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|How do we feel about this, apart from indifferent?|
Blimey, when did Poetry join falconry and fletchery as subjects of yesteryear? I mean, everyone knows it’s a vaguely doomed ambition, intimately linked with unemployablity and a life of wretchedness, but it’s always been like that, indeed, it’s part of its charm. It’s edifying to reflect that as poetry has apparently melted from the GCSE syllabus, it has been replaced by such stalwart qualifications as Media Studies, BTECs worth a wheel barrow of GCSEs, and Citizenship. I’m no economist, but I suspect someone, somewhere has been sold a bag of magic beans in exchange for the family cow.
I mention this because the focus of this week’s chef-inspired pedagogy (chefagogy?) is the lost art of the classics: or Latin and Poetry at least. Once again, Professor Jamie of Oliver brings in his JCBs to plant tulips, in the form of the former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, and Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge. I’ve written before about this, but this is the flaw in the whole diamond: the assumption that if only teachers were world-leaders then the children would ignite like barbecue briquettes with inspiration. Alas, alas, this is not the case. Even the dullest of blades emerging from the teacher training college still knows more than their charges about the Tudors or Pythagoras; the problem is that many of them don’t want to learn. And have you ever tried to make someone do something they really didn’t want to? Try it sometime.
Jamie also repeats his earlier mantra. ‘I’ll fucking BATTER you in this classroom…’ Sorry, that was Harlem again, the resident Goddess of Anger. She does have a lot of anger. Fortunately she knows what to do with it, externalising it the instant it appears in her consciousness, lest a single unprocessed note of her interior monologue go unexpressed for public consumption. And, I think, we’re all the better for it.
No, Jamie’s mantra was ‘The practical stuff can work,’ meaning that anything a bit more hands-on seems a sweeter spoonful to swallow than the more medicinal, academic subjects. Or, as he says it, ‘There’s been some success with more academic subjects, using a more practical approach.’ I don’t want to infer too much, but one of the dangers for the non-teaching specialist is to imagine that how we like to learn is how everyone likes to learn. Jamie’s an intelligent, inspired man, who has obviously excelled in the physical world of catering. The danger is to assume that everyone else will enjoy the kind of activities he does. I mean, it’s very in vogue these days to encourage group work because it encourages ‘collaborative learning’ and ‘communal thinking’- forgive me while I dry-retch my Skittles and Polenta. When I was at school, group work was, for me, a Hell of wasted time, squabbling, and settling for the lowest common denominator. Usually involving some farting mentalist trying to brand me with a soldering iron. Don’t talk to me about group work.
|‘My manor, my rules. Got it?’|
Some of the kids, like Danielle (who I might add is rapidly becoming my heroine of the series- I’m tempted to open a library wing in her name) clearly prefer working in quiet environments, independently. It was simultaneously heart warming and tragic to see her sitting on the steps outside her classroom consumed with agony at seeing another lesson get flushed down the Johnson by mouth-breathing morons with megaphones. Or as she put it, ‘Jesus.’ Jesus indeed.
Poor old Mary Beard (which sounds like a Leonard Cohen lay, or an East End shanty) had my every sympathy. She, like many trainee teachers (and let’s not forget that’s exactly what these Titans of their field are, despite their Leviathan qualifications) she entered brimming with enthusiasm and the desire to inspire, only to see her golden sunbeams of Roman enthusiasm thin and dim to nothing against their collective indifference. Some pointless, petty disagreement had been wrestled in to the room before the class began, and ended with Jamal flouncing out, butch as Disco, from the classroom, wiping a tear from his eye while he watched Tara burn.
It was too much and, as Jamie’s voice over intoned, ‘Word trickles down the corridor that things have broken down in Mary’s classroom.’ Given that there are twenty students in the school (and incidentally, not all of them seem to attend every lesson), and that the place is wired for sound like Winston Smith’s khazi, I can’t imagine it’s very hard for word to trickle anywhere. So what Unstoppable Force, what Educational Fury is unleashed to lay waste to a third of the Earth? What Godzilla slouches towards the mayhem, what Jungian emblem of order and retribution incarnates in response to the anarchy?
