Monday, July 31, 2006

Apathy Jack writes:

(Were I in the mood, I could probably turn this into several individual posts about the nature of teaching, amusing confabs with students and dreary tales of the tedium of my existence, which would be good - for certain values of good - for a week or so of daily updates. But I'm not in a mood to write well, just to vent a wee bit. You can skip this one if you want...)

Life's been interesting (in the overused Chinese-curse sense of the word) at Hoodrat Academy for Higher Learning this term. My department is under investigation for being shit, which involves me filling in a lot of forms. (I'm not being looked at - wash out your brains for thinking that. But I have to fill in forms on the people who are...) Also, I've been missing deadlines set by my Head of Department and not reading the memos she sends out because, hell, I just can't be bothered any more, you know. (Still not under investigation.) Which has been biting me on the ass a bit of late. Not enough to get me all the way to the end of one of the memos, but still...

One of the more disaffected members of my department asked me why I've stuck it out for so long. I had to answer truthfully: I think about quitting a lot. More and more every day.

What always stops me is thinking of the kids. Corny and silly though it may sounds, I stay for them. All of the bullshit, all of the ineptness, all of the defeatism: they make it all worth suffering through.

Which is why it hurts so much to constantly lose them.

It's a weird specific of my job: You spend years acting as teacher/councillor/parent/friend/parole officer to someone, then one day you never see them again.

The pattern goes that they usually visit twice in their first year out of school, once the subsequent year, and never thereafter. Nor should they: I barely walked past my old school once I was allowed to leave, and visiting my old teachers - even the ones I liked - simply didn't occur to me in the mad dash out the front gates.

I can't claim a moral highground on the subject of forgetting one's past. For every kid that leaves, a replacement comes in. I have hundreds of new names to learn every year, and given that I can barely remember to take my bag home with me at the end of a given day, there's only so much room in my head. There was one kid who I spent a year mentoring, looking after. I screamed when she attempted suicide and worried all day whenever she didn't turn up. I put my heart and soul into her, and it killed me when she was taken away from my school by the currents of her unpredictable life.

The other day I forgot her name.

I was thinking about her for the first time in a while, and I realised I had blanked on her name. Took me ages to remember it.

But back to my original point: I stay for the kids. Which, when you think about it, is not entirely accurate. I stay for a couple of dozen of the kids.

Which couple of dozen varies from month to month.

Kids change as they go through their teens, and, perhaps more damningly, I stay the same, which leads to peaks and troughs in how we get on. I've had kids who would kill for me in third form who can't stand me by fifth, and I've had kids where the reverse is true. I like almost all of my kids, but really, in terms of making it worth my time to sail on the Marie Celeste of secondary education (my pet name for Hoodrat), I come up with the faces of individuals, not whole classes. And those individuals are, for the most part, different at the end of any given year.

But it's weird who you lose.

The bright and enthusiastic little third former who was brought into the special needs unit - who I had changed into a different class because I saw she could do better than where she was put - has been taken out of the school because it's too far from her family home. A valid reason, but a silly one, especially considering that she had stability and friends and teachers who cared about her here.

Menwhile, the kid (or 'man') who's in my Year 13 class for the third time sits there very day, edging ever closer to his twentieth birthday, but no closer to passing the work he's attempted twice before.

But it's weird: I had to talk to one of my Year 14s today. (Year 14 is the semi-official nomenclature for what we used to call Second-year sevenths - someone repeating the last year of school). This kid clashed with my HOD so badly last year she walked out of class one day never to return, and the boss was so glad to see the back of her, she never reported the absence.

I put the kid up the back of my Year 11s and gave her notes on Shakespere to read.

At the beginning of this year, I had her put in my class - she has to repeat English because all she passed last year was Shakespere. However, she's been so indolent of late that I've been yelling at her to leave school, not to stop wasting her own time (which is the line taken by the diplomats) but to stop wasting mine. I'm pissed off, so want the distraction gone.

And this is the one I like. The kid who always rubbed me the wrong way has been on the recieving end of some remarkaby unprofessionaly rudeness vis. getting the hell out of my school, for a few weeks now.

