This page will print nicely in black and white. The background image will vanish when you print it.

Staying Alive in Year 5 (extract)

by John Marsden

‘Now,’ said Miss Holland, at the end of assembly, ‘Mrs Mudd, would you take Year Three to your classroom please? And Year Four may go with Mr Kelvin.’

All the little kids got up to go, while we watched. It was pretty boring. I looked at the Year Four kids and thought, ‘That was me a year ago.’ It was hard to believe. Just as hard as believing that I was now in Year Five. And next year? I looked at the Year Sixers sitting opposite us. No way! I could never be that big.

‘Year Five, I would like to introduce you to Mr Murlin,’ Miss Holland said. Please remember that Mr Murlin is new to the school, so I want you to show him how polite and helpful you can be. Especially you, Johnny Heath.’

Johnny was sitting next to me and he gave a big cheesy grin. ‘Me, Miss Holland?’ he said, but she ignored him. Mr Murlin got up to leave the hall so we all started to follow.

‘Where do you think you are going?’ Miss Holland asked, so we all sat down again. ‘When you are asked and not before,’ she continued, ‘you are to go with Mr Murlin to Room 7. Now, Year Five, you may leave quietly.’

Most of the teachers, when they got their classes out of the hall, lined the kids up and then made them follow in straight lines. Mr Kelvin was out there still trying to get Year Four organised, but Mr Murlin just set off towards Room 7, so we followed in a sort of straggling queue.

‘He doesn’t look too strict,’ Johnny Heath whispered to me.

When we got to the door Alice Goodbottom asked, ‘Can we sit anywhere we want sir?’

You’ll find labels on the desks,’ he answered. His voice was quiet, but everyone was being good till they could see what he was like, so they all heard him.

We went in, and Johnny and I headed for a desk up the back of the first row. They were old-fashioned double-desks — really heavy — with lids that lifted up, so you could keep your books and stuff inside. On the last desk were two labels, one on each side. The one where I was standing said, ‘A person wearing blue sneakers, different coloured socks, and a silver chain around his neck’ That was me! My mouth opened up like a swimming pool. I couldn’t believe it. I stood there looking at Johnny. He stood there looking at me, and his mouth was open like a double garage. He handed me his label. It said: ‘A champion skateboard rider, with red hair and freckles’. That was Johnny. He sat down. I sat down.

A whole lot of amazed talking was building up all around the room. The two kids in front of us, Candice Wailer and Tom Tregonning, showed us their labels. Candice’s said: ‘A person with a banana-shaped pencil case and braces on her teeth’. Tom’s said: ‘A person wearing a Phantom sweatshirt and yellow underpants’. He was wearing a Phantom sweatshirt. I said, ‘What colour underpants have you got on?’ He said, ‘Yellow.’

We all turned and looked at Mr Murlin, who was sorting through some papers on his desk For the first time I looked at him properly. He was thin, with a brown face and a small grey beard. He didn’t look all that old, not as old as Miss Holland. He was wearing a green tie that didn’t go with his suit, which was dark blue, almost black He was just average height. If you passed him in the street you wouldn’t notice him.

Everyone was going quiet now. They all faced the front and looked at Mr Murlin. Gradually there was complete silence. He stopped shuffling the papers and came forward.

‘There are a few things I won’t tolerate,’ he said. ‘Let’s lay down the rules now, so you know where you are.’

Well, at least this was the usual thing. I knew what it’d be: all the stuff about not chewing in class, and not interrupting, and not calling out without putting your hand up.

Mr Murlin said, ‘There’s to be no cooking Lamingtons in the classroom. Students must keep breathing at all times while in here. You are not to ride skateboards across the desks. I keep a chainsaw in the cupboard for people who wear glasses without a licence. Crocodiles are to be put in the box marked ‘Crocodiles’, not in your desks...’ He paused and gazed away into the distance. ‘Wouldn’t it be great,’ he said, ‘if when you lifted up the lid of your desk you found it full of water, and there were fish swimming around inside... aquariums, is that the plural?... aquaria...’

One by one, really nervously, all the kids in the room opened their desks and peered inside. I was the last. Something about Mr Murlin made me half expect to see a pair of goggling fish eyes looking up at me. I don’t know whether I was relieved or disappointed to find the desk dry and empty. There was nothing but some lumps of old chewing gum and a few rude messages from last year.

Mr Murlin continued, ‘Eating chocolate in class is not only desirable, it is compulsory. Other things that are compulsory are laughing at the teacher’s jokes, day-dreaming, and watching ‘Neighbours’ on TV. There will be a test every Monday morning on ‘Neighbours’; those who fail will be pinned to the noticeboard by their ears.

‘I don’t expect you all to talk: some people prefer to be quiet. But be noisy and lively if you want to. It’d be nice if there were a streak of madness in here. But don’t be silly — there’s a big difference, an important difference, between being mad and being silly.’

It was funny: although he’d just said that he liked a noisy class, this class was the quietest I’d ever heard. I think we were all in shock. We’d never heard a teacher talk like this before. We sat there gaping at him. Candice put up her hand.

‘Yes?’ he asked.

‘Sir,’ she said, ‘what happens if we all go mad and you can’t control us?’

Mr Murlin smiled. ‘I’m the teacher,’ he said, ‘and although we’re all important in here, there are a few jobs that are especially mine. And discipline’s one of them. So I’ll take care of that.’