The term has stuttered to an end; it has kangarooed like a learner driver along the road, or a drunk stag stumbling between pavement and curb at 4 in the morning limping towards the promise of repose and retreat or the relief of a toilet bowl for cold company.
It’s a familiar feeling. Every member of this nation who has courted a British education knows it as a school child, but we live it year after year, our very own special groundhog day; we notch the academic year, ’18/’19, into our very own grease-stained, sweat-stained bandoleers after another perilous cattle drive into our very own special sunsets saying adios to the beasts in our care. Some will return for next year’s drive across grass plain and dry desert while others, at the end, muster up for the sharp cut of results day.
Over the Summer many of us will soon be tackling the mounting charges of a DIY deficit, flannelling honeying sweat on furrowed brows. Others still will be marking books – yes, there are a few of them. They tend to have those nice gel pens in all sorts of colours while I rely on whatever the latest lost, unredeemed, pencil case has to offer. Still others will be negotiating the sudden demands of parental care without the professionally trained Key Stage babysitter to rely on. Still others will be aiming for the next personal achievement a, b or c on the latest trending chuck-it list.
For us it is a remodelling of the front bedroom and a new pantry with lime render and reclaimed timber shelves. I know. We are on Airbnb and we are Superhosts.
For me it is a year completed living away from home, sleeping in a Volkswagen T4, in builder’s white, with two duvets and sleeping bags in the belly of my tin shelter, moving from one secret park-up to another, listening to the night’s noises, sometimes recognisable, sometimes alien and very foreign. Some nights I hid away in woody valleys, others on high clifftops watching the sunset immerse itself in a watery horizon, still others brazenly on show in tarmacked car parks.
I made it, they made it, we made it. A few years back I was only just there, then; with no way of seeing here, now: survival was one day to the next day. Surviving that particular school year, in that particular school wasn’t a metaphor, a simile or an analogy for the trials and tribulations shared by many. It was personal. That year seemed to entertain only the lows, wining and dining one comment, one observation, one dismissive glance after another in gutter after gutter. I remember so clearly the day of prescription; the day of judgement and the chalky-white soldiers of clarity enclosed in a bed of silver foil, ordered like a military grave.
In education, as I’m sure in many other professions, it is hard to escape times of severe toxicity. That particular toxic period was so noxious to navigate that the invitation to escape the rules of life came at me like a siren’s promises and overwhelmed. And so, one after another, I popped my chalky-white soldiers and stepped back watching the day unfold comic strip -like.
I remember thinking I ought to report this to someone, my doctor having talked about it as an “injury that could impact your effectiveness”, so I did. My line manager, a voice of solidarity, pointed me towards a deputy. I remember feeling like I was just bothering him, but then I thought ‘this is an injury and school need to know’.
He nodded. Thanked me. Sympathised.
A short while later I had an email. I still have it. It told me not to feel like I needed to report the ins and outs, the developments or the changes. In translation it told me to just get on with things and stop wasting time.
That was it. White noise. I was on my own.
I left, handing in my resignation as late as possible, determined I would not return to teaching, but not knowing what I would do instead. I was in God’s hands.
But, sadly, it’s not only us, the professionals, who have this field of clotted mud to wade through. We share it with others vastly less prepared.
I recently looked back at a year group photograph and counted, more than I care to share, a number of pupils who will not be seen again because they are gone. Some I saw on the corridors, some I knew from the lunch queue, some I taught briefly or for years.
There are days when a child walks towards you along the corridor and, if it’s a girl, has her skirt pulled too high, or a boy, has his shirt untucked, and there have been times when, for a moment, they are another. Another child. This uniform exchange is so common that the memory serves up ghosts of children past more often than we might expect from times of reprimand. I’m reminded of Toms and Joshes, Jacks and Callums, or Sophies and Kayleighs, Chloes and Beths from days gone by.
Looking back at that school photograph, counting the loss, turned me to my keyboard and I sent out a special homework online to my GCSE class. They had gone. Exams were over. The July swelter was here. The homework won’t be seen by many of them, I know. I sent it anyway just to remind them that school, this school, is always here. There’s a family here for them ready to listen.
There’s no white noise here.
On my last night in the van I park up somewhere special. A church car park overlooking a beach. The shouts of a hen-do chorus across the sands in between the pitch and swell of the waves breaking on the shore and I sit listening, jotting down a reading list for the summer. Tomorrow is our last day – I have a school tour to conduct, one lesson to teach, a room to tidy, speaking and listening assessments to record and assess; there are leaving speeches to applaud and the obligatory after school drinks to attend.
Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to get in touch and share your responses to the adventure my wife and I are on. Mental health is a rising issue for many and this blog has been, in many ways, a life saver, as has the feedback.
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If you missed the article inThe Guardian you can find it here: