On the operating table, the patient is slipping away. But the camera is focused on the surgeon, who is determined not to let his charge go without a fight. For several minutes, the drama continues. But when the monitoring equipment emits a solemn, continuous note, we know the battle has been lost. Do we celebrate the heroic effort, or lament the failure to keep the patient alive?
Take away the gowns, masks and about 99 per cent of the suspense, and that same situation is being played out in colleges up and down the country right now. How many of our flagging students can we nurse through the final stages of their courses and on to that new lease of life known as achievement?
It's no good sitting back and saying it's up to them. These are your charges. You've nurtured them all year. You want them to succeed. In the background you can hear the banshee wail of "targets".
Daphne's story is typical of how such things can work out - or not. Six weeks from the end of her access course, she suddenly disappeared from class. Several calls to her phone elicited only an annoying blast of music and an invitation to leave a message.
Undaunted, I sent an email. Within hours, the reply came back. She'd had a change of heart: university wasn't for her. She was going to take a massage therapy course. Thank you and goodbye.
Two weeks later I felt a tap on my shoulder as I strode through reception. It was Daphne. Did I have a minute? We went to my staffroom and that minute turned into 90. A crisis in her personal life had erupted and, in a mad moment, she had destroyed all her work and cancelled her future. But that moment had now passed and she wanted to come back. Could she?
We pored over the variables. Given the units she had already got, it might still be possible. Explaining her half-empty portfolio to the moderator was a bridge we'd have to cross when we came to it.
Two weeks later and Daphne was gone again. An email elicited this response: "I have left again and this time it's for definite." As her English teacher, I winced but accepted the inevitable. The monitor of educational life had flat-lined and there was nothing more to be done for this particular patient.