Educating the East End, episode four: Shakespeare in Bruv

2nd October 2014 at 01:12




And so to Frederick Bremner, where we lay our scene. Enter, stage left, our hero Jebb, a prince of Walthamstow. This week's protagonist was a Jekyll and Hyde: he loved Shakespeare well enough, but also loved to bite his thumb at the teachers, in this case the permanently under-siege Mr Bispham, who by now has taken so much shrapnel in the Great War of the Classroom, he rattles when he goes to Zumba.


How sharper than a serpent's tooth


Jebb, the warrior poet. But Jebb had a temper wound as tight and as lightly as a mousetrap. Every time Jebb had a meltdown, the school held its breath and helped him count backwards from 100. Every time they held a hand out to help, he swatted it away. Every boundary they set with love, he smashed through it like the Hulk. Jebb was one of the 10/90 club: the 10 per cent of students who take up 90 per cent of your time. Even the headteacher, Ms Smith, got involved (and that's a heartening sign – every school has a core of students who tear like tornados through mainstream fences, and that's when you need the Big Dogs on the lawn).


But, be Smith unmannerly, when Jebb is vexed. She hath that about her which I would fain call master. What's that? Authority. Her, and a thousand other resigned martyrs to the wellbeing of children. No one with a speck of humanity should feel good about removing or punishing a child, but it is utterly necessary. Experience has taught me that the people who object most strongly to assertive sanctions, removals, deterrents, are frequently the people who have to deal least with the behaviour. Which in my book usually means you don't have to take their advice particularly seriously. Education: the field where everyone has an opinion, and only some of them are useful.


Not Smith, who – through the funhouse mirror of telly at least – appears to have a rare combination of heart, guts and sense. And those are three things that frequently fail to hold hands. A head dominated by one to the detriment of the others is worse than useless: either over-indulgent, a tyrant, or a bureaucrat. The synthesis of all three is worth more than diamonds.


So, Jebb takes every piece of cheese he can, and the trap snaps shut, eventually; was a child ever given more chances to amend? Only every day in school, the last thin layer of glazing protecting children against the cold wind of a world that rarely gives a **** that you've got anger management issues. Egoism is something we work hard to perforate in schools; balancing the needs of I and the needs of We is the trapeze act that underpins community and society. When the last school bell blows, too many children are rudely awoken to a narrative where they are inexplicably no longer the protagonist. Disney films lied: just being yourself isn't enough.


We meet thousands of Jebbs in our careers. Some you win, if winning means keeping them from falling off the table. And some you lose. And every one of them is as precious as the next, and the last. Sometimes it's easier to say that than to feel it, but as long as we remember that in our heads, we all have a chance.


The Taming of the Summer

And Summer, his sister, didn't fall far from the tree. She also had shades of dark and light: the temper, the brittle allergy to having her will thwarted by those fascist agents of injustice called teachers. She was no worse than many teenagers, with a dash less restraint than most, and a hatful of confidence. Her affinity for slam poetry, like her brother's Shakespearean heart song, showed that she had depths as well as volume. But don't they all?


Her story ended (I say end: we're seeing a fraction of a year here, and nothing really ends until the last nail on the casket) on a happier note: enough restraint to stay in school, and enough effort for a handful of grades to stick to her after the wind tunnel of exams.


In the end Jebb doesn't last ten rounds at school. "If he can't manage his behaviour," says a resigned Ms Smith, "then he can't be here." And so, with the certainty of an Elizabethan tragedy, he completes the equation, and falls into the tender embrace of a college. Less hassles about uniform, more responsibility. It saves some kids, others it doesn't. It's better than nothing for all of them.


And despite what detractors of exclusion say (or at least the managed move that this appeared to be, that old school voodoo somewhere between legerdemain and a hustle) it's never done carelessly. Kids like Jebb need more than a mainstream school can give them, and the sadness of it is that the provision elsewhere is often so thin.


And finally, Hazel the behaviour mentor, and her bottomless compassion. I am astonished by how some people can turn loss into love, but then the only constant about love is that it has no boundaries. There are countless people like her in every school rescuing children on a daily basis. Beyond the data spreadsheets and the statistical probability fields, there are women like Hazel, catching bullets and holding umbrellas. Thank God for the Hazels. We owe them a debt that SIMS can't track.


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