I remember our first meeting. It was during what could only loosely be referred to as a PE lesson. My eye was drawn to you, there you were sitting in the centre of the playground, strumming a rogue ukulele. You didn’t know it, but you were calling out to me – shrieking to me across the playground – telling me that you needed someone. You should have been intimidating to approach, but you weren’t. Warmth radiated from you. It was clear you wanted to tell me to go away, but you wanted to be cared for more.
“You don’t need to bother talking to me, Miss. I’m going to move classes, you won’t have me next term anyway.”
I took you at your word but stuck around regardless: you had my attention. I convinced you to walk with me to the music room, to replace the liberated ukulele – you didn’t need it any more.
“What do you want to be when you’re older?” I asked. Your reply – "a hobbo".
“Why not the prime minister instead?” I suggested. Laughing at me, you shrugged off the suggestion. “Why not?” I quizzed in all seriousness. “You have ideas, right?” Oh boy, did you have ideas. “Don’t you want the world to hear them?”
How had you been heard up until then? Classroom doors flung open, pencils thrown across the room, screams of injustice directed at the children, the teachers. Your world was, is, an unjust one. You have love but not enough of it, not the safe, all-consuming maternal love that you can return to each day and each night and use to shrug off the hurts of the day. Your world is purely male, chaotic, it has blackened milk teeth, sisters who you have never met and a mother who is so confusingly absent. You are half-abandoned, sleeping in the day’s clothes, hair matted under your hijab, the smell of feet protruding from unwashed socks as you are introduced to the joys of Spike Milligan.
A teacher's love
I’m not your mother, I tell you a year later – I’m not that lucky – but you give me a glimpse of insight into a mother’s worry. You smile. You need a permanent maternal figure, we both know it. I can’t offer that, but I can – I have – offered you unconditional love, support, relentless stability. I have pursued you through the school halls, ignoring slights designed to cut my skin and test my care for you. I have sat with you in silence on the library floor, balloon in hand, while you sobbed about the impending holidays. I have set up a club, you and I are the sole members. What do we do in the club? We skip, we read, we deconstruct the day. I offer you advice and you tell me I am like a therapist. I am just an adult, a teacher, who has the time to listen to your stories, your woes, your successes – for you this is therapy, for me this is love.
In seven weeks, you will leave me and the relative safety you have come to know in my classroom. I look at your empty chair at the beginning of the day and can’t quite imagine anyone else sitting there. Although you have flourished, your future is far from certain – it ties a tiny knot in my stomach.
You are not mine, all I can do is offer you someone to return to when you need a hand to hold. I want to fling open the doors of your secondary school and demand to meet all your new teachers and insist that they see and nourish all that is warm in you (I fear that you will hide it again). I didn’t fix you – you didn’t need fixing, you needed love. Where will it come from now? Now, I must trust that there is a teacher waiting – ready to be your champion. A teacher who is poised to walk with you back to the music room, to help you find your voice and steady you lovingly through your teenage years.
So, now to you, the secondary school teacher, I toss the baton ready for you to catch – the baton of love.
Rachel Mowbray is a Year 6 teacher in the UK