Double-Edge

The Christmas holidays have come and gone. I’m back in Durham once again for what is beginning to feel increasingly like the last tilt of sand in the hourglass. Last term went by like a bullet as I found myself thrown headlong into a heavy workload once again, but yours truly must have learned his lesson over the last year or two, because I can’t think of a day when I let it get me down. The troubles and traumas of the first two years of academia and extra-curricular pressures wanted and unwanted were very much absent from last term; if they were there, they were buried deep beneath a veneer of simple satisfaction. Satisfaction with my course, satisfaction with my extra-curricular commitments, satisfaction with the direction my life is taking me.

That’s not to say I’ve got it all figured out. I don’t. I’m still waiting on a crucial reference to secure my post next year – without it I could end up in hot water. I’m surrounded by people who are powering ahead with their dissertations at a remarkable rate, whilst I content myself with reading leisurely around the subject before I even think about the process of putting pen to paper. The Lights are also taking me forward at considerable speed, and it is this last which is eating into my timetable more than anything else at the moment. After three entire days of pitch-punching and choreo workshops, it’s easy to forget that university is a place for the pursuit of knowledge.

That’s something I’ve been thinking about recently: what does a university mean?

Over the last few years I’ve met a lot of people from different walks of life who have very different attitudes to university. There are many for whom it is simply the next stage in their studies, a means to an end, an expensive-but-necessary qualification to hack into the job market. I find it a little heartbreaking that this is what university has become for so many, the semi-obligatory next step in the road and one that we are all too often pushed into without even thinking. University should be open to everybody, of course, but does that necessarily mean that everybody needs to go to university? I’m not so sure.

Then there are those who accept that first notion and proceed to enjoy their time at university with their eventual degree very much subsidiary to their overall experience. They’re the ones who couldn’t care less if they land a 2:2 at the end of three years of lectures and under-prepared seminars, just as long as they had an amazing time and met some life-changing people along the way. Granted, it’s a point of view that suits the wingers and the daddy’s-boys more than most, but it’s not too uncommon. And at the end of the day, you can’t criticise the stance too harshly: it’s a very good example of making the best of a bad situation.

What else can a university degree offer? Networking, for one. It’s a fantastic way to meet new people and, by default, make important contacts in the outside world. It’s a good way to hone the skills you learned at secondary school to perfection, or to stay immersed in a subject you enjoyed. Some just don’t like to leave the school environment behind: the routine, the structure and the linear timetabling make for a familiar existence (and I include myself shamelessly in that bracket).

There is, of course, another important reason people decide to go to university: in pursuit of raw knowledge. That, for me, is the very essence of university. It’s what it’s all about: seeking new truths, dispelling old beliefs and walking into new worlds. What saddens me most is that this is so rarely the primary motivation. I wonder whether it’s more than a little big-headed of me to say such a thing, but I guess I expected to find more people with this kind of attitude when I rocked up a fresh-faced, idealistic fresher a few years back. I wasn’t exactly popular, and with an attitude like that, it’s really not hard to see why. Since then I’ve mellowed a bit, but I still feel a little happier than I should when I encounter somebody else who has nothing but unbridled passion for their degree. Perhaps that’s just the nature of an undergraduate degree; the Masters students all seem to be wholly absorbed in their studies. I guess I’ll just have to return to this world a few years down the line.

Perhaps it’s because I want to be a writer that the simple pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is so important to me. How can you profess to write for people if you don’t read? It’s little banal thoughts like that that kicked me back into reading fiction two years back. The effect that reading fiction has had on my overall enjoyment of academic research is surprising, to say the least. I wonder whether the two were supposed to go hand-in-hand from the very beginning.

More and more these days my degree leads me and my stories into worlds and places I could never have found on my own, and likewise the years of research I have carried out for my books gives me insight into my degree that features nowhere in my course. I have been torn from Spain, from the land that bled life into my tales like veins to a beating heart, but with a little hard work, I have found a survival mechanism in the university effect. Whatever one’s motivation for going to university may be, the result is a hot-pad of intellectuals of all walks of life. It is a place for bringing together great minds for the bettering of the nation, in pursuit of new truths and new ideas. Just the vibe alone of such an environment is reason enough to throw oneself into academia. That, I think, is the real purpose of university.

