Billy was eight when he came to us, having been permanently excluded from another local school. It was his second exclusion; he had already been excluded from nursery school. He looked angelic, with blond hair, blue eyes and a heart-melting smile; always clean and smart, he smelled of shampoo and fabric conditioner.
But Billy was also full of anger. He reminded me of the girl with the curl in the poem: when he was nice he was very very nice, but when he was bad he was horrid. Mostly he was bad.
We were a small school, with generally well-behaved children, so we could afford to spend time with Billy. Some days he managed only 20 minutes in class before disrupting the lesson; then he had to spend the rest of the day working outside the head's office. Educational psychologists agreed he had problems with his behaviour, and moderate learning difficulties, but no diagnosable condition such as dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The family was well known to social services, but had no answers either.
The head never gave up and worked hard with Billy to improve his behaviour; he was one of the few adults Billy respected. As Billy got older his behaviour improved, slowly although academically he made little progress.
When the time came for him to leave, we could only hope the improvements would continue at secondary school.
That was a long time ago, and I hadn't heard of Billy for years, although I did occasionally think about him. Then, last week, I was in the doctor's surgery and a young man politely asked for a prescription. I recognised his mother's name and wondered if it was Billy.
As he turned to leave, he recognised me, and asked how I was. He said he'd done a modern apprenticeship after leaving school, and had a good job that he enjoyed. He hadn't been in trouble for several years. He asked about the head, now retired, and said how kind he'd been, how much he felt he had helped. There was a lump in my throat. I'd always known there was a nice person inside that boy struggling to get out.
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