The blog has mostly been a diary of disaster and misery, it has been the
place to scream about injustice and illness but that ends here. Whilst not
always completely well, I am happier than I can remember and now live
the corruption and incompetence on a national not institutional setting; it
is removed to distance. From now, the posts will be about life and health
starting with #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek.
Teaching gave me many gifts. The greatest of these were the connections I made, the most wonderful of which were with pupils. Sadly, the ineffective safeguarding rules that pervade since the murder of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman (by the creature I shall not name) crippled some until I was close to leaving but some connections endure. I am going to tell the story of one unlikely, glorious connection that has healed wounds in me and the ex-pupil and brought us both joy and satisfaction. It has been the greatest gift of my career.
As the first decade of the new millennium closed, I was told (as Head of Science) that a new pupil would join my lower set Year 10 class in September. Although irritated that I had not been asked which group to assign, I accepted that my group would be best when told they had little English. The following Monday, a nervous young blond girl arrived, and we started to try to converse. It was awful. I wanted to welcome and relax her but could not pronounce her name and she couldn’t understand much of my speech. She is called Emese, but this is pronounced Emesha in Hungarian, her native language. Her second name included letter combinations and accents to letters I had never seen, and I couldn’t catch the sounds when she spoke them. The other children had already met her and referred to her as Mesi (pronounced Meshy) and she was content that I adopted that. I now understand that she would find this extraordinarily familiar from a teacher but serendipitously it matched my style: In my classroom formality came in the culture not the form of address to pupils. Mesi was quiet, friendly and interested. She concentrated hard but understood little. I asked for language support, there would be none. I tried google translate, it was a risible failure. I tried sitting our technician with her to help, but it did not help at all despite the best efforts of both. The class were ‘lively’, every time I paused to try to help Mesi, they would begin to chatter and lose focus. I was frustrated and guilty. This girl had been dropped into my class and was barely getting any education at all. Quickly, Mesi started to make an impression with her determination and sheer hard work. Her English rapidly improved (I later found she spent every night in the local library studying) and she began to learn the science. In weeks she had caught up and was leading the class, a phenomenal performance. All homework was perfectly done and she concentrated for every second of the lessons. I began to be a little worried though because she would arrive early for lessons, clearly not socialising at breaks and she looked so sad until I arrived and she could go into the lab ready to start. My safeguarding ‘spidey-sense’ started to tingle: why was she sad? Why was she isolated? Was there a cause for concern? On one day, clearly upset she angrily shouted, “I hate my stepfather!”, she would not elaborate embarrassed at the attention. Although I looked for non-accidental injury and acute distress she always cheered up in the lesson and did well. She never crossed my threshold for intervention. I was wrong. Although not physically abused, she had a difficult home life.
(I shared this with Mesi to check she was content with the story being shared; she kindly gave permission but did not agree with my description of her performance. She pointed out that she always felt underconfident in English, spent most time studying her Hungarian subjects and did not get top-of-the-class results. This last point is certainly true but in my opinion was a function of her understanding of the question paper. Her classroom performance was outstanding. We agreed to leave the comments whilst acknowledging her different opinion.)
Mesi continued to do well, clearly now top of the class, she was the perfect pupil. I moved her to the back corner to bring chattery Sean to the front, away from his peers confident she would continue to do well. When it came to the first exams in November, I asked for translation. The Exam Board said no. I was told it was an English Science Examination and translation is not allowed. I asked for extra time, again not allowed. Other children who had weak reading had readers and one a scribe, the Hungarian got nothing. I was livid. She told me she did not understand some of the questions but had done her best. In December, she arrived excited; she told me she was going home to see her real Dad for Christmas. She was so happy, it was glorious to see, I said farewell and I would look forward to her stories from Hungary when she returned. She didn’t. I did not see Mesi for a decade.
In January, I was given a letter and three bars of chocolate that had been brought to school. The chocolate was delicious, the letter so sweet. Mesi was not coming back, she would live with her Dad in Hungary instead. I was happy for her, it was the right place for happiness and attainment, I was touched by her thoughtfulness.
Of course, I wanted to reply and thank her for the chocolate and wish her well. I should have. I did a stupid thing and went to clear it with the Head as we had been told “no private communication with pupils”, he read the letter, agreed it was a lovely gesture and said the policy was clear: no contact, no reply. I was stunned. How rude would that be? I explained she was no longer a pupil, he reminded me that she was still officially on-roll and could return. He got my clamped-jaw silent about turn and exit. For a few weeks I considered ignoring this instruction but then had an opportunity for permission again. We had Level 1 Safeguarding training led by a Council safeguarding lead and a Child Protection Officer. I would explain and ask them at questions. After the session on sexual exploitation, it was questions, and I made my pitch. It backfired horribly, the Council Officer said no: “not advisable”. Checkmate. I did not have the moral courage to do the right thing and ignore these instructions (I would now) and I would carry a burning guilt that I had let this pupil down after her wonderful thoughtfulness. The guilt would fester and build for almost 10 years. I had got her results, they did not match her ability, I had a photo taken of her class, hoping that I could send them soon. They stayed in my desk as the strictures became stricter: no links on Social Media (why I have always been anonymous), emails, letters or contact of any kind outside school. The problem became buried by the swamp of institutional failure previously documented in previous posts, the Head pushing for a rebuild under PFI. I told him it “would screw the school for six years”, it is still ‘flatlining’ (SM) after nine. The guilt still burned deep in my ‘soul’ feeding the damaging dark saboteur of my mind that I was a vile and cruel human. As I reviewed my career following a breakdown and the decision to take early retirement after a further year of work, that guilt nagged. I searched Facebook and found her name on the profile of a young woman who was a paramedic in Hungary, surely not a coincidence. I sent a message saying who I was and thanking her for the letter and chocolate if she was indeed the ex-pupil of a decade ago. I got an immediate answer.
In Part two, I will bring this story up to date with the most remarkable
friendship and events that flowed form that answer.