If only the UK could follow the Scandinavian example and make a university degree a realistic option for all, with no respect for money or background. The way things are going, such an aspiration is little more than a pipe-dream at the moment, but if we might try to take a step in the right direction, I’d implore the powers that be to rethink the idea that everybody in this country should be going for a university degree by necessity. University should be encouraged, of course, but no more than an apprenticeship, an equally admirable path by all respects. Higher education should be for everybody, but’s it’s not. An option, not a necessity.

I may be little more than another one of those liberal, meritocratic millennials, but I’m not alone. I think there’s something very wrong with the way we’re monopolising higher education, when it should be nothing more than that: an education.

To make good on my words and dispel a few old beliefs. A university degree is not meant to be the three best years of your life. It’s not meant to be a government-sponsored ride of wild parties and last-minute essays. And it’s not meant to be a long slug of soulless study either. But it can be immensely worthwhile and should not be abused.

But what do I know? Students are, after all, noisy creatures that are happy to live in hovels and live in close-knit cliques of their own. What do I know about the world? x

The Notebook Kid

My parents used to tell me it was exceptionally bad manners to carry my drawing book around with me. Something along the lines of attention-seeking, they said. In my defence, the idea behind was quite the opposite. As a kid I was simply looking for just about any means of avoiding conversation. That it usually backfired and had people asking me about my drawings was beside the point. It was a defence mechanism and a habit I never really grew out of, as proved by the fact that even today, in my job as a teaching assistant, I still give classes with a sketchbook on my person at all times.

The hardest thing for me to do in any language is to explain my novel, for no other reason than that I have difficulty summing it up in English. It’s one of those books that requires a fair amount of backtracking, it being historical fiction. Until the day I find a means of summing it up succinctly in English, attempting to do so in Spanish or even Arabic should be beyond me. But that doesn’t stop me from trying. And as carrying the sketchbook around with me practically guarantees that somebody will ask after the subject, I put myself in the firing line on an almost daily basis. It’s a real bastard of a task, but I do have a knack for constantly setting myself up for challenges that are very almost beyond me. You’ve got to keep yourself on your toes, after all. There’s no use in securing the moat when besieging the keep is the perfect practice.

In two weeks’ time it will all be over and I’ll be at home, enjoying the second half of a forty-eight hour respite between shifts before I’m needed in Tetouan. But let’s not talk about that. It hurts.

Villafranca isn’t half rolling out the party parade for my final week. I’ve got a two day trip to the countryside coming up with my 3° ESO class, which will largely consist of forty-eight hours of birdwatching, hiking and singing campfire songs. And, of course, speaking the most beautiful language on God’s earth. Then it’s two more days with the Carmelitas, and a whole bunch of farewells there – especially to my seniors, who I will miss terribly when they’re gone. It was the Day of Santa Joaquina yesterday and the school took the day off to celebrate in style. Touchingly, the lower sixth put on a celebration last night for the upper sixth; a fifteen-minute sequence of dance from the entire year group, ranging from classical dance to salsa – at which almost all of them were reasonably professional. Something you wouldn’t expect in an English school.

For some reason I don’t get much contact with the upper sixth in either school. There’s just a handful of leavers in my Cambridge FIRST class, and the others know me only because they usually stop to wave and scream at me when they’re going past one of my classes on a Thursday afternoon. Kids. Last night I went to watch the show (under orders from lower sixth to photograph the event) and the leavers seized upon the chance to grab a conversation last night. Two on-the-go portraits and several photoshoots later, I was enjoying a decent conversation with two of the girls, who I’d met – apparently – on a night out in Alemdralejo once. I should show face to these of events more often.

