Let’s begin with two facts:
1. Salman Abedi attended Burnage Academy for Boys from 2009-2011
2. During that time, I taught him GCSE media studies
These simple facts are painful to write. Since Tuesday evening, when my wife mentioned the name of the attacker, I’ve struggled to reconcile these facts with the atrocity that took place in Manchester on Monday night.
My hurt is not the same as that of the principal of Runshaw College or of the headteacher of Tarleton Community Primary School, who both lost students in the attack. My hurt is very minor indeed when compared to the families and friends of the victims.
But it’s there, a constant dull throb that makes me linger when I tuck my sons up in bed at night and is a trouble to my dreams.
An impossible task
Having left Burnage in 2014, my hurt is not as raw as that of my old colleagues. Burnage is Manchester in microcosm. Its pupils – like the people of the city – are diverse, energetic, funny, inquisitive and confident (a teacher’s handy euphemism for "loud").
Its pupils are, like their fellow Mancunians, also generous and caring. Burnage – leadership, teachers, support staff and pupils – is devastated but will stand defiant, representing the city proper, rather than those on the fringe who seek to destroy the community in which it serves.
There have been bad pupils, of course. Like all schools, in all areas, in all societies. When confronted with the information that deluded, ignorant, hate-fuelled murderers have attended certain schools, it is tempting to rush to judgement. What must have happened in that school? Why weren’t they stopped earlier?
Tempting but wrong. All schools are highly attuned to the Prevent agenda, dealing regularly with unacceptable views, whether that may be pupils looking at Britain First propaganda, using anti-Semitic language or looking at jihadi websites. As long as there is no complacency around early signs of violent extremism, the uncomfortable truth is that there is very little that schools, and individual teachers, could have done differently in these situations.
Schools are often seen, paradoxically, as the source of, and solution to, all of society’s ills. Yes, schools play a vital role in providing moral guidance – the Burnage motto "be the best that you can be" runs through the core of the school like the writing in a stick of Blackpool rock – but they can’t be held accountable when several years later bad apples turn rotten.
'Dislikeable and lazy'
“What was he like?” is the question people have asked me again and again in the last couple of days. I have no response that can square with the actuality of a 22-year-old-man walking into a pop concert wearing a bomb. There is nothing in my recollection that can offer the insight they seek. No savage violence. No radical tendencies. No signs of a young man that wanted to take life through the most callous and senseless of acts.
Instead, all I can give are banal anecdotes about a dislikeable boy who displayed average laziness, mediocre rudeness and refused to complete his coursework on time.
“The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there,” wrote L.P. Hartley in the novel The Go Between. This week, I’ve been looking back to this different country. A more innocent country. A country where teenagers can go and see their idols without fear for their lives.
But the future will and must prevail. And heavy-hearted teachers will be there, continuing to shape the future: explaining, reassuring and talking about the difference between right and wrong.
Mark Roberts is an assistant headteacher at a secondary school in the South West of England. He tweets @mr_englishteach