I needed the whip and chair today. It was that bad.
It started quietly enough. Customer Service 101 : benign and boring.
A course with the best beginning ever: no trainees when I arrived.
Which was perfect. I hadn’t had my coffee anyway. I needed that thirty minutes.
I unlocked the classroom, turned on the light and aircon and most importantly fired up the coffee maker.
While the coffee brewed, I dumped my papers on the desk. And setup.
Carefully clean the whiteboard : the alco-wipes are no use to me today.
Three columns of tables, two tables per column with two chairs to a table.
I doled out the name cards, notepads, pens, Sharpies, branded cups, and multi-coloured sticky dots.
And the course guide. No-one ever reads it anyway. They just flick through the pages when my back is turned.
Twenty-five minutes later, I poured myself my fourth coffee.
Which meant I didn’t look closely at the trainees as they came in. Usually, they arrive in ones or twos. Sometimes three or occasionally four. But today was odd : two posses of six.
Despite that I knew they were the right trainees. Crop-tops, shorts, and, skirts for the ladies. Torn t-shirt and faded jeans for the men. Call centre staff: impeccably dressed as always.
So off came my jacket and tie. Maybe one day I’ll dress down to their level and do this barefoot. Then they’ll know I’ve given up the beach for the day too.
While each group was finding a place to sit, I managed a quick peek at them. They were staring at each other : like lost speed-daters. That’s okay. No-one knows anyone on their first day.
I wrote my name on the whiteboard. Over the squeal of the Sharpie, I heard squeaks and scrapes as chairs and tables are moved.
I turned around and the room has been divided. No middle column of tables. Three tables on one side, three on the other. Six trainees each. No eye contact. Time for the never-fail icebreaker.
“For a second, I thought you’d turned all the tables to face the back wall. Like in school. Did anyone do that in school? Anybody? Anybody?…”
Silence. Okay better keep going.
“Let’s introduce ourselves: your name, area, role and course expectations.”
I pointed to my left.
“I’m David. I work in the XSuper call centre Meerkat team. Mainly involves fixing up her team’s mistakes.”
“And Danielle is the worst.”
I pointed to the other side.
“I’m Danielle. XSuper call centre Rockstar team. Our time is mainly spent fixing Meerkat problems. And David, he’s…”
I pointed to another. The rest of the introductions are much the same.
Instant enemies all. Which means we’re straight into the collaboration exercise. The role play that’s cannot speak its name. I silently shake my head and wonder why trainees who tout fake email addresses, expose themselves on social media absolutely hate role plays. Didn’t they play dress-ups as children?
Pick a letter A or B, I begin. A goes first and talks about their day. B listens and repeats it back. One minute each then swap. Your time starts now.
Simples. Except there is no eye contact. Everyone is looking down when they speak. This speed-date is tanking badly. Okay, time to mix up the groups.
I pointed out one person from each table. I asked them to move to the next table. Clattering and shuffling ensue. Everyone moves as requested. But no-one crosses the room.
On to the next part. Pick A or B, I said. A talks about their drive to work. B repeats it back. Two minutes. Your time starts now.
They talk quietly at first. Then David and Danielle started interrupting each other across the room. Then the others joined in.
“Quiet.” Nothing. I raised my voice. “QUIET.” As one they raised theirs higher.
I decided to send up an SOS : the internationally recognised signal for classroom silence. I lifted both arms, stretched them in front of me and reached for the ceiling.
The distraction is enough. Everyone looked at me like I’m an idiot. But they stopped.
Onto the next exercise. Maybe, just maybe…
Thud-thud. I turned from the whiteboard and see Danielle. She’s lying on the floor clutching her legs to her chest. The back of her head rests against her chair. Behind the chair grinning down at her is David.
“Fooled you,” he says.
It’s all I can do to stop myself using the chair and brandishing a whip, if I had that.
I walked over, helped her to her feet and asked if she is fine. She nodded.
I sent them off to a ten-minute break. I kept David and Danielle back like schoolkids. Maybe I should’ve set them lines as punishment. But these are adults!
I decided to get some extra help. I made the phone call.
Fifteen minutes later, sullenly, silently the rest filed in, heads down like prisoners. The tables squeaked and chairs scraped as they slowly resumed their places.
“Let’s begin,” I said. I looked at my watch. Any second now.
Rurr-Rurr, Rurr-Rurr, Whirr, Rurr-Rurr, Whirr. I sighed.
“The gardener,” I said. Outside our ground-level window with his leaf-blower.
“You’re all waiting for him to finish, aren’t you? Anybody? Anybody?” I said.
I opened the window. The room is filled with leaf-blower sound and aromatic diesel fumes. I leant out of the window.
“Hey,” I said. A High-Vis jacket topped by surfie blonde hair ignored me. Yep he too gave up the beach for today too. The hair hides under an orange helmet which framed safety-glasses and ear-muffs. He nods to me. It’s on.
“Just a second,” I said.
I ran across the classroom. I pulled open the door. Two left turns later, I’ve opened the outside door.
I’m answered by a mini-tornado of leaves, twigs, and grass.
I waved at him. He doesn’t respond. I stepped in front of him, waved my hands over his face and pointed to his ear muffs. He still doesn’t respond. I grabbed at his ear muffs. He bent down, thumbed the leaf-blower button and aimed it at me. Another cloud of chaff billowed around me.
“Can you switch it off?” I mouth.
He raised the leaf-blower for the third time.
“If you don’t. I will,” I yell. I make sure that my voice carried back into the classroom.
I stepped aside, reached around him and unslung the leaf-blower. I looked upwards. They’re still watching. Good.
I lifted the leaf blowerhigh and smashed it on the ground. Only he and I knew that it is a softlanding.
And it worked. When I returned, my favourite trainees were gone. The course went well after that. But I owed the gardener a beer. Sometimes I wonder whether I should have run away to the circus.