I began my first day as an educational psychologist in the mid-1980s. Having been interviewed a couple of months earlier in the Victorian splendour of City Hall, I had no idea what my actual workplace would be like. It turned out to be near the city centre, and also Victorian, a pretty, red-brick school which had recently been converted into council offices.
Arriving there with sooty hands after stopping to retrieve a part of my car's exhaust which had fallen off, my first port of call was the loo where I could wash my hands. It was fragrant and clean – a much needed good omen under the circumstances. There was only one piece of graffiti. It started at head height and rose sharply upwards before disappearing into the ceiling: No! No! Scottie! – Don't beam me up yet ...!
I would normally abhor all graffiti. But in this instance, I decided to regard it as another good omen.
I emerged to find a tall, heavily-built man waiting for me. His suit looked as if it had been fired at him from a catapult. In fact, all of his grooming was suggestive of recent exposure to an unusually violent hurricane. This was Roland, my new boss. He was holding a cup of coffee, which he handed to me. I noticed that he had remembered from the interview how I liked my coffee. The good omens were stacking up.
Roland took me into a room to give me an induction into the job. It took about 45 minutes. On the wall-mounted blackboard, he drew a tree-diagram showing the structure of the council's education department and its officers. The director of education was at the top. 'This...,' Roland said, pointing to a dot at the bottom of the diagram..., 'is you'. By the time I became a boss myself, we were doing inductions that lasted months. Yet I often think of Roland's induction, and I still cannot imagine a better or more useful one.
But that had a lot to do with the sheer force of Roland himself. He was one of those people who lodge themselves in your mind for all of your life so that when in difficult situations you ask yourself what they would do. And he was humorous with it. One day, he got a letter from the city's director of finance saying that we were driving around too much and so costing the council a lot of money in mileage claims. We were a peripatetic service and Roland spotted the trap right away. He replied saying that he would see to it that our mileage was reduced as soon as the city engineer had shortened the distances between schools.
With the completion of the masterpiece of brevity that was Roland's induction, I was that afternoon sent out on my first task. It was at a council nursery in one of the vast post-war housing estates to the east of the city. The staff there had made a request for in-service training on child development. The purpose of my visit was to talk through with them the sort of thing they wanted and to start the planning for it.
The request had been made only the week before. Normally, it would have taken a month or so before we got round to it. But this one had been prioritised because the service had received a disproportionate number of referrals from the nursery. All of these had been to do with concerns about the children's language development. In particular, that some of them seldom spoke at all.
On stepping though the nursery door, a likely candidate for the cause of the staff's concern was immediately apparent. The nursery was located in an enormous, high-ceilinged, echoing hall. What in other circumstances would have been the normal clatter of children at play was magnified into an overwhelming racket. For these children, there was little point in speaking. So they didn't. It was one of my first and most enduring lessons in education and child development: you can flash the ankle of arcane expertise all you like but it is context that is all-important. (We later confirmed this by visiting several of the children's parents at home, all of whom were surprised to find that their children did not speak much in the nursery – some even expressing a wish that they would speak with similar reserve at home.)
As I was standing in the nursery's doorway, greatly lacking in confidence and wondering what to do, a cluster of little girls made a bee-line for me. This, I was later to discover, is a common experience for men in nurseries. Women colleagues have told me that it doesn't often happen to them, and that if it does it is not so predictable. Men were, and still are, a novelty in nurseries and young children are drawn to novelty, an effect enhanced by their liking of attention and the fact that they feel safe in nurseries.
It is usually girls who do this homing-in. You can sometimes see the boys, still nominally playing elsewhere in the room, but surreptitiously and even enviously eyeing you up. As to why it is usually girls, my only explanation is that they develop markedly faster than boys. They have the confidence, and, most importantly, the relative ease with words that might be required to follow-up their curiosity.
The girls in this group seemed to have got the idea that you put your hand up if you want to speak to an adult. However, they hadn't quite mastered how to do it. Each had an arm up, but crooked at the elbow so that their forearms lay horizontally over the tops of their heads. I crouched down to their height so that we could hear each other. 'Hello,' I said to the one at the front of the group. 'I like thunder,' she said. 'Do you know my name?' said another. That set them all off and I had to be rescued by a member of staff who came along and shoo-ed the girls away.
I am pleased to say that the phenomenon continues to this day. Only a few months ago, I was passing though a primary one playground when a girl, elbow crooked over her head, came rushing up and said, 'Are you a fairy?'. Rather taken aback, all I could manage was, 'Why, yes! But how did you know?'. While she stared in wide-eyed amazement, other girls began to gather round. 'I ate macaroni,' said one of them. 'I saw macaroni,' muscled in another. Nearby, a teacher on playground duty eyed the scene. 'You're on your own,' said her wide grin.