You guessed it: D’Abbs. And boy, is he mad at them. ‘I’m really disappointed with you,’ he says, as they all p**s their collective knickers in fear. The class look at him as if they had sneezed him into a handkerchief. One of the unlovelier members of the class showed him how cowed and respectful they felt. ‘Excuse me, but you don’t even know what it was about, so how can you say you’re disappointed in us?’ He really puts the fear of God into them. But D’Abbs has an ace up his sleeve. ‘I feel let down,’ he says, and a chill runs down my spine as I am reminded of Leonidas and Morgan Freeman, rolled into one.
D’Abbs confronts (sorry, mediates/ facilitates) with the girl outside, which resulted in one of the most amazing sentences I have seen, almost entirely composed of the words ‘argue’ and ‘me’, but one that ran on for what felt like ten minutes. It was also untranslatable; I gave up on my third attempt. It was Joyceian
Andrew Motion, the softly-spoken avatar of calm, tried to turn them on to poetry, but also faced the same thuggish ignorance when it became clear to the class that he hadn’t brought any chicken nuggets or video clips of cats falling off drainpipes. Unfortunately what he did bring was a large painting by Edward Hopper called ‘Cape Cod Morning’ and asked them to write a poem inspired by how they felt about it. The only flaw in this cunning plan was that it doesn’t get past ‘Go’ if the kids don’t give a monkeys about the mid twentieth-century American Realist painting. Always have a task that everyone can do.
Poor Andrew; it was pitiful to see him blow his gasket at them, to little effect (and didn’t he do it in quite an odd way? He literally went from Yoda-calm to white-hot in a flash…and then back to Zen. Blink and you miss it. The kids clearly did.). Mary couldn’t even blow her gasket, bless her. So woefully unable was she to dress her desire in righteous vigour that she ended up asking tips from the kids about how to keep control of the class, which incidentally usually indicates that you are very close to going from ‘punchbag’ to ‘joke.’ The kids were warming to her, sure, but the next time she needs to speak sternly to someone, they’ll be unable to separate her ire from the fact that she learned it from them.
This raises another point: that every kid already knows how rowdy students need to be treated. I’ve had many conversations with kids that ‘the system has let down’ (© Jamie Oliver) and they all say the same thing: kids only act like tyrants with teachers that let them boss them around. Predators prey on victims- they’re not out for a chinning, they only muck about when they think they can get away with it. Danielle, the last hope for mankind, spelt it out. ‘Get them out’ she said to Mary’s request for strategic advice when something is flung around the room. ‘No warning; just get them out.’ She is, you see, a kid who wants to learn, and is fed up with the howling vanity and self-regard of the majority of her peers. So let me echo this sentiment: get them out- send them out. Give them some stick. Make them feel uncomfortable; make them see that if you try to push other people’s lives around, other people may very well push back.
Not that you;d know about it from D’Abbs. I really feel sorry for this guy, honestly. It’s not always obvious, but this fact needs to be repeated: he’s the only teacher in the whole school. Everyone else is a telly gonk or a field-leader. But no other teachers. No wonder he feels stressed. He also has the following handcuffs:
- There are no sanctions other than ‘a bit of a talking to’ (or in an emergency they might be told ‘he’s very disappointed.’)
- The kids are on camera
- If they tell someone to f**k off, they’re allowed to come back the next day
- He has them for a few weeks
- They’re all NEETs.
No wonder the poor guy’s in tears. He literally has nothing in his arsenal to quell and direct them the right way, other than a seeming belief that, if spoken to in the right way, softly and with respect, they will experience a Damascan conversion. ‘I’m just putting out fires,’ he says through a spasm of man-tears, as Jamie does what any guy does when another guy visibly expresses an emotion other than joy or malice; he ignores it and looks uncomfortable, as the director thinks, ‘Oh boy, it’s Christmas.’
|‘Favete linguis. Please?’|
If the Dream School- if any school- doesn’t get serious about rewards AND sanctions, then it can expect to to face the same behaviour over and over again, until the end of time, like Ground Hog Day in Hell. Keep the firehose handy, John. You’ll need it.
And you know things are getting weird when Alastair Campbell and Jazzy B are coming in to give you a cuddle. This guy’s the boss right? What, did Jamie nip into the staffroom and grab whomever wasn’t brewing up or updating Facebook and say, ‘Quick, D’Abbs needs a man-hug- who’s in?’
