A few weeks ago a student from my school in year seven died of an existing, although not obviously fatal, illness. It wasn't an unusual illness, it wasn't anything special, and, unfortunately, for a child to die, although increasingly rare, is not a strange thing to happen. For the microcosm of the schoolyard, however, it is catastrophic. And quite rightly so.
Being a teacher is not a job in many senses. I know I said that it is a job in my last post but there are many parts of the occupation that fail to free themselves from the intricacies of normal life. Profoundly we are grounded by our emotions and by our, often reluctant, feelings of genuine care for our charges.
I have had a lot of difficulty in even getting this far in this blog post and I think this is because it is difficult to have a purpose to it. My anonymity prevents eulogy and the gravitas hobbles humour. And who would I be, anyway, to make light of death except through the sort of self-defence mechanism that is truly English in its nationality.
Perhaps, then, instead of trying to comment about it. Instead of trying to be pithy and plaintive and pundamentalist I should just be narrative. It was announced by the head teacher in morning briefing. It is probably one of the only times that I have ever genuinely heard a sharp intake of breath from a gathered crowd. People actually exclaimed. The child was well-known and popular, although that makes nothing more or less sad, and they had been well-known for helping around the community. I knew the child in a diminutive kind of way we had occasionally spoken, once during one of their outside school events. But that personal touch does not really matter because it is not whether the child is known to you or not that creates the impact of an event like this because there is always a personal touch.
I said to one of my colleagues at the time that it would not be the first few days that would be the most difficult but it would be the weeks afterwards when little things refuse to go away and some of the students found that memories cannot be cast off as easily as a filled-up exercise book. I didn't realise how right I was.
I will segue here. I return to that blissful, carefree summer when I left school myself. A boy from my year died. He went swimming at a party in a lake at the end of one of his friends' gardens and he got into trouble and died. A tragedy. Some years later the friend whose house it was would commit suicide. I do not know, and probably no-one really will, whether the two incidents were linked. I knew the two boys, but not well. The news spread as a virus through computers then, in a summer when people were spread a little thinner than they had been when they attended regular lessons but a lot thicker than, well, now. It was with a strange sense of deja vu that I watched the wave of despair spread across the school in front of my own eyes. It had the memory of a moment of remembrance at a celebration assembly for A-level results. A moment of watching a parent collect a brown envelope for a child who couldn't and then a gulp in the throat years later, hearing, second hand, out of date news.
I retold the story of my own sixth form to my students and I told them that, if there was anything to learn, it is that you must always talk about your feelings. You must talk about grief because it is different for everyone.
I will segue again. This time to a seminar on child protection. I have difficulty placing this one. It may have been at university or it may have been at NQT induction but I remember (probably only slightly erroneously) being told by a CP officer that it is always when you have the least time that the most important things come up. For the most part the legacy of grief in the school has subsided but, and I painfully recounted my own words in my head that it would take a while for the real issues to appear from the albeit painful malaise of potentially mass hysteria, it was with genuine concern that I found myself sat across from a student of mine who had changed. They had come to me on a full day of teaching, after a horrifically stressful lesson with the year ten class who were only spared expletives by a few millimetres of bitten lip, and they needed my help more than anyone I have ever taught.
I don't know how many of you have ever had a student sit down and really open up to you but it is the most difficult things that can happen because of the first thing that you have to say. Legally, Ethically and correctly the first thing you have to say are the words the student probably least wants to hear: 'I will have to tell someone else that you are telling me this.' And it is then that their eyes drop. It has happened to me twice. And both times I have had the thought running through my mind that I am not a psychiatrist but this child, this fragile little creature that is just a perfect incidence of everything that is right with the world believes that I am, or perhaps doesn't believe but they need me to be so much that they may as well have bought me a professional qualification to nail to the wall. Being a teacher is not being a teacher. Being a teacher is being a conduit through which a child can access anything without fear of judgement, without fear of pain, or ramification and with, overall, the sense of hope that you will be exactly the perfect thing that they need. It is quite stunning how many teachers know about teenage pregnancies before the grandparents, or father. I told this student the words. I told them that I would have to tell someone and I did and I did so knowing that, in all likelihood, this student would not trust me again. And I am proud of this because, when I saw them walking out of a session with the school councilor and ed psych a few days ago I knew that this was the best thing for them and that they would be alleviated of the thoughts that refused to leave their mind free of harassment.
I am proud of myself because I know that I did the right thing. I know that I have helped through knowing that I am fallible in my own ability. That I know that even when my day is terrible I always have time to see a student. Because a cup of tea and a biscuit are not always the reason we have breaktimes.
It has taken me too long to write this post, and it is so short. And I can't bear to profread it. And even now I cannot help but steal phrases from Vonnegut to fill in the gaps of my own expression. It is so short.
So it goes.