It’s only recently occurred to me that I no longer need that warm-up period to get into the driving seat as far as Spanish is concerned. These days it’s simply a case of jumping in and off we go. I thought I’d settle any lingering doubts by taking that CEFR Spanish Language Assessment that’s been hanging over me for some time. When I left, it graded me at B2 level, which stung a little. I had high standards.

This time it came back C2.

So, officially, I’ve done it. Fluent. I already knew I could handle myself in just about any situation in Spanish now, but it takes something like an official grading to drive the point home. It’s easy to overlook how far you’ve got until you’re out of the native country. I recall feeling like I was failing massively when I left Olvera, only to find myself half-fluent when I got home. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Must dash – the upper sixth are graduating today and I do believe I’m expected. And tonight, the final gathering of the guiris in Almendralejo. It promises to be a grand finale. BB x

Bebida 10

It’s a Wednesday afternoon. I’m back in the staff room as per, not doing anything particularly noteworthy, other than watching Armstrong and Miller and catching up on old Have I Got News for You episodes over a 60c cup of chocolate más espeso. For some reason it’s almost always bebida number ten; it’s as though the man upstairs is reminding me that it’s become too rigid a routine, and that sooner or later things have got to change.

Wednesday in particular is a very routine day. It starts late, with a lie-in and a little reading before my 10.05 class, the first of two hours of 2º ESO. The first class is large and potentially rowdy, but rarely causes a headache – and, if I’m using the whiteboard (something I’ve learned to rely on less and less), has me returning to the computer every thirty seconds to cancel an automatic shutdown that seems to have plagued the model for the last two months. The following class usually has me on my own for the first twenty or thirty minutes, which results in absolute chaos; I do declare that the thirteen/fourteen threshold is quite possibly the very worst stage of adolescence (though that’s nothing ground-breaking in itself). Worse is that at least three of the students are always desperately trying to silence the rest, proving that this particular subaltern does have a loyal following even when I’m left in charge of the ship.

I then have half an hour before my next class, over at the private school, with the tinies of lower primaria. Whilst they can be just as destructive as their Monday peers, there’s a far greater chance of them doing something like work in my weekly session with them. And they’re absolutely adorable. The first five minutes are basically me trying to wade to my desk through a sea of hugs.

Which makes the following fifty-five minutes of crowd control a little easier.

The last two classes of the day, the upper tiers of the private school Cambridge English course, are an endurance course of a different breed – that is, holding back laughter. They’re an uproarious lot. The First group are one step away from speaking like native English speakers, I swear, so an hour with them (or forty minutes, since they’re twenty minutes late without fail every week… ‘went home for lunch’ is the excuse) is more akin to a conversation at school with a group of kids four years below you. It has its fair share of jokers, as does the following class, which is usually a little more low-key… though it has its moments. Today’s golden crown goes to ‘motor-water’, because jet ski ‘didn’t sound very nice’.

And then I’m here. The Meléndez Valdés staff room. With an empty plastic cup and my novelling notebook, planning my surprise entry into a class I’ve been given back after a three-month absence. You know you love your job too much when you are offered the chance to work one hour less for the same pay and you kick up a fuss about it for three months.

I can only hope they take their lesson on time travel as well as the others have. Beginning the lesson with Hitler phones goats turns out to have been a good idea after all. BB x

Shakespeare and a Pigeon with a Death Wish

Summer has arrived in Spain. It’s been pleasantly cool up until now, but yesterday somebody upstairs decided to crank up the thermostat. Two months ago it was finally warm enough to ditch the thermals by night, and now it’s shirt season. Which, for anyone who knows me, suits me just fine.

I haven’t done a random regular update in a while. I guess that with all of the to-and-froing after Semana Santa I’ve hardly had the time: in less than a month I’ve been to El Rocio, Sevilla, Cordoba, Barcelona, Andorra, Calatayud, Monfrague and Jerez de los Caballeros, not to mention taken part in a Romanian art school exchange and worked a weekend at an English immersion event. It’s been pretty non-stop since the 23rd of March. But life goes on, and as I try to make clear on this blog, life is not one massive series of amazing year abroad adventures – unless you count the everyday as an adventure in itself, and I wouldn’t blame you if you did. It’s full of trials and tribulations of its own.

