Deadly encounter that scarred a young life

15th May 2009 at 01:00

It's a wet and woeful Wednesday, but after a number of false starts your class is finally in full flow. Then the door opens and in walks Janice. Actually the real verb to depict Janice's entry is not walk but flounce. It's the only way she knows to make an entrance, particularly when she's late.

But it's not enough for Janice to enter with a flourish. She wants to be centre stage in the class too. So would you mind just stopping the lesson right there to give her a full re-cap on all she's missed? When you do, mind, she makes it clear that a) she's mortally offended and b) you're picking on her, just as you always pick on her.

Every teacher in FE has met a Janice or two. And deep down you know that however irksome she's being at the moment, there's a story to her life that has contributed to making her like that. In many ways FE is built around such stories. With so many of our students in the second-chance category, there's always a reason why that second chance is needed.

In some cases this may be relatively benign. Maybe they were late developers. Or school just wasn't for them. For others, it's an altogether darker picture. Sex and drugs often loom large. The sex may have led to teenage pregnancy and an early exit from school. With drugs, it's the usual self-destruction and despair, as it is with the booze.

Stories abound of wrecked childhoods, of parental separation and divorce, of physical and sexual abuse, of neuroses and the prolonged gloom of depression.

So to understand all is to forgive all. Except it doesn't always work like that. This is largely because you are human too. However hard you try, sometimes you can't help but be annoyed by annoying people.

And then . something happens in a class that puts it all back into perspective. I know, because it just happened to me. This time it wasn't Janice, but Jessica. Jessica is 20, going on 50. Sometimes she looks like a little girl; sometimes like a traumatised refugee from a war zone. She's bright but wayward. And, although in principle she's fully committed to her studies, too often she fails to put that into practice.

Often, I have sat with her, talking things through and drawing up action plans that "this time" will put her back on the straight and narrow. And just as often, she has missed the next class and then the next without even thinking to let me know about the latest life crisis that has erupted to blow her off course again.

The subject of the class was autobiographical writing. We were reading an account written by a previous student. It was real, from the heart and quite shocking in its matter-of-fact narration of a childhood spent in a home that doubled as a crack house.

What did the class think of it? Jessica was in no doubt. It was good to know, she said, that she wasn't the only one. Without further prompting, she told us of the childhood incident that she was planning to write about.

She was 10 years old at the time. Her mother and father lived separately, but on the same estate. It was clear that although not yet out of primary school, Jessica had already seen many things that others go through a whole lifetime without seeing.

One morning, on her way to school, she called in to see her father. The front door to his flat was open when she arrived, so she let herself in. Inside she found her father lying on the floor. His arms were tied behind his back and he was dead.

It turned out that her father had been murdered by her stepfather. So then he disappeared from her life too. And why had this child-adult found it necessary to call in to see her father that morning? "Oh," she said, "I wanted to collect my Matilda video."

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