(Incidentally, Jamie provided the second most cryptic and mysterious piece of wisdom of the whole program, when he replied to John’s fire-fighting comment with, ‘I don’t think there’s anything wrong with fire fighting as long as we’re not starting fires.’ Pardon? He should have finished it off with ‘Grasshopper’ and stalked off into the sunset with a staff. John, startled out of his misery like a distracted baby with colic, looked at Jamie with confusion, and so did I.)
Back to Andrew Motion, and he found a novel approach to improving his lessons: going round the school and telling the kids, ‘You know that poetry thing? If you want to p**s off out of it, frankly that’s no skin off my righteous venerable ass.’ It was brilliant. If only we truly had that option in school; to turn to the most venomous ingrate and say, ‘Actually, do you mind not turning up ever again?’ and just teaching the ones that want to be there. Alas, every Education Act after 1910 rather prohibits that sort of thing, you know, universal enfranchisement, and all that. Still, it’s the Dream School, and we were promised new strategies. I just didn’t realise we’d see illegal ones as well.
|First there is homework…then there is no homework.’|
Perhaps predictably, Motion found that his second lesson, thinned out somewhat, was much more successful. The change of environment probably helped. But he was patient, and encouraging, and smart enough to know that the phrase ‘this is good’ can be used subjectively to the talent of those assessed, and quite right too. It might have been the only time in their lives that some of these kids had been praised for something they had written or created, and I bet it felt good. I like Motion, as a teacher. Apart from his heart-beat outburst, he keeps his cool, swigs endlessly from his Evian (although I’ve seen bottles like that act as beards for a number of more volatile liquids) and says what he means. Stay, and abide by my rules, he says, or do not and go. There’s a kind of beginner’s wisdom there- after all, at what point do we say with some of these children, ‘You know what? If you don’t care that much, I can’t care for you.’ They are, after all, mostly 18.
Other highlights of this week (and there are many, and there always are):
|This could be you.|
- Uncle Jazzy (Uncle B?) doing the tough sympathy thing with poor old LaToya, who was having a breakdown because she hadn’t seen her kid in fifteen minutes or something. I think it was her kid: when Professor B asked her what she missed, she said ‘Her boyfriend,’ whom, you might think from the intensity of her misery, was somewhere in Iraq, or lost in the jungles of Borneo. It was impossible not to feel for her, but she presented a puzzle: she had to drop out of school to look after her baby, which you’d have to have a heart of tungsten not to sympathise with; and she was drenched in misery at the self-knowledge that she ‘gave up’ at everything, which at least shows a degree of introspection, although if left to marinate in self-loathing it becomes a cocktail of bottomless, paralysed indolence. But the puzzle is that, although she could see it, she wouldn’t do anything about it. And then she dropped out of school the next day. It was, I must say, very sad.
- Harlem, bursting in to a meeting in the Head Master’s office, demanding that everyone dropped everything and do what she wanted, otherwise she would ‘smash someone in the face,’ or something else from Chaucer. She really is a piece of work. But then, why should she stop? She told the Head to f**k off last week, and called him a d**khead, but here she is, back again, because the Dream School doesn’t want to ‘let her down’ like state education did. Newsflash! She’s had plenty of chances- and every time you give her another one, all she learns is that you can spin the world around you in a whirlpool of narcissism and nothing bad will happen to you. What she needs, I would argue, is to experience the long, long drop that being vile can lead to; to feel the impact at the bottom, to bruise, to have the breath knocked out of her, until she stops thinks, and learns. But endless chambers of bouncy castles teach her nothing except to repeat her behaviour ad nauseum.
We all need to learn how to fail, and what we do afterwards. Learned helplessness is the worst gift we can give our children.
- Teacher of the Week: Andrew Motion, for his farmyard boot camp, and his classroom eugenics.
- Student of the week: Aysha, who along with Danielle, looks like one of the great hopes from this experiment.
- Quote of the week: Jamie McOliver, referring to the pugnacious Harlem. ‘She’s such a top student at times,’ which surely must win an award for the most elastic use of the word ‘top’, and the most generous use of the phrase ‘at times.’ And Hannibal the Cannibal was such a top host. At times.
Roll on next week. Mr Oliver, I salute you.