Well, what’s to say? Here I am in the staffroom at my afternoon private school, waiting for my Upper Sixth class to arrive for a catch-up class (I’m still making up for those hours I lost by being in Barcelona, one month later – take note, future me!). It’s hard work but rewarding, teaching Upper Sixth… They don’t all take part as they should, but those that do do so with a spectacularly high level of English. The others are just as good, if only they’d speak more (an eternal problem with teenagers). I look back to the honeymoon period when I’d first arrived and it was a barrage of questions from all sides… but even if they aren’t as proactive with familiarity, at least being settled pays off. And at least I know their names. It hardly needs saying, but that’s crucial to good relations.

Teaching at the public school this morning was uncharacteristically problematic. For the first time this year I forgot to set my alarm, with the result that I only woke up at the sound of my flatmate leaving, some fifteen minutes before my first class. In my haste to leave I startled a recently fledged pigeon that had been sitting on the doorstep of the block of flats which, as Fate would have it, flew straight under the wheels of a car. In that dark mood I went on to teach two Lower Sixth classes about the End of the World, painfully aware that the biggest challenge – trying to teach Shakespeare – was still around the corner. Even so, I’d prepared a nifty presentation for the job, which would do the trick.

Provided the computers were working. Which they weren’t.

For the second week in a row my premier class had to suffer an off-the-cuff lesson where all the visual prompts and gags had to be done manually. I’ve got to say it; if my mother hadn’t gotten me into drawing, I don’t know what I’d do in such situations. Drawing skills are a genuine lifesaver in teaching. No PowerPoint? Whip out the chalk. Trouble explaining a word? Draw it. Need to motivate the kids? Get scribbling. It’s a defibrillator that never runs out of juice. I owe my parents, my friends and my art teachers so very much for encouraging me on that front. I don’t know where I’d be without a pencil in my hand and an image in my head.

It’s 15.30. My Upper Sixth class should be here in a couple of minutes, but if they play their usual ‘I went home for lunch’ card, I’ve got at least another twenty minutes until they turn up. In the meantime, I’ll get prepping their mock exam. Let it never be said that a language assistant is a cushy job. You land a job as good as this, you’d better earn it. BB x

Counting Sheep and Blessings

February is over at last and the long, languid days of glorious sunshine are here.

Who am I kidding? This is Spain. We’ve had glorious sunshine on and off since September, and more on than off.

My private school whisked away the entire student body to Guadalupe today, yet another trip which I could have attended had I not a second job to balance. That gave me the afternoon off, which I sorely needed, having come down with a head-cold of some description since Monday morning. Frankly I’m surprised I got through almost the entire winter without a single incident, as I’m usually down with something or other in the first two months of the year. Not that I’d ever let it stop me from working, naturally, but it’s not all that easy to lead a conversation class when talking is just about the very last thing you want to be doing. Nevertheless, the stubborn endurance (or rather, total and deliberate ignorance of my condition) I inherited from my mother won out and I made a decent morning of it. Being ill, in a way, is just like being bored or heartbroken; the very best cure is to keep too busy to give it any thought.

On second thoughts, don’t take my word for that.

I took a detour through the park on the way home and, it being such a warm, sunny day, I sat by the water feature and tried meditating for a bit. I haven’t actually done any in months and boy, does it show. I’m out of practice, so I decided instead to simply soak up the sun, listen to a BBC Radio In Our Time podcast on the Spanish Inquisition and watch the goldfinches bathing in the water. I think I was there for an hour, or two… It could easily have been longer. For some reason when I’m ill I tend to lose track of time.

Something that occurred to me this week is how lucky I am to be where I am. I’ve been searching for a way of putting this that doesn’t come across as boastful, though I’d rather use the term proud; it refers to my ego, and it might just mark the final stepping stone in a healing process that’s taken all of seven years to complete.

