A Fist Full Of Pencils

Now then. Long long ago when Professor Green was still  in the infants, a friend of mine teaches in a secondary comprehensive school in West London. He is an alright kind of teacher: not brillliant, but not hopeless either. In fact, he keeps his classes in pretty good order, which is the type of thing Headteachers and senior teachers generally approve of, because it means less work for them. Moreover, he gets on pretty good with the kids and their parents too, and is thought of as a safe pair of hands when it comes to the teaching dodge, which is just as well as he is at it for well over a decade by now. Besides, he teaches Art so nobody gives a cuss anyway as long as no-one is throwing paint around or walking about the school looking like Coco the clown.

For six years my friend is a Sixth Form tutor. This means the kids it is his responsibilty to register and look after in what is known as ‘Pastoral Care’ are of the older variety and studying for important exams such as A level, AS level, GNVQ, NVQ and FA. On the whole these kids are much more mature than the younger ones and it is usually thought of as an easier ride than having to cope with hundreds of ankle-snappers. Although what with sorting out love-affairs, hungover students, what radio station to have on in the mornings and the ‘ghost writing’ of endless UCAS applications for university and colleges the kids have no intention of going to, I’m not so sure.

Well it seems that someone is looking a bit too closely at the allocation of teachers to form classes and they spot that our hero is generally having a fine time; whereas they could put any old dipstick in to look after a six form group it is so easy; and use him far more profitably ‘up the sharp end’ let’s say, as a form tutor to a band new crop of eager-faced, enthusiastic Year 7 students. (My friend says there is nothing to make his blood run cold such as eager-faced, enthusiastic year 7 students.)

In considering this state of affairs, it is evident that his relationship with these eager-faced, enthusiastic year 7 students could last as long as 5 years: until they reach year 11 and their GCSE examinations. He ponders a while about the year 11s he teaches and the year 11 forms he knows and how he will be blowed if he has such a shower of shi – apologies I was about to use an educational term there which not everone would have been familiar with; he will be blowed if he has such a group of disaffected and disobedient pupils in his form in 5 years time.

So he figures on training up his new class of eager-faced, enthusiastic crumb-chasers so that they know things like what is right, what is wrong, where to hang  their coats and bags, to always carry their homework diary (signed) and probably most of all: to stick together in the face of adversity. And how does he manage the latter in prticular? Well on their first day in their big school, they get to go around and have fun taster lessons in subjects like science and technology. You know the ones which use all the cool equipment and apparatus that you never ever see again all the time you are at school. After that they have something called ‘lunch’ then go to their form rooms with their new teachers for ‘a de-brief.’

It is at this point the pencils come out. Right. Who’s feeling strong? (says my friend). Some hands go up (This is a good start. No 30 voices all yelling out together) OK. One is chosen and thrown a pencil. See if you can break it. Well, snap naturally, snap it is no big deal, snap. Anyone else? Hands go up. Snap, snap, snap and so on. After about 4 tries my friend chooses the biggest, strongest in the class and chucks them thirty pencils, tied together with 2 elastic bands. Now, have a go with that. Well, this guy ends up going purple in the face trying: he can’t do it. Eager hands go up again, and the next one has a try and so on and so on until they get to bashing them on the table and just as someone has the bright idea to drop them out of the window, my friend takes the pencils back.

You know what these are? He asks them. He sees 30 eager-faced, enthusiastic children staring back at him (in fact, he tells me to this day he still sees those same 11 year old faces and admits that if he was an old softy it would choke him up more than somewhat, but that thankfully he isn’t)

You know what these are? He asks again. These are like our class. We all stick together and look out for each other, for if we don’t, look what happens; at which he takes a couple of pencils from the bundle, and breaks them snap, snap like so. If we don’t stick together, people will be able to break us easily or wear us down. In this class we take care of each other.

