Lesson 43 Shelter from the Storm

Lesson 43 on How things are never that simple

It’s trendy to self-review nowadays by asking “What are the three best things about our school?  Then “What are the three things we would most like to improve?”  Notice we don’t use any negative terms. Perish the thought that we should use the word “bad”, let alone reprehensible or criminal.

At Mandy’s school it was easy to draw up the “bad” list – in the words of Mr Blair – “Education, education, education!”. Nobody learnt anything much.  Nobody had ever gained a GCE, except in Urdu and that was because it was their first language.  Everybody sat the second-class CSEs or else no exam at all.

There were a range of reasons for this.  The school was in an area of low expectations and high employment.  It was possible to earn good money without an exam to your name. Housing was cheap and plentiful.

Nobody cared much about bad schools in bad areas.  Their results had always been bad.  It was expected. Some local authorities did wonderful work, but more didn’t. There was no standardised nationwide recording of results.  Inspections were few and far between.

Then, as now, bad schools attracted bad staff. (You need to be hard or highly motivated to survive, so bad schools attract bullies, sadists, misfits, paedophiles and the poorly qualified.  Good staff stay for as short a time as possible, then move on.)

There were rigid rules for staff at Mandy’s school.  Nobody was allowed to see a child alone behind a closed door.  Even Nurse had her door ajar, or me in as chaperone when necessary.  Classroom doors had windows and teachers were expected to be in full view.  The head patrolled regularly and had her spies.  She made sure her pupils were protected.  This was a “Best Thing”.

Another best thing was that any accident, injury, sign or even suspicion, of injury was meticulously recorded and followed up.  I was employed to ensure this was done and to liaise with all the relevant agencies. 

One day Marlene came in with a black eye.  Immediately I got in touch with the primary school her many brothers and sisters attended. A check there confirmed assorted marks, bruises and scratches. The Education Welfare Officer was despatched to the home.  All the children of course denied anything had occurred.

Mother was beside herself.  “I knew this would happen!” she raged. “I told Marlene to stay at home!”  But no way was Marlene going to miss the diversion of school.  She had run off in defiant attendance.

In the end the truth came out.  Separate interrogation of the victims uncovered a major incident amongst the siblings the previous evening concerning a dispute over the TV remote control.

Still, better safe than sorry. Everybody on the estate knew the school was looking out for the children. In those days we didn’t have child abuse.  We had incest, cruelty and neglect. Pupils and families knew we were on the watch, and we weren’t nice credulous do-gooders who would nod sympathetically and go away.

But the very best thing about the school was it provided a place of practical advice, information and support.  It fed you, kept you out of the cold, listened to your problems, stopped you feeling alone and made sure you got taken to hospital when you were sick.

Like the title said- a shelter in the storm.

 

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Lesson 42 How I Wish I’d Looked After My Teeth

Lesson 42 on How even the boldest spirits have their limits

The school nurse and I were next to each other just off the main corridor. The only other room off our short hallway was the Sick Room. This had two single beds, with cosy red blankets, on either side of a small bedside table. It was never short of occupants.

The trouble was that Nurse didn’t come in till 10am, so until then I had to hold the fort sickness-wise.  The first thing I had to do when I arrived in the morning was check the Sick Room.  You could pretty well guarantee somebody would be in there waiting. One winter morning, when colds and coughs were circulating, I found eight of them, two sitting up at each end of the beds, the red blankets tucked around them.

“What on earth are you all doing here!  Why didn’t you just stay at home to be ill?”

But it was a rhetorical question. We all knew why they were there. They wanted Nurse to listen to their symptoms, then either tell them not to be silly and send them back to class, or make them a cup of tea and let them stay in the comfy warmth of the Sick Room for an hour or so.

One of Nurse’s most regular clients was Glenice, who regarded Nurse as her personal physician.  Given her circumstances, Glenice was remarkably healthy, but if she had a scratch, or a headache or a pain in her stomach, she was round to Nurse’s office in a nanosecond demanding attention.  In the case of minor injury, a plaster and a smudge of antiseptic cream usually sent her away happy, while a mug of warm Ribena sorted out most other ailments.

About half-way through the Autumn term, however, Glenice and Nurse had a major falling out. One of Nurse’s many duties was looking after the lost property box.  Glenice had mislaid her school jersey, so had come flying round to Nurse to find it.  She could have dropped it anywhere, but she had made up her mind that it must be in school because then Nurse would magic it back for her.

