoke of the briefings she had missed at the start of the term. Once more entering the almost dream state she found herself in when talking with Marley she saw Roberts as the victim of his tormentors: the stolen books, the hidden towels and the cupboards he had been locked in when the lesson bell rang. She saw herself impatient and too easily steered into hasty judgments, too quick to condemn and too inclined to believe the worst of the unfortunate boy. Blushing with shame she knew the answer before Marley had proposed it and it was  a mark of how far she’d come since September that she found herself volunteering time with Marley and Roberts outside of school hours to make up what her negligence had lost for the boy.

So instead of a trudging retreat to the finish line, the approach of this Christmas for Eleanora held new promise. Roberts’ improvement was slow and hard won but she had time before the summer and, more, she had the confidence that Marley’s revealing of her own past had given her. She knew, deep in the heart of her that what she had done in the past she could do again. She could find the space in her heart and the love and committment to be an inspiration to this boy. To all the boys and girls in her care, to all the boys and girls in the school. Walking fondly with Marley through the evening chill away from her first school Christmas carol concert for many years, where Marley had played the guitar to Roberts’ enthusiastically noisy drumming, she found herself smiling as he gushingly described it as the highlight of his year:

“You know what, Joe?” she said, taking his arm. “I think it might just be mine, as well”.

14 Responses to "Day 21: A Christmas Carol Concert"

What?! Kevin, you simply cannot end the story there.

An absolute treat, I feel all warm inside to never forget the goodness inside everyone and what I can do to help others. What a rich and enlightened story I can picture the scenes so beautifully. Wonderful!

Beautifully written and a wonderful story that inspires a range of thoughts and reactions. Thank you for giving us such a clever modern version of Dickens’ traditional Christmas tale and at the same time inspiring people to look beyond the obvious – personal growth and enhanced self-awareness, through the enlightenment of and provision of joy to others, can be one of life’s most rewarding experiences. We all need to think of the impact we have on others and they on us. You can almost hear Eleanor’s progression from “If I had my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart” to finding “the space in her heart and the love and committment to be an inspiration”. You deserve to be wished a merry Christmas…indeed, “a merrier Christmas, my good fellow, than I have given…for many a year!”

O Kevin, you are truly my father Christmas today. Thank you for this wonderful writing, it gives my day proper Christmas edge. And indeed thank you Alison for conducting such an amazing symphony of blogs this Christmas. I wish you both happy Christmas.

Lovely, thank you for such a heart-warming, well written tale!

Thanks Kevin, surely, there is an unfinished book here! I couldn’t stop until I had finished reading it. You have a fantastic style of story telling, so, please give your readers what they want. Merry Christmas! 🙂

Thanks Kevin for taking the time to write this. Most times, when I see a post of this length, I confess to doing a bit of skim reading.

Not this time.

Lovely story, beautiful writing. Very engaging; my coffee has gone cold.

I sense a novel is in there somewhere.

Colin

Stunning Kevin. Stunning. No words can match your words. But stunning may just about do it.

Natasha x

I adore the story and even more so the intricate and precisely chosen words with which to weave the tale. A beautiful and marvelous tale of loss of self, friendship, and the ineffable quality of the human connections. Thank you, dear Kevin, for sharing this artful and marvelous piece with us.

You have made this accidental storyteller very happy and splendidly teary-eyed.

Many thanks,
Richard

Does it speak badly of me, that I was looking for a twist in the tale?

Outstanding prose nonetheless.

I absolutely love this post. I have just read the whole thing aloud to my husband!

It has been a total pleasure and privilege to publish it…so glad that it has touched so many other people too.

Thank you, Alison, for your hospitality and everyone else for your kind words.

[…] Day 21: A Christmas Carol Concert […]

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