The boy who saved my life (in teaching)

Posted on September 11, 2012

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Eddie was his name. As incongruous in 1996 as it is now. And he was a fairly incongruous manboy: fully grown moustache to put my facial hair to shame; built like the proverbial brick shipyard’s toilet; trapped in the last year of compulsory schooling, like Ted Hughes’ Jaguar:

“On a short fierce fuse. Not in boredom / The eye satisfied to be blind in fire, / By the bang of blood in the brain deaf the ear / He spins from the bars, but there’s no cage to him”

I had taught Eddie for three weeks (with apologies to the word taught, for Eddie and I had done little more than share space within a classroom if the truth be told). A part of me would like to think that Eddie was unteachable to even the most amazing teacher. Another part of me would like to think that I could be more to him now than I was to him then; merely a handler, a glorified zookeeper. In reality I’m probably wrong on both counts.

I was in only the second year of my career and had made the decision to move from a tough school in Hull to an even tougher one in a more challenging (what a fantastic euphemism) estate in a probably foolish promotion to Key Stage 3 Coordinator of English. I should perhaps have taken more note of the fact that I was up against RON (re-open nominations to those of you without a background in student politics), but I was smitten by the cosmopolitan nature of my potential new epithet: the sense that the longer the job title the more impressive the holder of the post struck me as a truism at the time.

But my biggest mistake was that I had taken the job at a very tough school averaging 15% of students achieving 5A*-C (we didn’t bother with English and Maths in those days, but neither did we bother with BTECs) with the certainty of an imminent Ofsted. Again I should explain that in those far-from-salad days Ofsted spent a week in schools and gave two terms notice prior to their inspection: time enough for an ambitious leadership team to completely reinvent their school.

And so these two forces of nature converged on one another; the immovable rock of Eddie and the irresistible force of Ofsted, with me at the centre. Three weeks after the start of the academic year Ofsted arrived and within five minutes of period 1 starting, with Y11 and Eddie, they were in my classroom (interesting that we talk about Ofsted in plural form even when they are in singular form in our classrooms). And so I did what most NQT+1 teachers would do: I panicked.

Fifteen minutes into the 50 minute lesson I was still introducing the topic to the students, filling the vacuum of their lack of ideas: the buggers had decided to behave, which was shocking enough to throw me but it also meant that my lesson plan was far too short and I was mentally seeking ways to elongate the newly uninspirational lesson. My throat had shrivelled with dehydration and we didn’t advocate drinking water once upon a nineties. My heart was simultaneously thumping its way out of my ribcage and plummeting through my diaphragm. And my brain was managing to be both empty and full at the same time; neither of which was helping. And then I stopped, telling the bemused class to do whatever it was I had so imcomprehensibly managed to explain.

Amazingly, they all settled to work but all too curiously they did so in compete silence. This was more than I could take. This was like the dead body in Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’. They were mocking me. I sweated. I fidgeted. I grew almost to hate them. Damned silence. What were they up to. And I was about to break. I was about to “tear up the planks, admit the deed” when Eddie stuck his hand up……..

Who was I to fight Eddie? I was already broken by an inspector who’d done nothing, but Eddie clearly wanted to deliver the coup de grace. I shuffled towards him, cowed and bent, fearing the worst. He called me closer still, his lips (and that bloody full-bodied tache) close to my ear, ready to terminate my mewling, puking excuse of a teaching career. For the first time that lesson I was at peace because soon it would be over. And then he said the words that I’ve never forgotten.

“You’re doing fine Sir. It’s going well. You just need to calm down and this will be a good lesson.”

In that moment he became the dad I never had, the behaviour guru some of my Uni lecturers thought they were and something akin to the messiah delivering me from the burning fires of hell. I pulled myself together, drew myself up to the height of Goliath and turned the tables on the plucky but lucky David-like Ofsted inspector and I delivered a … Well, not quite good lesson (sound they called it in those days, which if spoken in a Liverpool accent is infinitely more preferable than ‘satisfactory’ or ‘requires improvement’).

But it saved me from the ignominy of a ‘poor’ or, if I remember rightly, ‘unacceptable’ judgement and it kept me in the profession that I hope I have since served well. And it was all down to Eddie.

I had to wait for another lesson to pass before breaktime, but as soon as I could I headed to the staffroom to tell the tale of how Eddie had saved my life (in teaching) because Eddie was the kind of kid who never got talked about pleasantly in the staffroom and because part of me wanted to steal his role on the story as redeemer to redeem him right back. But I never got to tell the story.

It seems that Eddie had left my lesson to go to an MFL lesson with a teacher with whom he had shared a mutual and malevolent hatred for five years. And it seems that Eddie had chosen the moment an inspector entered the classroom to unleash that hatred in a way that was as intentional as it was destructive. The school made an instantaneous decision to permanently exclude Eddie and so not only did I never get to tell that story, but I never got to see Eddie and thank him for saving my life (as a teacher).

I often think about Eddie and what might have happened to me without him to right my badly listing ship in my first and worst moment of crisis as a teacher. I hope he escaped the life many had mapped out for him. A couple of years later I left that school under a cloud nowhere near as dark as Eddie’s and I couldn’t help but think that it was somehow appropriate. But I never worry about him, because anyone savvy enough to do what he did on that day needs nobody’s fears. After all, as Hughes concludes in his poem, Jaguar:

“His stride is wildernesses of freedom: / The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel. / Over the cage floor the horizons come.”

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