When this didn’t happen, she bullied somebody into writing a note to Nurse, saying she wouldn’t find Glenice’s jersey, because she was racist. Nurse was very very hurt and took umbrage. 

Upsetting Nurse was a serious matter.  Even Josephine wouldn’t help.  Josephine had long since recognised Nurse as a useful ally in making Glenice do things she didn’t like.

At this low point in relations, Glenice got toothache.  Everybody knew about it.  She sat in class and cried, loudly.  In the end Mr Deputy succeeded in bringing about a truce.  Glenice said she was sorry, and Nurse told her how hurt she had been, then agreed to let her back into the Sick Room and give everybody else some peace.

But this was far from the end of the matter.  Glenice stubbornly refused to be convinced that toothache wouldn’t respond to warm Ribena treatment, no matter how tightly she wrapped herself up in red blankets.  She had determinedly disregarded the many repeated warnings of the school dentist (who still visited regularly in those days).  She did not want to go now.

We had to suffer more days of moaning and sobbing before she finally admitted that Nurse was right and she would have to go to the dentist.

The problem then arose as to who could take her.  Her parents were as elusive as ever.  Josephine was too young.  Nurse was willing to accompany her, but when they went down to negotiate an urgent appointment, the surgery took one horrified look at who it was and refused to even glance in her mouth without a parent, social worker, or other delegated adult, present.

I didn’t blame them.  I wouldn’t have gone near a bad tooth of Glenice’s unless she was under general anaesthetic.

Social Work were suddenly impossibly overburdened with urgent appointments when Nurse tried to twist their arm.  They had given up on any cooperation from the entire family years ago. 

While all these negotiations dragged on, Glenice continued to wail and groan in the Sick Room.

Of course you can guess who had to bring about the solution.

The following Monday Josephine came into school with a signed letter of authority from her parents to say Nurse could take Glenice to the dentist.  Nurse marched her down there. Even lion-hearted Glenice was so fed up by this time that she behaved like a little lamb.
Three teeth less, (the dentist wasn’t taking any chances), she returned to school and cheered up – fit and ready to resume her volatile progress through education. 

The letter of authority was carefully filed away for the future, just in case.

Lesson 41 The Power of Love

Lesson 41 on Mothering

Josephine had a reason to be fierce.  She was an urban tigress protecting her young.  Only in Josephine’s case, it was her younger sister Glenice.

Josephine was almost at school leaving age and Glenice was in the first year.  As far as I could gather, Josephine had more or less brought her sister up.  The family situation was what you might, at best, call fluid.  Josephine and Glenice were full sisters in the midst of a confusion of step and half siblings housed under a number of different roofs on the estate.  Mr Deputy had actually made out a chart, so that we could remember who was related to whom.

Josephine’s powers of organisation were astonishing.  She and Glenice were always on time and never absent. They ate a hot breakfast and lunch at school, so that they could manage if the gas/electricity had been cut off at home.  I don’t know how they coped with the washing, but perhaps Josephine went to the launderette.  They were always clean and tidy. 

There wasn’t any shortage of money in the house, but it was best not to enquire too deeply into where it came from.  The lack of services was down to a general antipathy to paying bills, rather than poverty.  The girls never complained.

Half the trouble Josephine got into, was caused by standing up for her younger sister, usually against members of staff trying to teach her something.  Glenice had no respect for anybody or anything, except Josephine.  She stormed and shrieked if she didn’t get her own way.  Josephine’s uncritical adoration and selfless care had been truly admirable, but unfortunately it had resulted in a somewhat spoilt little princess.

Yet exasperating as their behaviour was in school, it had to be acknowledged that they had something that many of the other pupils lacked.  They had the confidence of being unconditionally valued, just for themselves.

Each was the centre of another person’s universe.

They were with the one they loved.

Lesson 40 The Classroom Guerrilla PA

Lesson 40 on The Importance of Leaving an Escape Clause

At Mandy’s school, we had certain rigid rules in the interests of basic safety. These were – no fighting with other pupils; no verbal or physical violence towards staff and no bullying.

The punishment system was simple and inflexible. A culprit had the option of apologising immediately and being given timeout working at a desk outside the school office or being sent home.  They could then only come back when a parent or guardian brought them in to apologise.

This did not take long. Sometimes people were brought straight back by an irate mother in their slippers. Nobody lived more than a few streets from the school.

