A Timeline for Billy

7th February 2003 at 00:00
By Catherine Lloyd, who runs a learning support centre at Chesham Park community college, Buckinghamshire

Jesus was born in 1AD (or in 0AD - I've never quite worked that one out, but this was not the time for a long philosophical argument). Billy was born in 1991. Come to think of it, we are not too sure about that either, but give or take a year or two, it seems a reasonable enough guess. Just about in the middle of this is the Battle of Hastings - 1066. That, at least, is a fact - and it has equal prominence in this particular lesson, because that is where we are at in the national curriculum key stage 3 history syllabus. Billy and I are "doing history" and creating a timeline.

If you can imagine, we are sitting in our newly decorated inclusion room in a middle-sized secondary school, in the middle of England. I am the white, middle-aged, middle-class, middle-way teacher who runs the place, appropriately enough called "the middle room". Billy is 12 (or thereabouts) and middle nothing. He is a Traveller child who arrived at our school a couple of weeks ago. We are encouraged nowadays to encompass cross-curricular learning, so just to introduce a little maths into my lovesong, he has completed about two years of education so far in his life, as opposed to the normal eight. That makes him only 25 per cent educated in key stage 1, 2, 3-speak. My conversations with him so far indicate that he is probably 110 per cent educated in all sorts of ways not yet accredited by the curriculum authorities.

Back to history. Our history teacher is a wonderful woman. She is immensely skilled at transporting reluctant teenagers through the centuries, opening windows which offer perspectives they have never even dreamed of. And if we are singing about the pleasures of being a teacher, one of the verses must be dedicated to the pleasure of watching other colleagues making a difference. All well and good, but it seemed that no amount of transport (public, private, PFI, or whatever) was going to shift Billy. Not only did he not have a clue about William the Conqueror; he didn't know what history was. Or is. So we decided that, for two or three weeks, it would be a good idea if Billy worked with the inclusion team. The pleasure of my job? I am paid to have the time to bring children in from the cold.

So, here we are sitting in the newly decorated inclusion unit. The virgin noticeboard has been set aside for good work completed by students at risk of exclusion: no comments, please, about that being a contradiction in terms. At this stage in the autumn term, it is, as yet, unadulterated. This is about to change. Billy is going to, literally and metaphorically, draw the mark of time across the pure green display paper. We stick a strip of paper right across the board, left to right, 0-1991, and place three beautifully word-processed labels at the beginning (Jesus), the middle (Hastings) and the end (Billy).

Billy is thrilled. I am somewhat daunted. The prospect of filling in the rather large gaps is a little overwhelming. So I decide to start from what Billy already knows. What Billy knows a lot about is videos. So within a few minutes we have Titanic, Saving Private Ryan, and "Something about a mad King George" (have Something about Mary and The Madness of King George got confused?). All earn their place on our timeline.

Braveheart poses something of a problem, but we make a quick trip along the corridor to the headteacher. She doubles (or trebles) as a history teacher, an IT teacher, a personnel director, a financial manager, a picker-up of cigarette ends outside the front door after the school has been let for a party, and so on. But despite all this, she is happy to chat with Billy, to confirm that Braveheart should go a couple of centimetres to the right of the Battle of Hastings. What else do I enjoy about my job? Being part of a fantastic team of people, whose doors are always open.

Can you see the display now? Jesus, long blank. Hastings, Braveheart, The Madness of King George, Titanic, Saving Private Ryan...

Billy pipes up. "Then there was the one with all the wives who he killed.

The fat one. The king was fat, not the wives. Although wives are often fat too, come to think of it." Billy has a strong Irish accent and a way with words. Henry VIII has emerged from Billy's memory and, with much pushing and shoving, his great expanse is squeezed on to our timeline.

Later in the week, it appears that Billy's brief spell in school in the past has led him to stumble across the Vikings. Key stage 2, term 3, unit 1(a). Billy's knowledge is a living monument to the Unknown Teacher.

Somewhere in a primary school a teacher must have met a wee Traveller lad called Billy who couldn't read or write, and filled him with enthusiasm for the Vikings. There is not enough space on our timeline for what Billy has remembered about the Vikings. So, as the light fails on a winter's afternoon, I watch him writing, intense concentration on his face, and I feel very proud. Proud of what? Of teachers, of schools, of our inclusion work, of Billy.

Week two. Pouring with rain. Billy arrives in my room late, wet and stressed. School is like a prison, he says. For a boy used to being treated like a young man, living a transitory life with a strange mixture of freedom and responsibility, the teacherstudent relationship is foreign to him. For a boy used to living in a trailer with one door to the outside world, our school is a series of rooms with closed doors, closed windows, closed minds. For a boy to whom family is everything, he is lonely, as he is the only Traveller here, and has no real friends.

His enormous smile has gone. He is pale. His chattering has been silenced by worry. He crunches crisps with a defiant look from the side of his eyes.

He knows eating in class is forbidden. In a symbolic gesture, he removes his tie. His timeline runs along the board above his head, representing knowledge, offering opportunity, but he no longer seems connected with it.

History may be servitude. History may be freedom.

I am paid to break the ice. My job is all about ice-breaking and midwinter springs. I talk about how he has done so well. How he is making fantastic progress in his reading. I talk about talents. He talks about his great uncle, who had talent. He played the Irish pipes and was good enough to have made recordings. We find his great uncle on the internet and Billy's eyes are out on stalks. He suggests that maybe his Great Uncle Jonny could have a place on our timeline, along with Henry VIII and William the Conqueror. Of course he can. Home is where one starts from.

A little later John Cunningham, a Traveller who won the VC, also takes his place. Reconnected. The space between Jesus, the Battle of Hastings and Billy is becoming crowded. "This is history, Miss," says Billy. "Look at me, I'm at school doing history."

* Chalkface Lovesongs is broadcast on Radio 4 on Sundays at 5.40pm, starting on February 9, and repeated the following Saturdays at 7.45pm.Jacquie Buttriss reads her story on February 9 (repeated February 14). Catherine Lloyd reads 'A Timeline for Billy' on February 16 (repeated February 22)

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