‘Miss Whitney’ and ‘Miss, are you a terrorist?’: Negotiating a place within physical education
The bell for next lesson rings loudly, followed by hundreds of pairs of feet hurtling down the corridor. The noise is deafening. ‘Walk slowly! Don’t push, you’ll not get there any quicker!,’ I shout, but there’s no order; I’ve lost the battle. ‘All right, Whitney?’ shouts Tim, the head of department, rudely pushing two boys out of his way to reach my side. ‘Can you manage this lot do you think, being such a youngster? Dance? Well, you’ve got the advantage anyway, natural rhythm, and all that, eh, and especially with your body!’ His eyes sweep slowly down the top of my shirt, then he glances quickly up at me and grins. ‘You’ll love it, won’t you Darren?’, elbowing one of the bigger, stockier boys nearby. I recognize him as the captain from last night’s winning cricket team. His shirt tail hangs out over one side of his trousers, mud colouring both knees, testimony to the morning break kick-about. A large, loose knot on his tie, oﬀering up a deﬁant challenge to the school’s dress regulations. The team’s win had been announced in assembly. Darren had collected the cup from the Head to loud cheering and clapping. Cricket’s the game here, apparently, and it was the ﬁrst time we’d won the league. A proud moment for the whole school … . ‘Do we have to, Sir?’ Darren complains loudly. ‘Dance is for puﬀs! Why can’t I do athletics with you, Sir?’ Tim smacks him playfully on the head, laughing as he responds. ‘You’ll be OK. Miss Whitney knows how to dance, don’t you Miss Whitney? She’ll give you boys a good time I’m sure!’ A hot ﬂush sweeps slowly up my face and I turn away struggling to hide
my embarrassment, anger, try to regain composure, as Tim – all six foot of him – strides purposefully towards the equipment cupboard, swinging his whistle, clipboard under one arm, oblivious to my discomfort. What’s worse, the nickname, the throw-away line undermining me in front of the kids in one quick move, or that it’s always dance he seems to have a problem with? I’m not sure. Well all of them, actually! I feel a hard knot of frustration gathering in my chest, like a bad bout of indigestion, only worse. I know I won’t do anything, say anything, to challenge him. I can’t. First teaching practice and challenging the head of department – get real! But all this stuﬀ from uni
about ‘learning from experienced teachers’ – bloody hell! I’m really learning such a lot from him! Jonathan seems to be getting on OKwith him, though. Seems like they’re best mates, especially since Friday night’s drinking session celebrating the cricket. I thought it would be good, having two of us going to the same school – we could support each other – but I never see him. He’s always oﬀ to football practice or rugby practice or something, with Tim, all matey matey. Coaxing the stragglers into the gym, I tell myself, again, just a few more
weeks and then you’ll be back in university, stick it out, laugh it oﬀ – just survive. Helen had to explain the Whitney stuﬀ to me. I didn’t get it at ﬁrst. ‘You know,’ she said, laughing. ‘Whitney Houston, the black singer? Her song, I Wanna Dance with Someone?’ Right. OK, great. So what if I am a bit diﬀerent from the average PE teacher, being mixed ‘race’ – I’m certainly the only one on my course anyway! And in this school, well, I do stand out. But get over it, I want to tell him, there’s a multicultural world out there, you know. You ought to open your eyes a bit more! But of course I don’t. I daren’t. He’s writing my report. He’s the expert! Joanne’s good, she tried to intervene once, but he laughed it oﬀ, saying she needed to chill out, that she was being an ‘old woman’ and couldn’t she see it was only a joke. There’s obviously no love lost between those two. I’m so glad Joanne’s my mentor and not Tim! She’s really helpful, doesn’t have a problem. Treats me the same. And the kids are OK. They were always asking at ﬁrst, ‘Oh Miss, you’ve got a good suntan, where’s that from? How do you do your hair like that?’ But that’s diﬀerent. Kids are just like that, it’s the way they are. That one kid saying, yesterday, that it was great to have a PE teacher like her was fantastic. That’s what really counts! Just keep my head down and try and ﬁt in. That’s what Mum says I should
do. Of course it’s diﬀerent for me, I can ﬁt in more that she can. She doesn’t say much but you can tell it was bad for her when she was training – there weren’t many black people around there then at all. And especially when she met Dad and moved to Barnstock, which is totally white. In a way, college has been no diﬀerent for me – my school was all white, my friends were all white, so university wasn’t anything new really. I didn’t expect there to be hundreds of us, so it was OK. But then sometimes it all comes back, hits you slap bang in the face. When we talk about ‘race’ at uni, it’s like they totally forget I’m black or that I’m even in the room! They say oh people aren’t racists nowadays, and then the stuﬀ they come out with, I can’t believe it! Asians don’t want to do this because of their religion or culture or stuﬀ. And when James said that his PE teacher had told him he wouldn’t get a place at this uni because they would pick people from diﬀerent ‘races’ over him because of ﬁlling their quotas – that hurt. Hurt a lot. I just sat there, sat on my hands, waiting for the lecture to end; I couldn’t say anything. Why should I say anything, anyway? Tony did try to challenge him, but I didn’t hear his comments – there was too much blood pounding in my ears. I was just thinking, let me get out of here! It wouldn’t have made a diﬀerence whatever Tony had said – James had said it, hadn’t he?