“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.