If there was no parent at home, the unrepentant lawbreaker would be kept out of class till a parent or guardian could come up to school to collect them.

The system worked well, because the pupils hated to be out of school and the parents hated them to be at home.  School was where you had to be if you wanted to keep up-to-date with the daily dramas played out on the estate.  There were no mobile phones in those days.

Josephine’s parents, however, were notoriously hard to contact.  Nobody was quite sure who in the large extended family lived where.

So when Josephine broke a rule, in the course of her guerrilla warfare against authority, she came to work in my office.

I was frightened of Josephine. She was big and strong and fierce.  I was little and cowardly.  I knew, and she knew, that I couldn’t make her do anything.  But she quite liked being in my office. Groups came for “Remedial” English, and there were visitors on various errands.  If I had to make confidential phone calls, she had to go next door and sit with Nurse in her room and that was always interesting.

Josephine didn’t exactly converse, but she began to use me a useful source of information.

What’s that little box on the wall?” she asked out of the blue one day.
It’s a thermostat,” I explained.  “It makes the heating go on and off.” I showed her how it worked.

“We’ve got one in our house. If I do that, will the heating go on?”

“It should do, as long as your gas is working.” Josephine nodded. Having no gas or electricity was a fairly familiar situation.

As the days went by Josephine gradually took on an unofficial PA role in my life.  “Mr Deputy came round.  He says can you come and see him about the registers.” Or “You’ve got to meet Mrs Educational Psychologist after break.”

And still no parent appeared.  Josephine just shrugged if questioned.  Everyone except me seemed quite content with the situation. Everybody else was glad of a break from Josephine in their classroom.

The trouble with non-negotiable, inflexible rules is that you can’t get out of them.  I couldn’t see how I would ever be free of Josephine.

In the end she stayed with me till the holidays, when we invented a new rule that said the punishment period expired automatically at the end of term.

That allowed the rules to be seen to be upheld.

Thus saving everybody’s face.

Lesson 39 The Not So Public Library

Lesson 39 on the Right to Books

One of my groups at Mandy’s school was composed of six girls from the Punjab.  They loved the stories we read in class and discussed them heatedly.  They were very hot on moral issues, and eagerly related the books we read to what they had seen in the latest Bollywood movies.

I used to love the Monday morning conversations between them and Josephine (an Afro-Caribbean pupil often banished to my room for bad behaviour). The group used to practise their English by describing the plot of whatever film they had seen at the weekend.

“So she shamed her family then?”
“No, but the village thought she had. She was shunned!” (We had learnt “shunned” very quickly. Shunning and shaming seemed to crop up a lot in Bollywood conversations).
“So that was when she was thrown down the well?”
“No, that was afterwards. When her cousin betrayed her!”
“The one whose husband thought she had brought shame on him?”
“No! The other one, the one who got leprosy!”

In the course of one of these discussions, it emerged that the plot was a reworking of a classic novel and I mentioned that I had borrowed the book from the library.  None of the girls knew about the local library, so I explained how they could borrow books there for free.  In the end we decided on a trip there, so that they could join.

They were full of enthusiasm when they saw the range of books available to borrow.  Everything went well, until we collected the forms to sign up.  We took them to the desk, but the jobsworth there  refused to accept them.

“They have to get their fathers’ signatures,” she insisted.

“But it doesn’t say that on the form” I protested. “It just says an adult ratepayer. I’m an adult ratepayer!”

“No, it has to be their father!”

I was ready to go into battle, but one of the girls tugged my arm and whispered in embarrassment, “Come away , Miss! Don’t bother!”

It suddenly dawned me that the bitch behind the desk simply didn’t want them to join because they were Asian and she knew very well that a father’s signature might be difficult to get. Many of the fathers couldn’t write, others were reluctant to sign official forms they didn’t understand.

I was still burning with fury, when we got back to my office and to  Josephine, serving out her banishment there.  She curled her lip scornfully, when she heard the tale from the others.

“Give me the forms,” she said. “I’ll sign them!”

The group looked aghast.  It was an obvious solution to their problem, but one which gave rise to a real-life moral dilemma. This was forgery and deceit.  What if their fathers did not want them to join? A couple of girls guessed any request would be denied. What did they need with books?  They had plenty to do at home already, helping their mothers.

They thought of other ways they could get round the signature problem, for instance by getting one girl with parental permission to pass on the books to others, or even waiting till they were old enough to join on their own.

