A career involving death, destruction and delight

1st July 2011 at 01:00
Looking back over a teaching career's incredible high and low points

Secondary headteacher

This is my last schoolday. The hardest part will be saying goodbye to the young people. Over almost 40 years I have seen thousands come and go: the bold, the bright, the beautiful, the damaged, the damned and the dangerous. Let me remember a few, with names altered, as my farewell to them all.

Kirsty's mother was a stalwart in a community which needed its heroes. Kirsty, more inward looking, a tomboy seeking affection, was diagnosed HIV-positive within a year of leaving school. An hour after the diagnosis, she overdosed on heroin and died in the foyer of the high flats opposite her mother's home. Jim was an angry lad. We had to break a toilet door to stop him damaging himself on the glue he was sniffing. It was futile. He finished the job less than a year later. Frank wept and screamed in the playground, refusing to enter the taxi taking him to join his carers for a holiday. No holiday matched the dream of a weekend with his own mother. He refused to go. That dream was an illusion. His mother had refused to care for him or have him with her for years, but the pull of that unfulfilled hope was stronger than any reality.

George was seriously dyslexic, but I taught him to play a reasonable game of chess. Tam had a minimal understanding of number bonds, but a fascination with gambling. The remedial arithmetic I set him mainly concerned returns on accumulators. Sam, captive of the Raising of the School Leaving Age, was a thorn in my side as a first-year teacher. I met him in a bar seven years later - he had done two years inside but assured me that he was "settled now". It sounded as if he was.

Alice was in my first wonderful O-grade class. She met me 12 years later, enthusiastically recalling every poem, novel and play I had taught her. There were the delightful left-handed Liam and right-handed Janet, teenage sweethearts who could hold hands and write simultaneously. I met Janet recently, happily married, in a good job. The romance ended but she still sees Liam. He signed for Hibs, didn't quite make it but is also happily married. Becki left school, took a degree in youth and community work and came to work in her own community, returning some of what education had given her.

There were countless youngsters whose details I have forgotten but who meet me, in shops or bars or the cinema queue. They remind me enthusiastically of this field trip or that classroom incident, or simply tell me their news. I believe I gave them things of genuine value. I know how much they gave me. I am certain of the advice I recently gave a class of Moray House students: teaching is the most rewarding career imaginable.

Alex Wood is head of Wester Hailes Education Centre.

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