How do you teach spiritual values to children whose whole lives are defined by violence and neglect? Gerald Haigh finds out
Imagine this. A group of children come into your classroom for a lesson. One girl is angry. "Teachers are shit," she says. "School's shit. Everything's shit." Her mother, it turns out, has beaten her and screamed at her before school. Then another boy comes in. He scribbles on the table. A day or two earlier, you found out that his mother had just died in an alcoholic coma. His father had fallen, drunk, from a window and is in hospital.
And your task today? To give these children a religious education lesson about Moses. "Make your lessons relevant," they used to say in college. "Relate them to your children's experience." How many teachers in how many cities have reflected on that thought, faced as they so often are with children whose lives are outrageously turbulent, beyond anything they have previously imagined?
I heard once of a young teacher in New York's South Bronx who set her class what she considered a challenging and interesting maths problem. When she had finished explaining it, a small boy looked at her in amazement and said: "Lady, I should have your problems."
Inger Hermann - the teacher who wanted to tell her children about Moses - has taught religious education in three special schools in Stuttgart. In Born into Violence she describes how she rose to the challenge of engaging with children whose lives are defined by violence. Many of the pupils introduced in her book come from homes dominated by alcohol, drugs and criminality. Others are refugees from conflicts in eastern Europe. Their stories are reminders of the way that, as adults, we often fail to give our children even the basics of kindness and shelter, falling instead, through selfish pursuit of our own national and personal priorities, into casual neglect and cruelty.
The stories are horrific, and yet you know there are teachers in many schools in every country for whom they will be familiar enough.
There's Alexa, for example, who pretends one day to be unwell so she need not go to gym. "She lifts up her T-shirt. Bloody weals on her back. Takes off her neck scarf - I'd been wondering about that; it was such a hot day. Long scratch marks and dark patches on her neck. 'Who?' I ask, horrified. 'My mother,' she says in a matter-of-fact way."
That's not all. Alexa's mother doesn't hit her after 6pm, because that's when her father comes home. Her father doesn't hit her. In fact, as Alexa puts it: "Quite the opposite." Alexa pleads, begs her teacher not to tell, for she loves them and fears what might happen to them. She dreads, too, the impact on the extended family in Greece, with whom she eventually finds refuge.
She shows, in Hermann's words, "Amazing readiness for suffering and love in the midst of the tangle of hatred and pain."
And there's little Sarah, who poos her pants in class and howls in fear of what her mother will do to her. Her mother, in turn, is being violently abused by a boyfriend called Umberto. Sarah is proud that she is able to call the police when this happens, because she knows the number off by heart. "My mum trained me," she says. "Because you always need the police."
Inger Hermann is a Christian. Her RE lessons are lessons in Christianity, and they include prayer and a blessing at the end. Her message, though, holds true for all teachers of children whose lives are beyond either the experience or the understanding of pundits, critics and government ministers. It is simply that what all children need above all else, is someone who will listen to them and value them as people; someone who will give them attention and kindness and who will not, as all adults have done so far, let them down.
And the lesson on Moses? How did that go? Well, the children complained of being hungry and thirsty, and so a way forward presented itself. "I remember that I've some bread down below in the car. A minute later, we're creeping downstairs on tiptoeI I open the door to the garageI All nine of us manage to fit into the carI I share out the bread, two slices each. I wanted to tell them about Moses, about his mother's distress at Pharaoh's order to kill the children, about the care with which she launched him on the river in a basket, about this perilous childhood which was at the same time guarded by God himself. That's what I start telling them, in the dark, almost whispering."