Josephine disdained such weakness.  For her it was straightforward. She knew survival entailed fierce guerrilla warfare with authority.

That’s how she came to be sitting in my office, scowling at the injustice of the world.

Lesson 38 – Listening to the Quiet Voice

Lesson 38 on What Danielle Taught Me

Teaching is a noisy job.  It’s not just the clamour of corridors filled with voices and the clatter of many feet, it’s the conflicting demands of all sorts of activities and duties that create a kind of mental noise that won’t leave your head.  You always know there is something you have left undone.

It is so easy to lose sight of what matters.

Danielle was a frail, sad, quiet girl who had started off her education in the School for Delicate Children.  When I first met her, the phrase “Failure to thrive” jumped unbidden into my mind.  She just seemed somehow blighted.

It was hard to know how best to encourage her.  She hated any attention being drawn to her, and seldom answered in class, but she followed carefully whatever was going on.  She didn’t interact with the others, but she didn’t upset anybody either.  The group just accepted she preferred to keep her own counsel and in the end I simply fell in with that. With regard to written work, she jogged along in the slow lane, but she listened and thought about things.  I always felt she understood.

If anything, I saw her as a failure on my part.   She didn’t make dramatic progress, though she didn’t regress either. She was just a quiet presence on the edge of things.

It came as a complete surprise therefore to receive this hand written note from Danielle’s Mum when I was leaving.

“Dear Mrs Wise,  We will always be so grateful for what you have done with Danielle.  It has meant so much to her.  You cannot believe what a difference it has made.”

I was pulled up short by this.  I felt so ashamed.  What on earth had I ever done for Danielle in all the time I had taught her?

All I could think of was this – I had provided a small place in the confusing, noisy world of school where she felt safe and where her right to be quiet and thoughtful had been respected.

I had simply been kind and tried to do my best for her.

Danielle taught me what a privilege it is to be in a position to make a difference.

And she reminded me what really matters.

Lesson 37 A White Christmas

Lesson 37 on Making a Virtue of Necessity.

Mandy’s school was in the centre of a dispiriting estate, next to a sprawling industrial development, about a mile from a junction on the M3.  All the pupils lived on the estate. All the teachers, however, lived well away from it. Most travelled in by car from the pleasanter parts of the Berkshire countryside. I was the only teacher who drove in the other direction from London.

Any hold-up on the motorway caused problems.  The pupils would arrive in school, but the teachers would be stuck in traffic until the blockage cleared.  This situation was always worst in bad weather. 

One morning towards the end of my first term there was a heavy snowfall.  The only adults in school by the start of the school day were myself, the deputy head (who came by train), the school nurse, the school secretary and the kitchen staff.

“What happens now?” I asked the deputy.

“We can’t send them home.” explained the school nurse.  “It’s not safe. We have to keep them in school, and hope enough staff make it through.”

“What usually happens, is that we put them in the hall with a video, till the staff come in,” added the deputy head.

” I’ll send Sukvinder down to her uncle’s video shop,” offered the school secretary. “He always lets us have something suitable.”

Sukvinder was despatched  to the shop at the end of the street, while we organised the pupils.  Because we were in such a deprived area, the school kitchens were opened for breakfast.  This meant we could leave the pupils in the dining room for a while, till we had the video set up in the hall.

Sukvinder soon returned in triumph carrying a plastic carrier bag.

“Uncle’s sent us something really good,” she said. “Because it’s Christmas, he says we can have this for a special treat!”

The deputy head sent her off to the dining room to alert Nurse and Secretary to allow the pupils to come down to the hall.  Meanwhile we loaded the video into the machine. 

It was only then that we realised what it was- it was an illegal, pre-release copy of ET!   ET was just then being hyped as the biggest cinema release for the  upcoming Christmas holiday. 

But what could we do?  By now Sukvinder would have spread the news of Uncle’s Christmas treat.  We had 400 excited pupils and hardly any teachers.  We had a warm, safe hall, entertainment and a working kitchen to provide hot food.

We showed the film.  It was a dreadful copy – it was so dark you could hardly see it on the screen.  But even our hardest pupils were riveted to it.  They sniffed and wept their way through it.  The hall throbbed with emotion.

In ones and twos the rest of the staff appeared, but there was no way we could stop the showing.  At the end there was a communal sob as ET took off at last for home.

We must have broken every rule in the book, but what a shared emotional experience.  The best Christmas treat ever!