Channel 4's school-procedural tackled the crime genre last night, as we followed Sheriff Mitchell's attempts to unpick the rotten behaviour of some of his Thornhill Tombstone. This week the fixed-rig inspector-on-the-wall edu-doc turned its panopticon eye onto one specific incident, and its repercussions.
In the blue corner, we had Jac-Henry, an introspective, self-effacing boy with a black belt in self-immolation. And in the orange corner, Georgia, a confident year 11 with almost admirable reservoirs of self belief and a bulldozer philosophy of social interaction. Their scrap formed the skeleton of the next 50 minutes.
A note of caution to myself and the reader: while this is documentary, it's also a work of edited artifice, and anything I say about any of the protagonists must be filtered though the understanding that there are the real people involved in this, and the TV simulacrums of those people. I refer only to the latter. For all I know, the kids are the polar opposite of their portrayal, and the producers have connived like Descartes' Evil Demon to trick us.
That caveat aside, it was hard to love Georgia. Every teacher wrestles with her and her kin. The confidence of a Cromwell, and the humility of Robert Mugabe. Too smart to be quiet, too dumb to know when to stop talking, children like this bulldoze through schools unless they are tackled and treated. And then there was Jac-Henry, a normally mild boy who got his collar felt for lashing out at Georgia in the playground. It would be easy to default to factory settings and describe Jac-Henry as a nerd and Georgia as one of the Mean Girls, but as events proved, stereotypes, particularly ones born in the womb of 80s American teen flicks, often prove ill-fitting.
Georgia described herself as 'part of the cool set', and sure enough we saw her and her lieutenants march confidently around school, rolling their eyes and dominate lessons. She then described Jac-Henry as 'One of the geeks', then checked herself. 'They're not exactly boffins...they get on with teachers.’ Oh brave new world, that hath such creatures in it. Georgia's consiglieris were at least committed. 'She's mental,' said one, bravely. 'Aye, proper mental,' confirmed the other. At least she didn't make her horse a senator. Their eyebrows were insane, at least. They confirmed that they made fun of Jac-Henry and his friends. 'We start taking the mick, calling them names.....some people are popular and some people just aren't,' mused Georgia, channelling Proust.
The facts, ma'am, just the facts. In a maelstrom of he said she said- the mantra of pupil interrogations- we learned that names had been called, punches thrown. Marshall Mitchell did the decent thing and interviewed both. It is hard to overstate how tedious this process is, yet how necessary. Two children can blow their tops for an instant, and you have to spend the rest of your day and beyond dealing with it like Poirot. From Georgia's perspective, she had simply called Jac-Henry out over his name calling, and he retaliated with a punch. Cue outrage from the school corpus. The first rule of fight club is that boys do not hit girls, and Jac-Henry blew it. But his statement was remorseful, mature and full of sorrow.
Georgia, on the other hand, was breezy and wounded. As far as she was concerned, her good name had been besmirched, and defending it, she bought some lumps. On the face of it, it seemed clear-cut who was slave and whom slaver. And Mitchell's rough justice ground exceeding slow but certain- Georgia got a disappointed look, and Jac-Henry got the cooler for three days and a course of anger management. Case closed.
Except...we found out that Jac-Henry had been the subject of bullying for some time. In his defence he said 'I wasn't going to take it any more.'
We don't know much more of this context- the extent, the depth or the breadth of the torment, slight or vendetta. At school, bullying is rarely simple. Often the apparent oppressor is actually the oppressed, having made the fatal error of being caught in retaliation. Often the victim is the criminal, having the wit to cry wolf the loudest. That's why the wisest heads and the wisest Heads triangulate their evidence and temper it with judgement and experience. Children are rarely Moriartys. They are no master criminals. A drop of inductive reasoning usually scares off most cover stories.
Mitchell Lansbury did what a man had to do, but you couldn't help but think that Jac-Henry was more sinned against than sinning. But that's justice this side of the grave: imperfect. From what I could see, Jac-Henry was carving out some dignity where little existed in a system that couldn't defend him any more. And the Head was doing the only thing he could do to someone who brought fists to a word fight: bang the gavel and throw the book.
One thing: sending a boy like that to anger management was just short of cruel and unusual treatment. Everyone has a breaking point, and I usually find that the day people stop systematically tormenting someone is the day they stop having an anger management problem. The old saw that 'if you did that on the outside you'd be in trouble' only stretches so far. If someone regularly called you a *** every day 'in real life' they'd be nursing a sore face too. Of course, the anger management didn't help, because the torment carried on. Sure, he's wrong to lash back, but perhaps not very much. Did Kenny Rogers sing The Coward of the County for nothing? You could see the case for the defendant in the eyes of Mr Steer as he performed Jimmy Cricket duties to King Mitchell. 'He was provoked,' he said. 'She knows just what buttons to press.' But Mitchell was stone to his scissors; 'You can't fight in a school,' he emphasised. And he was right. And so, in some way, was Jac-Henry.
Meanwhile, Georgia (sample quote, when asked 'did you stand on his head?': 'Ah dunno. Maybe.' Oddly, most of us remember the times we stand on people's heads.) is up to her tricks, telling teachers to f*** off, that kind of thing. You can tell I'm brimming with sympathy for Georgia. She was warned that if she, you know, continued to tell teachers to f*** off, she'd be watching prom on Youtube. f*** offs were duly made available. Mitchell had no option but to refuse her admission, but you'd be amazed by how many schools see last warnings as revolving doors, so I was gratified that he meant what he said, telling her without malice or fear.
Still, few teachers could have failed to sympathise with Steer when, finding out what Georgia was about to be told, said 'Can I be there when you tell her?' A line must have formed from the staffroom to The cliffs of Dover. Especially when we overhear her telling her mates that he wouldn't dare because her mum would 'kick off'. A few other people could be better served with anger management, it seems.
I feel the duty of care to every child that comes into my locum. No teacher can spontaneously love every boy and girl in their grasp because love cannot be forced; rather it is drawn out, grown. But some children, it must be said, make it harder to get the Pom-poms out. Strangely, the overtly fractured children are the easiest to embrace. But the bold and the arrogant resist appreciation more than most. It's important to dislocate one's personal dislike of the very few children who encourage such feelings. Especially if you believe, as I do, that every sinner can find their way back even as the doors shut behind them.
'I wish I could start again,' said Georgia, looking back on her school career. Too many of our children only learn wisdom after it is no longer needed. And part of our job is to make sure they have it, whether they want it or not.