Oliver’s multimedia Free School gathers pace, in what is increasingly becoming the top television of the week. Blue Peter– watch your back. This week, another brace of celebrity talent tries to inspire a room full of exam dodgers, some old faces return for more porridge, and we find out what’s left once the ice that’s broken has melted.
Oliver’s intentions, as I’ve mentioned, come from a place that can only be described as golden. But some of his assumptions are exactly as uninformed as I imagine mine would be were I to recommend a better way for him to chop his onions. Case in point: ‘In a way, the system has let these kids down,’ he says, in a quote from Oliver that prefaces the program. Aye, if by ‘In a way’ you mean ‘It’s not true.’ The assumption behind that proposition is that the state has a responsibility to make sure that every child leaves school with medals, as if the student has no responsibility to his or her own future. What are we supposed to do, drag all kids by the hair and threaten to play knifey with them like De Niro in Casino unless they get down to some GCSE revision? Because there comes a point in any society with a claim on being a liberal democracy, where we have to concede that, while the state may be duty bound to provide a certain level of education and other civil goods to its citizens, it can’t be simultaneously held responsible if the citizens take one look at what’s on offer, however charming, and say, ‘Bugger that.’
The state doesn’t let these kids down; the state provides them with a decade and a half of free education, books, rooms, teachers, trips and lunches. If a kid decides to p*ss about and be a nuisance to others, then we may, as civilised members of a community, give them a chance or two to calm down and wise up, but how long do we do that before we say, ‘Actually, you’re a kamikaze, mate. Good luck.’ Nobody wants kids to leave school without qualifications and life skills; but the idea that it’s the school’s fault if they don’t puts the cart before the horse. And then blames the cart. Bad cart!
The first week of teaching can see both class and teacher enjoy a sort of honeymoon (albeit not the sort you’d actually pay for), as they sniff each other out warily. It can also lead to the biggest clashes, as the juggernauts of character and intention can collide into each other (as Starkey found). New teachers often start a school and think, ‘That’s not so bad,’ only to find that the class realises how far they can go, and then runs past it. Time will tell if the more successful teachers here are experiencing this syndrome. Rolf Harris and Robert Winston seem to have made a good fist in the more practical subjects; Starkey and Callow struggled with their book learnin’.
|‘I’m worried we’re lettin’ them down.’|
Jamie started the show with a group hug, as all the kids stood up and shared their expectations from the School, although I missed any of them saying ‘To be on Telly’, or ‘I woz bored, innit?’ From my experience of kids, I’ve learned that ‘being on telly’ is, for many of them, seen as some kind of Olympian deification, an ascension into the elect. They seem to imagine that once you’re on film, you’ve been transformed magically into light and magnetism, living forever in an immaterial realm of luxury and immanence. I’ve been on telly. All you get are biscuits and the odd taxi. Connor, our hero from last week’s Starkey-slapping (‘Have you always been that short? I’m not bein’ funny.’) said one of the saddest things:
‘I want better than what I’m destined for. School didn’t care. If you weren’t going to get five A-Cs they didn’t care.’
That boy may need to work on his manners, but he’s not stupid. He’s simply sussed out that many schools have prioritised their position on the league tables over trying to make sure that all kids get an appropriate education. Mind you, from his behaviour on camera, I imagine he hasn’t made it easy, which is why it becomes even easier for schools to say ‘sod ’em’ and focus on the borderline D/C students. Whenever Ofsted or the League Tables set a criteria, most schools will bend themselves into a shape that best takes advantage of that criteria, and exploits the system to its advantage. I believe this is analogous to the maxim, ‘Good money drives out bad.’ If you establish 5A-Cs as your benchmark, then schools will sell their first born to wizards in order to achieve that magic figure as its own end, in itself– and the other aims of education wither on the vine.
