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Pupils I'll never forget

An unguarded moment of sadness in front of Paul changed the course of Lin Sheffrin's career

Paul wasn't that striking: a bit conspicuous because of his height and a voice you couldn't ignore. That's about it. But he was special. I met him at a crucial time and the encounter changed my life.

I inherited his Year 10 class when I joined North West Kent comprehensive in the early 1990s, their eighth modern languages teacher that academic year. My predecessors had succeeded in delivering about 10 words of German to them, nine of which they'd forgotten. They were a tough class, but did refer to me as their first "proper" teacher. A compliment.

Autumn 1993 had been a stressful term for me. My mother was in a hospice dying of cancer and, on this particular October day, I was on a shorter fuse than usual. I lost my cool with Paul, and the class was taken aback when I sent him to work in an open area next to the deputy head's office.

I remember the moment the deputy came to our room: the class was working in stunned silence. I thought she wanted to talk to me about Paul, but it was my brother on the telephone. My mother had fallen into a coma. I remember stepping out of her office in tears. I might have expected resentment from Paul as he sat in isolation, but instead he asked me if I was all right. I told him my mum was dying. He never again disrupted my lessons.

Paul, who rarely volunteered an answer, put up his hand eight times when Ofsted visited, and he started hanging back after class, chatting about his life. He was mixing with the wrong crowd and was in trouble with the police. Under a tough exterior, I uncovered a frightened little boy. His words at the end of 1993 encapsulated our shared troubles: "It's been a lousy year one way or another, hasn't it, Miss?"

I have a lot to thank Paul for. In that unguarded moment he saw my vulnerability. In return he allowed me a glimpse into his life. His trust in me gave me the inspiration and courage to change direction and I moved into special needs. Many pupils with problems confide in me, but I'll never forget Paul. He was the first.

Lin Sheffrin is assistant special need co-ordinator at Carisbrooke high school, Isle of Wight. Do you have special memories of unforgettable pupils? Write to Sarah Bayliss at the address on page 3 or email sarah.bayliss

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