A surly front hid terrible secret

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
When I thought about it afterwards, I was ashamed and felt powerless. The note she had given me read "canser". I looked at Gemma sternly and said:

"Is this some kind of a joke?"

A 14-year-old looked back at me and said: "No Sir, I really do have cancer."

As a teacher, there is a sense of wanting to make things right, to take away pain, and there is a sense of frustration and anger when it cannot be done. This was how I felt with Gemma.

I was her third form teacher in three years, and it had actually taken the school three years to pick up on the fact that this girl was seriously ill.

Gemma's condition meant that every year she had to have an operation on her legs because she was producing tumours that would potentially kill her. She had undergone six so far and faced annual operations for the next 10 to 15 years.

So I got to know a surly teenager who had a bad reputation for answering back. In fact this was just a cover, a cloak to hide the real personality of a frightened, gentle sweet girl to whom life had dealt a bad hand.

When she came into school wearing jeans one day, she came to see me. "Sir, me mum says she'll get new trousers today, but I had to wear these because me legs are in such a bad way."

The operations had left her with permanent disfiguring, and her legs were so scarred that wearing a skirt was out of the question. So I made a decision that I have never regretted. I told her that if anyone asked, she was to say that I had given her permission, and that she was not to tell anyone why she was wearing jeans.

Within 20 minutes, the deputy head was in my classroom, demanding an explanation. When I told him, he too felt ashamed and agreed with me that it was the right thing to do.

The following day Gemma came in wearing a smart new pair of tailored trousers of which she was very proud.

At the end of her Year 11, she told me that she probably had only about 15 years left to live and would be dead by the time she was 30. I masked my feelings by telling her to "love them and leave them", and have a good time.

She laughed and said goodbye. I never saw her again, but I have never forgotten Gemma. I hope she made it.

Graham Lawler is now an author and teaches online

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