I loved Jenny’s comments about what happened at her school: ‘My school got a new head teacher…and we didn’t agree with each other.’ I’m reminded of Tom Baker’s alcoholic, mad captain in Black Adder, talking (in the 18th century) about the shape of the world. ‘Opinion is divided says I,’ he begins. ‘I says it’s round….and everyone else says it’s flat.’
|‘Kill them. Kill them ALL.’|
Alastair Campbell seemed, by the evidence presented, to have had a relatively smooth time, although from the moment we saw him walk in with a devilish confidence, it was clear he was no pushover. I imagine if you can chew out cabinet ministers and provoke international conflicts causing the death of hundreds of thousands, a few oiky kids chewing gum and texting isn’t a huge worry. It has to be said though, despite his credentials for ‘most evil man in the world’, he also carried himself in a manner that was bound to work well, even for a new teacher- fearless, calm and patient. There was no sense that he was worried about the kids not behaving, and he managed to convey a kind of dispassionate detachedness (i.e. professionalism) while at the same time talking with certainty, confidence and passion about what he wanted. In many ways he spoke like an experienced teacher, and while one lesson doth not a term make, it was a good start. His Top Trump Card reads Humanity: 06, Teaching: 85.
One tip for you, Mr Campbell: if you’re going to have one rule, don’t make it ‘One person speaks at a time.’ Because then if one of them gets a word in, everyone else- including you- is bound to shut up. Mind you, I suspect he’s not one to be bound by classroom conventions and verbal contracts if he isn’t bothered about International Law and the United Nations, but there you go. *dismounts soapbox*
Jazzy B also seemed to have a good crack at it- I suspect he had an advantage simply by virtue of being a once-famous pop star, which would cow many of the kids into admiration- witness Angelique squealing with delight upon discovering that her drama teacher Simon Callow was starring in the West End show they’d been taken to see. ‘That’s my teacher!’ she raved. Last week she was doing her nails and texting Domino’s Pizzas when he was trying to teach her. It’s often said that less able kids like active subjects like PE and Music, but this simple act of reduction ignores the fact that these subjects require ability to do well in, and equating low academic ability with poor behaviour with a preference for running about and banging drums is an insult to every leg on that tripod.
But Jazzy B (‘To you, Mr and Mrs B, a son- Jazzy!’) seemed to also be possessed of confidence, calm and certainty about what he wanted to do, and when he spoke, it was with the cool, clear tone of a man who expects people to listen to him. Many new teachers mistake severity for firmness, and ferocity for vigour. I also suspect he doesn’t call the kids ‘fat’ very often. He was even giving tips to Starkey, who by now was realising that he was going to look like an angry shrew if he didn’t try to make a success of it. Perhaps he was motivated by seeing that some of his colleagues in the staffroom were to some extent succeeding- and there, I suspect, is a man who doesn’t like to give up easily.
(Incidentally, I would give up a finger to see that staffroom, with Rolf Harris making a brew for him, Alastair Campbell and Robert Winston, as Simon Callow complains about what a bitch Louisa Sutton is in 10M).
|‘I’m jousting in tourneys- like a G6, like a G6.’|
However Starkey reflected, it paid off: he had a moment of reconciliation with Connor, his nemesis, in a manner that wouldn’t have looked out of place at the end of a Richard Curtis movie, all awkward nobility, embarrassed humility and ‘no-it-was-all-my-fault’. Nobody cried or anything, but it was a touching example of how sometimes the relationship between pupils and teachers can improve when you take both parties into a different context, give them time to reflect, and remove the audience (well, apart from the camera, I suppose).
His lesson showed humour, positivity and gave the truth to the idea that sometimes when you bare your teeth, you can smile a little at the same time. He seems the most nervous of the teachers, and that often expresses itself as aggression, as the teacher becomes brittle and bristles to every slight, real or imagined. In his position, a new teacher would have to learn to let some of the little things slide at the time, and maybe follow up later on, after the lesson. I’m still not sure what the system of sanctions are at Jamie’s Dream School, other than being told by the affable Head Master ‘I’m going to sleep on my decision’ before deciding to do nothing. The only sanction, it seems, is the threat of expulsion which then doesn’t happen. I bet all the kids are wetting their knickers over that one.
Simon Callow was trying to get down with tha kidz by showing them Romeo and Juliet, or ‘a play about two feuding gangs’ as Jamie put it. I’m sure Shakespeare would have agreed. The aim was to make it relevant to the kids, but they predictably couldn’t round up five minutes of quiet between them for Callow’s recital, which made the good bard blow his stack and shout ‘Shut up!’ at them. We’ve all been there. It’s a difficult Rubicon to re-cross, though: the kids know you’ve lost it, and it takes time to get back from the point to which you’ve fallen. Can’t blame him, though, can you? He must be thinking, ‘I’ve been in bloody ‘Four Weddings and Funeral‘. Little bastards.’ Get used to it, mate. It all takes time, and usually a few detentions and phone calls home too, neither of which you appear to have access to.
