Wednesday, 14 May 2014

A guest at my table - Rob

It would have been impossible to be anything but completely charmed by Rob when I first met him. He looked like the original template for Indiana Jones with his sun-bleached sandy hair and toning suntan and a captivating white teeth smile. Dressed like Indiana, but without the hat, he came to school dressed as a Geography teacher with a wardrope of khaki and open-toe sandals for his 'other life'. The similarities between Rob and the character which George Lucas created had never really struck me before, but now, as I wait for Rob to arrive for dinner, it seems almost impossible that I missed it.

Rob and I first met when I went to work at a very unusual school in the heart of the Peak District where he was already teaching. The school was based in a wonderful old late Victorian Manor House set in several acres of its own grounds. The building had been bequested to the Education Services to be used solely for educational purposes and not to be sold. Unfortunately due to educational cutbacks it no longer exists, but in 2003/04 it was a wonderful facility with a very enlightened ethos behind it. We took disruptive and emotionally disturbed pupils from schools in inner Manchester who were on the borderline for being excluded from mainstream education, and tried to get them onto a better track.

Every morning the taxis from all over would arrive and the children would all pile out. They spent part of the week in their usual inner city schools and the other part with us. These hardened city kids would come armed with their expensive designer trainers, their attitude and anger, and try and make sense of a life that bore little relation to their own. All had a story to tell, if they let you in, and, between posturing and pent-up frustration they sometimes found a space to be someone different.

Rob's classes took Geography in a fairly loose sense. Much of our time seemed to focus on making Airfix model aircraft. It was good to see how absorbed in minute detail most of the kids could be at rare times and the class was often completely silent and intense except when they needed a little help with glue or paints.

There were lessons for the children in the mornings, all of whom were aged between about nine and fourteen, a really fantastic school lunch ( not like anything I've ever tasted in school before) with a wonderful cook serving the twenty or so kids and almost as many teachers, social workers and helpers. And then, best of all, in the afternoon we got to take them out for walks, visits and climbing in the Peak District.

At first they didn't know what to make of all this empty space and hills. They were bored with 'nothing to do' but walk, angry that they were forced to be here, uncooperative and often disruptive. But gradually they got used to this kind of empty freedom. They still moaned about going up the hills, complained when their perfect white trainers got sheep muck on them, and taunted each other; but they looked happier. Sometimes they would stop and look at things or notice a view. If it was pointed out to them they weren't interested. If they were made to play an organised game they resisted; but take them to the top of a hill and do nothing and these street-wise young lads (mainly) would lie down in their designer tracksuits and roll down the hill through puddles and sheep dung getting grass stains and mud on their backs, and start to laugh and smile. The anger would turn into celebration and they would be quieter and more subdued on the way back. A little more relaxed.

Most of these walks were led by Rob, now in his element in full Indiana mode. He would take them climbing on nearby rocks and he knew the terrain like the back of his hand. This made perfect sense when you knew that the other half of his life was spent over in Turkey leading guided walks in the hills and writing travel books. Here was a man who loved the life he lead, who eked the most out of every moment and experience. He brought you back to focus on the present, constantly, and it was absorbing and addictive. Somehow time seemed longer in his presence, as if you had managed to fit two days into one.

He had a calmness about him which never seemed to waver. I never saw him angry or frustrated when one of the children took a backward step or sought to ruin the activity. He always seemed completely in control of the situation, whatever the challenge he was ready. It's almost unnerving to be faced with someone who doesn't react the way most of us do. But it calmed the boys and they trusted him more than they did almost anyone else at the school. They knew exactly where they stood with him and that he wouldn't let them down, whatever, and it had a good effect on them overall.

The Tuna and Cucumber salad I have made seems just right for Rob. He is used to simple honest food. These days he is mainly in Turkey and here is the place he visits. Back then it was the other way round, but you could just see where his heart was leading him. When he talked about Turkey his whole face would light up and become animated, as if someone had just switched on the light inside.

He strides down the path and pats the dog before he hugs me. Then he sits back in a chair and rocks on its back legs. He makes each place his own home. If he were Indiana Jones you could say that 'wherever he laid his hat, that's his home' (to misquote some old Marvin Gaye song).

1 comment:

  1. Another perfectly sketched little vignette...I see Rob, I can even hear him! Thanks so much, Martha x