But there are still my favourites. The kid who wants me to edit the book she's writing; the kid who sits in my room at lunchtime reading, no matter how much noise surrounds her; the kids who speak to each other in spitfire pig-Latin during class - when they found out I could actually understand them, they said it was okay, because they knew they could trust me not to reveal their secrets; the kid who intentionally didn't take my class this year because she had been with me for three years, and said that was more than enough, who came back to me after a term of her new class to admit that, alright, I WAS a good teacher, and she hadn't realised how bad the others were....

One of the ones I've known since third form. Been in my class every year of high school. We were chatting today. She made the old joke that I'd die a teacher. I made the old joke that I expected it to happen in the next year or so.

"You've been saying that for five years," she said.

Five years, for fuck's sake.

I've seen her through first job, first boyfriend, first sibling, second and third stepfathers if I'm keeping correct count, and all of the other stuff that happens to you between entering your teens and leaving them.

She's missed a couple of weeks of school. I texted her and told her to come in and see me. Year 13 is when you go insane, you see. You lose all motivation, lose patience with your friends and support networks, and go stir-crazy with wanting it to be over. It happened to me, it happened to friends of mine, and it happens every year to my students. This term alone I've had the "this-too-shall-pass-you'll-regret-it-later" conversation with about five people: that's more than two a week. And now it's happened to my girl. She has a legitmate reason for her absences, but she's seriously thinking about not coming back once the legitimate reasons dry up.

I made her give me a date she was returning to school, and gave her some catch-up work in the interim. She says she's going to stay in school now. But I can read my ones well enough to know that there was an undercurrent to the "Yes" when she promised to stay in school. I know she'll come back on the date she gave me, because she told me she would, but I don't know how long she'll stay.

And that is enough to shake me. Enough to remind me that, yeah, there are those few dozen students I stay for, but you know, it was a different lot at the beginning of the year, and I hadn't even met most of them last year.

This is transitory. It all changes. Everything has a time and everything dies, to make a pop culture reference.

I remember something said by the best teacher I've ever seen when he left my school, as so many have done before. He said that he'd miss the kids - and his tears on the last day were proof of that - but that kids were kids. The ones at my school are special (and that's not pride talking, it's the Education Review Office: they say we have a statistically higher number of socially broken children - which is the reciepe for 'special' - than other schools in the city) but there are special ones elsewhere also. Not as many, certainly, but they're there if you look.

I know it's not the best fodder for the Apathy Jack image I seem to have cultivated with some of you delusional sods who haven't met me - admitting that sometimes I think that giving up on my kids wouldn't be too great a loss, that, given a year or so to find my feet, I'd be finding the same stories to tell at another school - maybe my kids aren't that special.

I don't know. It's been a long month.

But then I remember the small things. The stupid small things.

One of my kids saying that, although she has finished the ten or so of my books she has at home, she doesn't want to bring them back yet because she likes looking at them. She thinks that's weird. I have to explain to her that what she's feeling is a sense of accomplishment, pride at reading more than she ever has before, and she can keep the pile of books for as long as she wants.

Walking out of the school a few nights ago, and a kid who looks only vaguely familiar cycles past and calls out to me by name. He was ESOL, which is an area of the school I don't spend a lot of time in, so I don't know many of their lot - especially not whizzing past me in a bike helmet when I'm entrering the euphoria stage of tiredness and not really focussing my eyes, so I'm not sure if he was a current or an ex-student. But it's nice to think that he knows me. I would have never acknowledged one of my teachers outside the boundries of school, had I ever seen one.

Having the following conversation with one of my students:

"So, you emailed me about your essay last night."
"And the only thing in your email was Othello."
"Okay. It was a good essay."

Which seems unremarkable, but you know how when you spend a lot of time with people and you evolve your own idiomatic ticks - your own little language? Well, that's what this was, because there were prying ears in the room. Running our conversation through a translator

"So, you emailed me about your essay and nothing else last night."
"Pregnancy test was negative, then?"
"Good. From now on, wear a wetsuit you degenerate."
"I will."

The small things don't make it any less of a long month, but you know, sometimes they take the edge off...

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