Well, it seems to work pretty good, for although to begin with my friend plays the ‘Old Mr. Grumpy’ once he feels his class has got it together he begins to kick back a bit, and what do you know, by year 11, they are not a shower of shi – apologies, I have slipped back into complex educational jargon again. They are not a class of disaffected youth with a resentful, isolated teacher but best of friends who spend their morning registration time enjoying each other’s company (as well as sorting out love-affairs, hungover students and what radio station to have on)

In fact my friend tells me he keeps in contact with nearly all of that old class by something called Facebook, which seems to be a bit like the old town crier (You know with the bell and ‘Oye! Oye!’) but works with electricity and is much quicker and quieter. They are all grown up now, some are married, many have crumb-chasers of their own but they always remember the fist full of pencils.

Affectionally dedicated to AD and thanks to Chawkey for the idea.

© Andy Daly 2012

Egg Allergy or Intolerance? It could be a matter of Life or Death

Until he was 5, our youngest son had a serious allergy to Egg. Thankfully, by the time he took the ‘Egg Challenge’ he had outgrown it. This is where in hospital, the patient is given ever-increasing amounts of the allergen under careful observation to see if at what point, and how badly they react – if they do. The most dangerous situation is when after contact with substance concerned, the body’s auto immune system starts to go badly wrong, resulting in massive and if left untreated, fatal reaction known a ‘Anaphylaxis’ or ‘Anaphylactic Shock’

As far as allergens are concerned One of the most deadly culprits is, as I am sure you know, peanuts. (Personally, I never found Shultz’s cartoon capers involving Charlie Brown and gang all that offensive; but I digress and this is no laughing matter.)

Our son’s first attack, just prior to his first birthday was sufficiently bad to warrant a ‘white knuckle ride’ to the nearest hospital and after he had been treated, prompt one of the A & E medics to  take us to one side and say “We managed today – but next time it’ll be much worse. You need to carry adrenaline, in the form of an Epipen. The Epipen, a simple auto-injector,  if administered in time, gives the patient a measured emergency dose in the form of epinephrine, which buys between 15 and 20 minutes.

Well finally we get one from the GP, despite what seemed, if not reluctance, then the impression we were being over-cautious. That summer, we are on holiday in Spain when it dawns on us. We are staying about twenty minutes drive – if you’re lucky and there’s no traffic or surly Guardia Civil in sight – from the city of Valencia. Clearly, it meant that the 15 minutes of time the Epipen buys you would be insufficient, were we to have a crisis or a suspected reaction, God forbid, anywhere outside the immediate city centre. It wouldn’t be enough to cover the driving time to ‘La Fe’ the city’s main hospital, never mind the time it would take to get to a car from where contact happened to have taken place.

So when we get back to Blighty, we go to the quacks and explain we want another one:

“You want another one?..Why?”

“Why…. Why? So we can fucking go and sell it down Wembley Market you muppet! Why do you think?”

This was 1995/6 or thereabouts. It’s hard to believe that people – including some health care professionals I have to say, were so ignorant of the dangers of severe alleregic reactions.  People confused allergy, in which, the body’s immune system is activated and in its worst cases, is life threatening; with intolerance, where the body reacts to substances it can’t process: usually because of deficiency or lack of certain enzymes. Which is unpleasant, no doubt, but rarely puts sufferers at risk.

We made a point of joining organisations and groups, to find out as much as we could about it. I was fascinated by a presentation given at Northwick Park Hospital (It must have been good if it managed to hold my attention for more than an hour in one of the most dismal places in Christendom) by Gideon Lack , Professor of Paediatric Allergy, King’s College London. He told how he belived that people are sensitised to allergens via broken or damaged skin. This insight came about through his treatment of a young girl with chronic ezcema which seemed to resist all attempts to ease it, as well as a severe allergy to latex: which defied explanation. He asked the parents to let him admit the girl and agree to being observed while they appplied her creams and emollients. Father was a dentist. When time came for his turn to cream the girl the first thing he did was put on a pair of (latex) protective gloves. Obviously, anxious to reduce the risk of causing infection to his daughter’s damaged skin, he was unwittingly, making it much worse.

