Friday, 7 October 2005

A Holy Day, by Ben Sheth

A Holy Day

The grass was browning around the edges, and the buildings of the oldest quadrangle in the school seemed to be groaning in the heat. The dull glaze of the stone seemed to be suffering in the intensity of their re-baking. Their shimmer seemed to be a silent scream, the occasional cracking of bone-dry twigs the wretched climax of a torture session perpetrated by the climate on the ancient institution.

In a shaded but still stiflingly baked office, Francis Hyde sat at a modern, faceless chipboard desk with what appeared to be a duvet of paperwork over him. Despite the heat, this duvet seemed welcome, and Francis was fiddling about with the papers before him with the apparent abandon of a child released to its sand pit. Before him were drafts of a few documents he had been preparing. As deputy head in charge of development, a suitably vague title which enabled him to interfere in any area of school life which he felt needed ‘developing’, he had had a few ideas which he thought would help the school modernise; run in a more up to date, corporate way.

The pupils had left the school some ten days ago, and most of the teachers had followed quickly on their heels, fitting in as much genuine, uninterrupted holiday as they could before the publication of exam results and the flurry of next term’s meetings announced the arrival of autumn far more grimly than any change in the weather could. The atmosphere of the school, therefore, was one of a city once busy, now abandoned. Perhaps Rome before the Visigoths arrived had the same unhealthy feverishness to it?

First on Francis’ list, if he could find the paper in the crazy tessellated jumble on the desk, was the updated risk assessment for staff taking pupils out of school on trips. No more would be the carefree, spontaneous minibus excursion by the History department to see the Saxon village nearby; forbidden would be those Geography trips to the chalk hills, the Biology trips to the nature reserve, or English trips to the theatre. So messy; so many unidentified risks, leaving the school liable for untold damages and adverse publicity. No, in future it would be necessary to secure a term’s advance permission (from him, of course), including details of exactly who was going where, what they were doing, how they were getting there, and exactly when they would leave and return.

But this was trivial compared to the next project, keystone in his modernisation project, which was a super, overarching scheme of work, to be computerised, so he could, at the click of his mouse or press of his key, see what every teacher in the school was teaching. Every teacher had been required to submit details of every course they were teaching, to every class, and provide a lesson by lesson breakdown of exactly when it would be taught. It was so important, thought Francis, that he could supervise this, to ensure all modern methods were used whenever possible, and flag up possible difficulties when inspectors next visited. Francis didn’t of course, have many lessons to teach himself – he was too busy checking on everyone else – but was nonetheless the school’s acknowledged expert on planning everything from genetics to Gawain and the Green Knight.

Last, his best plan yet; the plan which engendered such massive pride. The innovations list. The hopeless, backward teachers who spent all of their time on such backward, IT-free tasks like marking, or, much worse, reading books (when so many texts were available for the whole class to use on the internet!), would now be held to account. How many new methods or procedures had they invented in the past term? None, in most cases, unlike Francis’ prolific record. This inadequacy would now be ruthlessly exposed by the list, which would be updated daily on the school’s intranet page. And the first innovation on it? The innovations list, of course!

At last it was done, and a glut of satisfaction settled over Francis. He didn’t know what day it was (it didn’t terribly matter) and hadn’t noticed that in the meantime it had become dark outside. The peculiar, mystifying changes of nature held no interest for him. Tidying the completed documents into a few neater piles (order from chaos, like the best creators) left a few bald holes of wood veneer peeping through the ruffled snowy top of the desk, but that, for once, was not what Francis was concentrating on. A balmy, comforting glow of self-satisfaction was spreading from within. The stale, hazy evening heat in the room seemed to acquire a nourishing warmth. He surveyed the piles of completed documents, looking like so any ancient burial mounds, with increasing satisfaction. He noticed that above, on the shelves above his head, the red box files made a cross shape among the black ones. For once, he allowed himself a few moments’ repose. He created it, and he knew that it was good.

He was still there, dozing in his office chair the next morning, when the caretaker came round with the morning’s post. He was woken by the slight scuffle sound of a small, brightly coloured card rubbing against the carpet as it was shoved under the door. It was from the headmaster, on holiday in Turkey. “Hope you’re enjoying the break too,” it said, among other generalised expressions of goodwill. Francis looked up disdainfully at the little token. He realised it was of no significance and went back to sleep.

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