I am not taken to crying at Facebook as a general rule, but for the second time in a week I find myself weeping at a post. What’s the chances?
Quite high, as it turns out.
When I was 22, I began my very short teaching career. For reasons I can’t remember now, except for some vague notion of being close to London, and as far away from my family as possible (the next step in my reinvention process, I suppose: I AM BRAVE I AM STRONG I AM NOT WHO YOU THINK I AM) I had taken a job in Basildon, Essex. I am not one for saying disparaging things about this or other new towns but they are pretty soulless sorts of places. I loved the people but the truth is if you’ve seen one roundabout, you’ve seen them all – and I pretty much did see them all.
The school I worked in is no longer there – Barstaple School, and when I arrived, so too did 26 other new staff. That’s a turnover in a secondary school that tells you everything you need to know about it – it had its rum folk and not everyone could hack it. One older teacher, on day one, regaled us with tales of how she’d gained respect by beating children up. This was meant to impress us – it did not – but it is also true that within weeks as a new teacher you are driven to the extremes of your tolerance and to thoughts of violence that shock you.
There was a generous gesture on the part of my Head of Department (I taught English: badly as it happens – I still shiver when I remember the apostrophe lesson I taught!) that I did not need to take a year 11 class. Excellent idea, except this meant that I was free when everyone else was delivering their year 11 class, meaning that whenever a teacher was absent during those sessions, I covered them. It was a baptism of fire. I felt that if I managed to herd them into the same room, and mostly stopped them shoving implements into one another’s orifices, I was doing well. If I could corral a handful to their desks, all the better. If someone actually wrote something, this was akin to a miracle.
Besides, what I lost in Year 11s, I gained in Year 10s – particularly last two periods on a Friday. Goodness, whose idea was that? As I walked to the classroom, I would hear them swopping football chants: Millwall! Millwall! Tottenham! Chelsea! Chelsea! My heart sank as I walked to the room: and I spent much of my time trying to ensure that a) they didn’t kill each other and b) I didn’t kill them.
But over time, I grew to love that group. They brought me cream eggs that had fallen off the back of a lorry, other offers of knock-off goods, homework in tattered books and tales of all sorts. They made me laugh, particularly when a couple of them hid in the store cupboard to ‘surprise’ me as a joke until I started ranting about how they would amount to nothing as a group and then they were too afraid to jump out! I knew there was something afoot when the rest of the class listened earnestly. They never did that. I laughed heartily until tears rolled down my face when they finally sheepishly appeared…
At the back of the class sat the two Claires. One Claire was a big built girl who was a wonderful character often telling me how best to control the group and offering me very sound advice on how to deal with the psychopathic boy in the corner (the only funny thing he ever did was hang a chair from the ceiling struts. “You’ve a poltergeist, Miss,” he said, as the chair hung there, he was dead eyed and smirk-free.) The other Claire was a bit colourless, and before the year was out, got pregnant. At 14.
Relatively early in my tenure, my sister gave birth to a little boy: Adam, three months prematurely. I told character Claire this, and in addition to her teaching tips, she would also ask on a daily basis how he was. “Not great,” I’d say, “I’ve bought him a ted with the words ‘tough ted’ on its vest.”
“He’ll be alright, Miss,” she said, “They can work miracles now.”
Adam had been born with fluid retained all along his stomach like a giant bubble. At half term, I travelled to Hull to see him. He was hooked up to beeping machines and in a room with the a strange blue hue. This was 28 years ago.
Each week, Claire would ask me about his progress, never forgetting one day to the next, and 3 months later, I was pleased to tell her that he was going home by then effectively full term with the fluid all gone. My sister was full of hope and excitement. It was all she wanted.
And then it went wrong. One day, on January 10th, he stopped breathing whilst she was feeding him. The ambulance arrived but Adam died in her arms on the way to the hospital. My sister received no help with this, no support, no suggestion of someone to talk to, or someone to help, or a pathway through. She went home to organise his funeral. It took three men to hold her up that day.
Of course, Claire asked me how Adam was and I told her, upset I suppose though I don’t remember now. What I do remember is her somehow conveying this message to everyone else in the room, and that impossible group of bonkers kids all behaved impeccably for two hours whilst we were trapped in that room together. I loved them for that, and continued to care desperately about their prospects for the rest of the time I held that bit of their future in my hands.
So, from day to day of course, I hardly think about Adam though: it’s a fact, something that happened that explains everything and nothing which I find myself sharing sometimes. Every single day my sister thinks of him. She had 8 children since then, but always there is that place within her that belongs to Adam and Adam alone. I cannot imagine this pain and I don’t want to. I don’t even remember the key dates: when he was born, when he died; these are engraved on the inside of her eyes.
Today, then, I went briefly onto Facebook and this is what I saw. My sister’s status:
I give you this one thought to keep –
I am with you still – I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush,
I am the sweet uplifting rush,
of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not think of me as gone –
I am with you still in each new dawn.
28 long years my darling boy.
It turns out that it didn’t work going so far away. I am not brave. I am not strong.
Not today anyway.