And why the sudden rise of the evil peanut to status of ‘Public Enemy No: 1’? It was never like that before? I believe that in the last 20 years or so the number of sufferers from allergy to peanuts has doubled to (currently for children) one in every seventy. And how? Infantile eczema is very often the precursor. What do you do when you have dry, itchy, cracked skin? You put creams on it. What are the creams derived from? I’ll leave you to work the rest out for yourselves*

I think things are better now. Generally, people are more aware. My wife was tireless in her fight to educate people; far more alert to dangers than I was. Constantly vigilant. But you had to be. For instance, did you know that the MMR vaccine was grown in on an egg culture? Okay, maybe a remote possibilty of causing a reaction. But you don’t take that risk with somebody’s life! The number of times we got a: Well, a ‘bit’ won’t do him any harm will it?’  response in cafes, restaurants, pubs and so on.

‘Errr … Yes it will. That’s precisely the point. That little ‘bit’ could be the ‘bit’ that fucking kills him, you moron’

So here we go. Here’s an example: yes, I know this is the bit you’ve been waiting for – The Rant

(In a cafe, with the kids and a couple of their friends. They are all over the table. Everyone’s starving. Bloody nightmare. Oh no! Along comes the catering industry’s equivalent to Dappy from N-Dubz. It’s the dopey work-experience waiter)

“Can I help You?”

Hmmmmm. I think the jury are still out on that. Anyway, we bung in the order leaving no.2 son till the end.

” Now, he would like the sausages, but he has a serious allergy to egg. Do they contain any egg? ”

“Nah.They don’t have egg in ’em, you get that when you order a full English breakfast, innit”

Oh dear. It was going to a long lunchtime.

“No. What I mean is have they got egg as part of their ingredients?”

“Oh I see. I don’t thinnnnnnk so….”

He screws up his eyes and draws the menu closer to his face; as if the answer to my question is printed somewhere on it in teeny tiny writing.

“Nah. They’ll be OK”

Biting my lip and feel a twitching along the knife edge of my right hand and foot that suggests sudden and violent contact with the neck and solar plexus of the spotty retard before me.

“Yeah, you see the problem is I’m not talking about a food intolerance, I am talking about a serious food allergy, we need to categorically know (which is quite different to guess) whether or not egg has been used in the process of making the sausages – otherwise he can’t have them”

“I’ll go and ask chef”

“What a good idea…”

As he trundles off, I notice he is wearing a “How Can I Be Of Help Today?” badge. (You can be of help to me by taking a walk out that fucking door and under the nearest bus, I find myself thinking)

(5 mins later)

“He can’t find the box they were in. Y’know it’s like a big catering pack they come in. The chef dunno anything they’ve got in them … well except meat of course …. I think …. Anyway, he is pretty sure they haven’t.

(Losing patience…But still managing to come across as jovial, friendly and even-tempered: teacher training you see)

“Alright. What about the Steak and Kidney pie then?”

OKAY! One Steak and Kidney Pie comin’ up”

“No, I mean before we order we need to know if it has any egg in it?

“I shouldn’t think so…I mean what would you put an egg in a Steak and Kidney pie for?”

“I Fu……….C’mon kids let’s go to Starbucks…”

… Later that evening, I follow Spotty Retard to the “Warner Village” cinema complex where he goes to watch ‘American Pie meets Haloween’. I sit behind him and slit his throat as he noisily and greedily shovel handfuls of a 24 litre bucket of popcorn into his mouth.

See? Understanding the difference between allergy and Food intolerance really could be a matter of life and death.


* I refer here, of course to shop-bought creams and emollients, not approved pharmaceutical products


The Anaphylaxis Campaign

Allergy UK

The National Eczema Society


The Learning Early About Peanut Allergy Project

Children’s allergy specialists at Evelina Children’s Hospital, part of Guys and St. Thomas NHS Foundation Trust are conducting the LEAP Study to determine how to best prevent peanut allergy in children.

© Andy Daly  2010




I remember on the eve of our son’s 4th birthday, he was lying in bed, I had been reading to him and his brother, who was already asleep. He looked up at me and said “Dad, you know I’ve got a forehead?” “Yes, James?”- not seeing it coming – “When I’m 5, will I have a fivehead?

© Andy Daly  2010