For my last 3 years in London, I taught 3 days a week at a so-called 'comprehensive school' Sarah Siddons in Margaret Drabble's 'Ever-weeping Paddington'. Lacking its grammar school component it was more in the nature of a secondary modern, with a 17% West Indian roll, and the rest of mostly poor Irish background.
Now it happened that, over a period of months, someone took to letting the fire alarm off on a regular basis, noticeably, on fine afternoons. The school was 6 storeys high and it took considerable time to marshall all of the girls down on to the tennis courts, organise them into their correct classes and marshall them back upstairs – if it had been a genuine fire and panic, those on the top storeys would have crushed many of those below them – but in this case we sauntered down. Northern Ireland was much in the news at this time. A phonecall to the police warning a bomb in the school, led to the police themselves letting off the fire alarm. The head mistress was going distracted and decided she needed to lecture the school but the assembly hall was big enough to hold only half of the school at one time. In true middle-class fashion she appealed to their better natures, telling them the story of the boy who cried “wolf”. As she was releasing the first half of the school, someone let off the fire alarm.
It reached the point where we had to write down the names of any pupils outside of the classroom without permission. One afternoon I had a class of the equivalent of Year 9's and 2 of the noisiest, most confident white girls were bothered their names had been taken, probably because they sneaked into the loo for a quick fag. I reassured them they would be innocent until proven guilty.
Whereupon, one of the West Indian girls at the front of the class leapt to her feet and started banging at her left arm vigourously.
“It's all very well for them,” she shouted, “ I would like to paint you all black. If you take the skin off, it's the same underneath, the same bones, the same muscles.”
We sat in silence and luckily no body sniggered, and the class went on.
She waited at the end of the class and said to me falteringly,
“I made a fool of myself."
"No, you didn't", I said.