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The needs of Bad Luck Bevs are crosses we all must bear

This time it was a crisp packet. On the pavement outside her house. Obviously a child had dropped it and just as obviously I must find out who did it. It has been there all day. I can come down to see it if I want. And it has happened before. No one ever warned me that this would be my job. I thought it was all supposed to be about policy and strategy. But every so often I must meet Bev.

That is what my suit does. It makes me appear important. It confers a status upon me which I don't always deserve. She comes to the school because she knows someone will listen to her. I am ashamed to say that I don't do much about her complaints. It probably wasn't boys who threw bread crusts on her roof. My money is on the seagulls. But I tell her I will look into it and then we all laugh guiltily when she has gone. Listening is enough and in truth there isn't much I can do about some of her problems.

She brings the unexpected into our lives. I can never be sure what she is going to say when she sits down. She will take off her baseball cap, apologise for taking up my time and then begin some long and involved story about someone throwing mud into her garden. Last week she complained about children having sex at the bus stop. Unlikely since it was raining.

What can I do? Tell her to go away? We can't see the world through her eyes, a world where everyone makes fun of you. Every child is intimidatory, every glance, however casual, is aggressive.

So I give her time, which is all I can give. School is a structured and ordered world, and Bev's life has never had any of those qualities since she left us 15 years ago. She will never find a job since there are none anyway. The world is a confusing place so she returns to the only place that has ever given her security, where she was looked after and supported. So she returns to us because she still believes in our influence and goodwill.

But we never managed to give her the means for an independent life. So do her regular returns mean we failed her? Or are they a sign we have succeeded in giving her security? What I do know is that it is a hard world out there for some.

We know what goes on in our communities because we see it in our schools. We know the reality, we see beneath the political spin. On our grim and colourless housing estates life can be hard and relentless.

A life in the under-class leaves so many things forever outside your grasp. Poor home, poor diet, a life without richness or variety. I imagine that Bev never expected life to offer much else. After all, low expectations protect you from disappointment. In reality, like so many others, Bev is disenfranchised by her poverty. She has no computer, no credit card, almost no identity.

With no car, shopping is difficult and expensive. Not for her the special offers in the supermarkets or the out-of-town shopping centres. Bev must pay more locally for poorer quality. But at least the constant trips to the corner shop provide community and contact - but also the prospect of abuse from schoolchildren.

Bev speaks slowly and nervously. She is a little slow, a little misshapen. Her desire to appear modern and up to date has resulted in so many ear piercings it is a wonder she can hold her head up. But it just looks as if she is trying too hard. Casual teasing by adolescent boys follows her wherever she goes. It hurts and she can do nothing to stop the hurting other than by visiting the school and being listened to. How can I not do that? What right do I have to be pompous? Who among us is too grand to offer our time for a short while?

Would you want her life? No. Can you change her life? No. In all that we do we must never forget people like Bev.

If I sound patronising or pretentious then I don't mean to. Bev is a reminder of how lucky I am, of how lucky we all are that life gave us different path to follow. She is also a reminder of what our job can become, that whether we like it or not, our schools can represent so many different things. Sometimes it is a place where the vulnerable can come to be listened to.

We can all be full of eager ambition and purpose but one day we all will have to meet Bev. And a school which won't meet her and listen to her has lost its soul.

Geoff Brookes is deputy head of Cefn Hengoed School in Swansea. All names have been changed.

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