"It’s like prison." [Pause] "But you get to go home at three." – Devonté, Year 7, talking about Frederick Bremer School.
Man, when I finally get lifted by the feds, I hope I get to go to that prison. You could be home in time for the Countdown conundrum.
There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This week, Educating Not Really the East End turned its Sauron eye onto three of them: Louie, a Year 7 with attendance issues (worryingly, the Channel 4 website describes him as having "a cuteness factor of ten". Dude, please.); Devonté, another Year 7 with attending issues (which might be the last time we ever see that word used in that way, ever. Mark me); and Year 11 Charlie, whose issues were more unusual – he was young, gifted and blacked-out with panic.
Devonté was enduring an unhappy launch at the 3pm Alcatraz. He was already on Fresh Start, an internal exclusion/inclusion (I can barely tell the difference these days; it’s like flammable/inflammable) programme for children who, and I quote, "Struggle with mainstream". Which is an incredibly polite way of saying "tells their teachers to fück off quite a bit", or similar. Charlies like that can make a gauntlet of a teacher’s classroom, and my sympathy for those who have to corral these steers is bottomless. It’s quite impossible to understand the experience of being a teacher in a room with even a couple of kids who set their shoulders against your fine ambitions. While our hearts are breaking for the plight of the kids, let’s save a little for the men and women who get sandblasted by an endless wind tunnel of abuse and indifference.
Men and women like Ms Austin, his pastoral support, who spoke beautifully about her own troubled relationship with school and how she wanted to turn that frustration into wisdom. We saw her sat, patient as a Coldstream guard, with Devonté as he attempted re-entry into the atmosphere of mainstream, after petitioning deputy head Ms Hillman for his passport back. But despite her efforts, and the efforts of Mr Skinner in English, he burnt up before his parachute opened, and ended up back in Fresh Start. As always, on-camera interviews showed us a different pupil; a kind, cautious boy who cared for his mum when he went home. At school we hope that programmes like Fresh Start act as stabilisers until they can reconcile their warring natures and see that Banner wins over the Hulk. Fingers crossed.
Then Louie. Because I don’t write for the One Direction Fan Club, I can’t comment on what factor of cuteness he possesses. New to the school, he looked perfectly lost. He bunked like a pro, even pulling the classic "I’ve got a sore leg" gambit to throw seven different shades of smoke in the faces of home and school alike. Like bad backs and stress, it’s the ailment you never have to prove. Mrs Austin to the rescue again here, and this time with a happier resolution, as Louie – who was simply reeling under the shock of the new – learned that new schools (and big school especially) might be scary-ass places to start with, but, if you gave them time, they can feel as homely as a slipper.
And lastly, Saint Charlie, patron of high expectations. Years ago, he’d have been called a nerd, due to his brains and his endearing awkwardness. Maybe super-nerd, along with his partner in nerd, Joel (the "more successful with the ladies", as Michael described him. KILLAH) who both had the misfortune to be, unforgivably, very able. School is frequently unkind to those who do well at school, although geek-chic has made millionaires out of brainiacs who used to be martyrs to their causes. Charlie had a bigger problem – anxiety attacks. Perhaps worse than the actual attacks was the fear of them, which is ironically both the trigger, the result and the worst possible scenario for those plagued with them. Attacks are the devil; I used to get them myself, until I figured out a way that exorcised them forever (more on that later).
Yet again, Sister Austin was on hand to try to soothe his brow. But unless you’ve felt the fear yourself, it’s hard to explain, let alone counsel against. The concern is that he’ll get within ten paces of his GCSE exams, and then go to pieces like a hand grenade in a room full of dynamite. The fear starts to seep into his daily life, and he misses more and more lessons to his inner demons. Amazingly, we discover he also plays in a band, which for someone anxious about being judged and watched, seems a bit like the Heart of Darkness. In a scene straight from a Disney film, we see him bottle it like a veteran as the opening bars to Get Lucky (his tune) played, before he stormed on stage and nailed it. Look out for his spin-off series on ITV2+1 soon. It was aversion therapy on a grand scale. "Bit nervous about crowds? Here, have Wembley."
It was fear that kept Louie on the bench, and fear that drove Charlie to pace the corridors and run away. Being the world’s biggest coward, I know a good deal about fear. And how I overcame anxiety? I simply realised it couldn't kill me. So when the familiar dread, breathlessness and strobing heart beat stopped the breath in my chest, I stopped fighting it; I dared it. I told myself, "Go on then, freak out. do your goddamn worst." Feel the fear and – as the books say – do it anyway. Charlie nailed it on stage. And he nailed his exams (10 A*s and As). Louie made new friends. Fear is a useful tool, if it stops you doing something stupid. But it’s a terrible burden when it stops you doing something wonderful. Happily for both our protagonists, they did it anyway.
With a little help from their school.
PS Nuff respect to the school for showing the moment when an unnamed kid grassed up his mates quite spectacularly; on camera. I bet he's bloody popular right now. I hear school communities are pretty forgiving about these kinds of things. Just give it a few decades, it'll all blow over.