I’ll explain. Since the day I moved to a junior private school at the age of eight, I’ve been surrounded by people vastly more capable than me. I was always something of a second-class citizen at that school: I didn’t have the brains to keep up with the best, and I didn’t have the money to keep up with the rest. I was swiftly filtered into the middle set, which is something of a no-man’s-land, from which it’s very hard to escape. I left that establishment after three years for other reasons, mostly financial, but also because (in one of the most pig-ignorant decisions of my life to date) my classmates were beginning to use ‘bad words’ and I’d got it into my head that a boys’ grammar school would be a more civilized environment.

I’ll be brief. It wasn’t. But as far as my surroundings were concerned, the wealth was removed but the feeling of being overshadowed trebled, not least of all because I actually failed the entrance test and got in purely on the merit of my writing. So I came in pretty much at the bottom of the pile, in a school where the average student was scoring eight or nine A*s at GCSE level. Add to that the number of kids on the ‘Gifted and Talented’ list, or on MENSA, with national-level CAT test grades; and the large proportion of students playing various sports at county level; and the musicians with Grade 8 on two or three instruments – most of these, I should add, heavily concentrated in the super-bright ones…

It was very hard to stand out at all in such a school. I guess that’s one of the reasons I’ve thrown myself at so many fields over the years: music, literature, history, dance, art, horse-riding, photography, ornithology… For want of an example, I led my school’s Funk Band, but I was a long way off from being the best singer. I simply did it because I was reasonably good at it and because I enjoyed it. The same with Art; there were some genuine Picassos in my art class. I was not one of them. So I was and always have been kind of a Jack of all trades and master of none, if we ignore a paltry average of 26% in my mock Maths exams.

Durham is not much better. Being the stomping ground of private and grammar alike, it’s just as much of a melting pot for the über-talented as either of my previous schools. That’s a great thing – really – as it brings great minds together. The result is some stellar orchestras, sports teams and research groups… at the cost of being ‘normal’ (which, I hasten to add, is not necessarily a bad thing, but then, nobody in my family has ever been or ever will be normal).

Coming to Villafranca, however, I’ve had my eyes opened for the first time in over a decade to what I can do. It’s not that I’m in a town of country bumpkins – there are some seriously bright stars amongst my students – but for the first time in my life I’m not surrounded by people who are leagues ahead of me in all fields. And for somebody who’s more than used to settling for second-best, it’s a wonderful feeling. Don’t get me wrong, I’m chomping at the bit to get back to a place where music for its own sake actually exists, but I intend to make the most of not being outshone this year. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I love travel so much. Getting away from it all.

That said, I’ve spent most of today in bed, drifting in and out of sleep. My dreams have been vivid and memorable of late, as tends to happen when I’m down with a headache. I can’t remember all the details, but I remember consoling Liam Neeson last night over the death of a family member, and then feeling slightly miffed that I didn’t get a photo with him.

If that’s the kind of thing that my brain does in its spare time, there’s probably a reason I’ve always been second best. But that’s ok. It’s a role that suits me just fine. B, after all, comes right after A. BB x

Out of Control

I’ve described being an auxiliar as a pariah state before; a grey blur between staff and student, neither one nor the other. The disadvantages include discipline control, ambivalent reactions from the students and generally feeling like you don’t belong in either group. It’s also pretty hard work, depending on how much your school wants from you. So what’s the upshot?

Well, that depends entirely on how much party you’ve got in your soul.

Ok, disregard that last statement. What I meant to say is that it’s a massive boon to the auxiliar job if you’ve got more than a few party tricks up your sleeve. Having had two teaching jobs before, I’ve been wiser this year and doled them out over the course of the year rather than all in one insufferable first lesson. And boy, do I need every one of them… because it’s not easy living in one of the world’s premier footballing countries when you really can’t see the attraction in the sport whatsoever.

Kids like an entertainer – it’s why clowns exist – and as long as you can keep your head, there’s no harm in playing up to that every now and again. Since October I’ve drawn for them, I’ve sang for them, I’ve acted for them, told stories for them and cracked several bilingual jokes, usually at my own expense (the latter gets easier, or more effective, as you get to know your surroundings). Yesterday I rolled out another firecracker in the Día del Centro, our school’s annual celebration, in what I’m told saved the show (though I beg to differ – and if you could see the filmed results, you probably would too).

Where Thursday is usually my busiest day of the week, with a full ten hour shift from eight til eight, yesterday I didn’t have a single class in the morning. The day began instead with a free breakfast of churros con chocolate, which I must say is no bad start to the day. Anna and Tasha turned up, representing their schools, who seemed to have let them off for the day, too. I assumed that the other thirty schools in attendance would have brought their assistants with them, too, but with the exception of one giant blonde American who pulled a disappearing trick shortly a cameo appearance at the end of his school’s mini-production of Grease, there was no sign of any other guiris. That, or they were all so Hispanic that they evaded our searching eyes.

Not that I had all that much time to waste searching for fellow Anglophones. I was roped between two presentations to sing at both, for which I’d prepared a cover of Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through The Grapevine; my attempt at a social comment on the furious gossip culture in the Triángulo de Loro that is La Fuente del Maestre, Almendralejo and Villafranca de los Barros, a mildly humorous spin on India’s Golden Triangle. My cheerleaders had dashed out before me, as they too were needed in both productions, so I was left with an audience of the Mayor and three student representatives from each school. It was a fairly good show, but a relatively tame audience…

…which is more than can be said for the crowd over at José Rodriguez Cruz. Melendez Valdés’ resident dance troupe took their show across the road just before I got there, and then I had to re-run my Grapevine cover to a much warmer reception. The next act, however, was nowhere to be seen. Garci, our school’s magician-turned-technology teacher, was still only halfway through his magic show across the road, and we had to cover in his delay. That meant another number from yours truly, which, it hardly needs saying, was yet another solo rendition of Circle of Life. Unlike my cohorts back home, who were all too ready to drop the number along with the rest of the old repertoire – and who are currently doing exceedingly well – I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it; and fortunately, I didn’t have to feel guilty for going over old ground, because this time it was my own students who requested it. So, despite having left the stage to pack my bags, I was launched back onto the stage with the kids chanting my name. I tell you, this job does no good for one’s ego. No good at all.

But the magician still hadn’t arrived. Then a professional choreographer, who was there for the day to lead various workshops after the presentation, stepped in to get the crowd dancing. If I mentioned before that Spaniards are none too keen on dancing – especially if it’s not Latin – then I forgot to mention that they have absolutely no problems with it if it’s fully choreographed. Think of the Macarena, for example. Give them a song where there’s a set routine and they’re off. MV’s dance troupe were the first to their feet, naturally, and after not even a minute, they relinquished the shadows of the back of the hall for the lights of the stage. Fired by the sheer enjoyment of it all, I could hardly help myself and found myself following them.

At least I had the sense to take a stand at the back, because to begin with, I had no idea what I was doing.

Dancing, however, if one of those few things I think I’m not that bad at, if only because I don’t give a damn what people think of me when there’s music playing (years of Michael Jackson and James Brown might also have helped along the way). We kept the show going for a full quarter of an hour until Garci finally arrived, which was pure laugh-a-minute, as I don’t think the dancers had any idea that I’d have gone up with them.

Oh boy, but it’s going to be tough going back to work on Monday.

But teaching, like so many arts, is on a stage. I used to go to pieces at the idea of speaking in public, but years of concerts, productions and musicals have worn down any stage-fright I might have had, and all this teaching’s done for the rest. One of these days I’ll grow up and learn to balance maturity with responsibility, but whilst I’m still young, I’ll dance and I’ll love every minute of it.

Enough of this reckless, youthful banter. I feel like it was necessary after the sobering social commentary of the previous post – if only to remind you that I’m still very much a work in progress. And long may that be so! BB x

Spoilt Rotten

Today offered up the perfect example of why you should save a weekly summing-up-style post for the end of the week. Because most of what I was talking about in yesterday’s mammoth entry happened again today, if only in miniature. But because it’s probably ranking amongst the best days I’ve had here yet, I’ll throw it in – if just to find an outlet for the photos I took today.

