No farewell words were spoken, no time to say goodbye. You were gone before we knew it, and only God knows why.”  Unknown Author

I’ve puzzled over remembering her name, which is nothing short of shameful.  I know why though, she was difficult.  She was difficult in a very difficult class.  It was a wonder to me that so many slightly unhinged children had ended up in one place.  I taught them originally for English and then, the following year, for Drama.  This class bore evidence to the fact that testing is madness and tells us nothing (because all the power rests with the question maker) because in that class I ended up with 25 kids with special needs and 5 who were not, in one room.  (Interestingly, I made friends with one of them 20 years later on Facebook.  Biggest.  Mistake.  Of. My. Life.  Where once he’d been an annoying marginally cute peck of a child, he had turned into an obnoxious beer swilling misogynistic homophobe.  Unfriend.  Block.)

In that class there were 8 children on the lowest ability table all very pleasant but none of them able to read and write (they were 11).  Not one.  And this was in the day before teaching assistants so somehow I had to manage them, and the 5 bright kids, along with a very curious bag of behavioural problems.   I’d set up a task and then some minutes later, I’d emerge from the special needs table with none of them further on.  The names have escaped me but not the pain of having to get some words out of them.

Later, when they had grown a year, they became totally unmanageable.  People talked about some of those boys in the staffroom with hushed tones.  There was one boy in particular (I will not name him) who made most staff wish they’d chosen street cleaning as a profession (although I think he would have still sought them out and he’d have still made their life hell.)

I once looked on the internet (Friends Reunited – remember that?) only to discover that someone had actually married him and he seemed normal. The thing about most classes, even if they possess a couple of choice individuals they mostly rubbed along together, and they sort of gelled eventually.  This class – who I’ll call Class H for the want of not wanting to call them anything else – seemed, on the whole, to hate each other.

Drama with them was a kind of weekly battle.  They couldn’t sit still in the normal course of things, so imagine the total chaos that ensued when  all the desks were removed.  I recall – at my wit’s end of being unable to command them in anyway at all – putting each of them on a chair, one in front of the other across the length of the hall in a desperate attempt to gain some control.  It worked, but only for so long: minutes from memory.   I also remember using every single teacher phrase on them, “It’s your own time you’re wasting”, “I don’t have anything else to do,” and “Every single minute you waste will be added at the end.”  This class made me realise that detention meant only one thing – a punishment for yourself.

So, at Christmas I was surprised by the visitation of Kate, Helga and another child who I hadn’t even noticed was in the room.   Because the battle lines were so firmly drawn, it was impossible to see the good stuff.  Kate pushed out her hand, “Here’s a Christmas card,” she said, and then, Helga giggled, high-pitched and inexplicably needy, did the same.

“Thank you girls,” I said, insanely grateful that not all 30 hated me.

The others in the class would victimise these three scraps of children, often throwing out insults beneath their breath.  So, I’d go to battle on their behalf, even though all three girls: Kate, Helga and the other one had the capacity to drive me wild.  Helga just couldn’t sit still and she whined.  She always wanted attention (because she needed it, I expect.)  I was always keeping groups of boys back for saying stuff about Helga, unpleasant stuff I don’t wish to repeat because she was 12 and not any of the things they spoke of or suggested about her (although now that I have been on the planet 30 years more I think Helga was a victim of some serious kind of abuse, and I know that I’d be trying to get to the bottom of whatever was going on for her in a safeguarding sense.)

One Monday, Helga didn’t come into school.  It was no bad thing from my point of view.  One less of those mad kids and I might even manage to get them into a circle!  No such bloody luck but at least it was one complication that I didn’t need, one angle of bonkersness removed that meant I might survive until lunch time with all my limbs in tact.

I wasn’t with them when they got the news that Helga had been killed in a car crash, but I heard the stories of their reactions in the staffroom.

For a month or two, all the class’s fight had gone.  The boys fell silent: no smart remarks came through.  The  girls got on with their work except Kate and her single remaining friend who cried genuine painful, heart-rending tears.

The rest were sort of bewildered because they’d no affection for Helga at all.  Daily, they’d called her names, made her short life more unpleasant than it needed to be, and – in that moment that she died – they’d lost all hope of redemption.  As a collective they struggled to say, honestly, how much they’d missed her, if only as the butt of all their jokes and they hung their heads in shame – all the spirit went from them.   They cried because of what they’d done, the pain they’d meted out to her and not what had happened.

Those children were wounded, damaged by a tricky life’s lesson: you can’t like everyone and sometimes, you get no chance to take back some of the things you’ve said and done.  I played my Drama lesson’s with a straight bat, giving them a chance to work through their feelings.

They mostly recovered.  And I was pleased to not have to teach them at the end of the year.






Author: Mary Brearley

I work in the charitable arts sector. I have worked all over the UK, and occasionally elsewhere.

31 thoughts on “Helga”

  1. Classrooms are an interesting lesson in group dynamics. If you remove someone from the position they play, whether it’s the bullier, the bully-ee (is there such a word?) or one of the other positions, it all falls apart for a while until there is a regroup and redistribution of positions. I’d like to think that they felt badly about what they had done but I’m not sure.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Me either. She was difficult. I’m not sure I can fully describe why but if someone is very damaged they sometimes exude a neediness and that gets on people’s nerves. I often wonder what her back-story was because she was complex. But in that room – she was one of many. I think they felt badly for what they’d done for a while, but it didn’t last. Because that was how they were – and probably how we all are? We recover, and unless we’re up for learning a lesson, just carry on?

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I only taught for 5 years, and I still carry the scars. I don’t know whether it has got better or worse. I have worked in a lot of schools over the years – more than 400 I’d say as a rough estimate – and it’s a tough do, but I’ve also loved going in and working with young people. My work is nowhere near hands on delivery these days nor would I want to teach but I think the restrictions on what can be taught are very damaging AND it would be dull. I am an arts education specialist and I worry for the generation coming through. I am the chair of governors and a governor in two schools AND the joy has gone out of it, whoever the children are!

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    1. I think we are terrifically complicated and how we merge (or not) and groupify is so complex. I can remember Helga’s face, her energy and have memories of her short life. I can remember virtually nothing about the rest of them!

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      1. It’s funny how some children stick with us through the years, and some fade away; for all sorts of reasons. Helga obviously touched you in some way. I’m sorry her life was cut far too short for your influence to have endured.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Tough way to learn the lesson though, through the loss of someone’s life. Pity it has to take something so dramatic. Just as well there are people like you to spread the love around.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I’m certain the positives far outweigh any negatives you may perceive. It’s a wonderful thing to always try to find the best in people. We’re not saying it’s not difficult sometimes. I fail too. More often than I’d like. But we try, try again. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. When I read this, I saw these kids. They are each unique and the same as every other child. I worked with many special needs classes–or whatever they are called today. What a beautifully written reminder of youth-

    Liked by 1 person

  3. very beautiful post Mary, handling special kids is really trying! To teach them something is herculean task unless you are trained for that specific purpose. Glad that problem boy grew up to be normal and is having a normal life 🙂


  4. Kudos to you for teaching these children. What I don’t understand why they keep special needs together and not mixed with normal children so that they learn other behaviour?

    Liked by 1 person

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