|Alastair Campbell, the early years.|
I think that;s the problem for all of these teachers: they have to win these kids over using nothing but their personalities, delivery and capacity to amuse, entertain and distract. This is far removed from the real school, where teachers can’t be expected to constantly do cartwheels and pull rabbits out of their asses like some children’s entertainer. We have to teach them syllabuses that contain lists and facts, and skills that often require repetition and practise to master, none of which is always amenable to conversion into a game of ‘Take me Out‘ or ‘Ker-Plunk!’ Sometimes it’s a grind, but learning always has been. Without the ability to sanction as well as reward pupils, many would choose to do other than their teacher described.
Jamie’s School, by having no clear system of following up with behaviour problems, lays itself open to accusations of being a well-meaning but doomed experiment, because as soon as all of these students leave the walls of their fantasy boarding school, they’ll enter workplaces and environments where they will have to listen to other people, be on time, and sometimes just do as they’re bloody told without someone catering to their whims. Sometimes the iPods have to be put away. In the outside world, they will get few chances to make amends.
And that’s another reason why schools have to provide environments of structure and restraint: in order to elevate and improve. We mustn’t pretend that kids should be left to their own devices to discover their own, magical, internal butterflies. Sometimes they need to be told what to do, and how to do it,. That’s the process which I’ll describe as ‘raising children to become adults’. That’s how we communicate societal values. That’s how we teach them to be people. Until people can learn to restrain themselves, they can never flourish with half as much success as they could were they able to apply themselves to objectives with tenacity and rigour. It’s not enough to blame the Head Master for getting chucked out- sometimes these kids need to look in the mirror to see where the problems really lie. And that’s our job in schools- to guide, to lead out, and to show them how to make as few mistakes as possible, as well as succeed. And what to do when we sometimes, inevitably, fail.
LOVED Jamie’s confiscation of phones at the start of his lesson, having already surmised that their presence is like kryptonite to the well-planned lesson. It’s hard to convey how much of an impact these little boxes have had on teaching and learning (or not); some teenagers literally cannot bear to be off them for five minutes. It’s like crack. And Jamie, I think, summed up with characteristic brevity and simplicity the central truth of teaching and behaviour management:
”You want to gain their respect, get them to be your chum, but at he same time have the kind of strictness and ‘I ain’t takin’ that.'”
Amen, brother. Most teachers start off with the vague ambition of being the cool teacher they themselves never had- informative, entertaining, and a bit of a laugh. Alas, it takes about five minutes for them to realise that the kids couldn’t give a monkey’s buttock about their aspirations, and my, my, can anyone else see a target on that new guy’s back? Teachers need to be tough and tender. Tough love, as I am fond of saying, is still love. Sometimes you love someone so much, you;re going to be strict with them. Sometimes you have to take a bullet. Eventually you hope they’ll learn to do the same for others.
Special mention has to go to the photographer Rankin (‘To you, Mr and Mrs….er…..a son- Rankin!’) who seemed to do so well with them that they were turning in homework that, to my amateur eyes, should have been hanging in a Hoxton Cafe, it was so good. Connor’s infinite regress of eyes and faces, Carl’s scarily Pop Art portrait, and others, showed that many of the kids could produce the goods when they wanted to. Rankin’s style was positive, authoritative and encouraging; I expect that half of his class were surprised to be told they could succeed if they tried hard enough in a way that didn’t immediately suggest they were total failures for not so doing.
Rankin, Jazzy B, and reluctantly, Alastair Campbell, get my ‘Outstanding lesson’ observation this week. Starkey gets the ‘Most improved’ accolade, and Simon Callow gets the ‘Best use of the phrase Shut Up’ gong.
And the final word has to go to the conversation between the Head Master and Starkey:
Head: ‘I’ve always rated you as a historian, but now I rate you as a teacher.’
I’m sure that Richard Starkey is blushing with flattered embarrassment at being told he’s ‘rated’ as a historian.by the eminent…er, head master John D’Abbro. As they walked off, arm in arm into the sunset, Starkey said, ‘They’ll all be doing PhDs next week.’
Not yet, David, not yet. Give the Exams Boards a few more years, and then we might be talking.