I should warn you; if you read yesterday’s post, today’s might smack more than a little of déjà vu.

So I went into class this morning and tried to do another round of ‘My Secondary School’ presentation. I must have jinxed the system last night, because it froze no less than six times, requiring six reboots and twenty minutes lost. Still, I managed to get most of the presentation done despite everything. Once you’ve been doing the same lesson for four or five hours a week, you hardly need to look at your notes to know what comes next. You find yourself saying the exact same turns of phrase, making the same gestures and cracking the same jokes, whether they worked or not. It’s a little strange, that. I only notice it when I look back.

My second class of the day was spent half on the workbook, and half on John Lennon’s Imagine. Considering the near-total absence of a choral tradition in this country, they did a damn good job for a class of twenty-nine twelve year-olds. They also reminded me that they haven’t forgotten that I promised to bring them some peanut butter. If mine hadn’t been confiscated at the airport, I’d have obliged them earlier, but as it is they’re getting restless… At least it’s on its way! The things I do for these children, honestly…

My third class of the day was (technically) my last class with one of my favourite groups, a lower sixth bachillerato class and one of the very best. I had a Uganda presentation planned for them, but if I expected them to sit and listen in silence, I had another thing coming. Halfway through OMI’s Cheerleader started playing and the ringleader of the group revealed three bags full of crisps, cups and Coke. After apologising for not paying much attention during my presentation, he explained to me that when they heard me announce that today was my last lesson with them, they arranged on the spot to throw a party. That explains why there was a general hum during the presentation (these kids are usually silent) and why Candi left ‘to take an important phone call’. A lot of hugs, a lot of puñados and a lot of love.

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Yeah, I really need an autofocusing lens. Nobody really understands manual focus

I never even got to finish my presentation; we’d only got as far as Kyambura. But I don’t care. I’m touched. And if I can find a way to claw back an hour with them, even if it’s out of my own free time, I will.

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On to today’s main event. Today is Día de la Paz. It’s something I haven’t celebrated since I was last in a Spanish school myself, which was way back in 2007. I’m not entirely sure why, but English schools (or at least, the ones I went to) don’t deem it celebration-worthy. Must be something to do with the general negative attitude towards anything that might detract from that sacrosanct curriculum of ours.

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Now 2007 was a long time ago – almost a decade – and I can’t really remember what it was we did in C.E.I.P. Miguel de Cervantes to celebrate Día de la Paz. Something similar to today’s events – minus the John Lennon, of course. Melendez Valdés’ plan was heavy on the balloons, anyway. Handy, since I’ve been trying to explain the concept of a balloon race all week.

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We all gathered in a square the patio in the final hour of school, and two representatives from each class came up to the front to read a quote about peace, which was written on a small dove-shaped card and attached to one of many white balloons brought forward by the students.

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I’d brought my camera on the off-chance that Día de la Paz would be a good chance to finally grab some photos of the instituto; for my drawing, if not for the sake of it. Madrid with Ali should have been a reminder, but I’d plain forgotten just how willing kids are to have their photographs taken. That’s reassuring – because they make the very best of subjects. Always.

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When everybody had said their piece (no pun intended), I was called out of the square to lead the recorder orchestra (oh, now that takes me back) and the rest of the lower school in singing Imagine. I guess I should have seen it coming, but that basically resulted in the recorders playing a completely different version of the song to the one everybody else had learned – and, consequently, me singing on my own. Well, I can’t say I didn’t see that coming. Because I did. And in the background, the teachers began to release the balloons and their messages of peace, one by one.

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It’s not been particularly windy for a while, so wonder just how far those balloons will go…

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Here’s to hoping that wherever they end up, the messages of peace they’re carrying with them put a smile on somebody’s face – in irony or in truth, it really doesn’t matter. Just as long as they’re smiling. (Exit Sop, stage left) BB x