Forking marvellous

28th May 2004 at 01:00
Teaching teenagers with emotional and behavioural difficulties may be a nightmare, but at least it is never dull, writes Louisa Leaman

I am petite and elegant. I like good shoes, neat hair and spend vast amounts of Visa's money at the Clinique counter in Debenhams. But don't let the cover fool you.

By day I wrestle with adolescent evil, the misspent youths who are the dread of education establishments up and down the country.

I patiently ram the literacy strategy down their underage smokers' throats, play judge and jury over their excessively volatile sports games, relentlessly (but pointlessly) insist they use their manners, give them the bus fare they "lost" in the newsagent's, fight their battles, wipe their noses, and, when they trash the classroom, spit in my face and call me an ugly bitch, I breathe deeply, smile and explain that we can solve their difficulty when they stop punching my legs.

Yes, that's right. Admire me, or think I'm ridiculously misguided, but I belong to that rare teaching species no inclusive inner-city borough can live without: The EBD Champion. It's a dirty, dirty job - but someone's got to be stupid enough to do it.

So why would a well-heeled glamour-puss defy her super-slick image and stand in the firing line, to defenddeflect the primal instincts of the very boys that threatened to slash the tyres of her Golf GTI?

Money? I won't dignify that. Reward? Nice try. Interest? On my very first day I was hailed as a chicken-fucker; on my second, I was asked if I raped babies; on my third, I narrowly missed a high-flying chair; and on my fourth, I realised, if I could stomach it, no two days, nay minutes, would ever be the same - and surely that counts for something amid the stale air of job satisfaction?

I do it for the stories. Allow me to elaborate: forks, a basic cutlery item. Not the sort of thing to incite warfare, but you can't take anything for granted in the EBD dining hall.

It had slipped in without us noticing - we never did find out where it came from - a non-standard design in the fork tray.

For a few days it managed to circulate without interest, the elaborately engraved handle - flowers and plumes - assuming no precedence over its unadorned brothers. Until Lewis, the smallest and meekest of my boys, took a fancy for this implement of distinction. And so it was born, the legend of the KING FORK.

"I've got the King Fork today", he announced innocently, spearing a smiley-face potato waffle. Seven sets of suspicious eyes swivelled towards him.

"That's not fair! Why has he got the King Fork?" My ears pricked up - what King Fork? Accusatory voices: "He's got the good fork - you never give me the good fork." But they didn't care about this bloody fork yesterday.

"OI, KNOBHEAD - give it to me!" And, before one could mouth the words "time out", the rogue fork was snatched from Lewis's hand to be brandished triumphantly by Daryl Davis.

"Piss off, fat boy. It's my turn!" Daryl's moment of inappropriate glory was cut short by the brute force of his silent reading partner. The situation was, in EBD-speak, "escalating", fuelled by the envy and hierarchy of eight angry boys with issues.

Three upturned lunches, two black eyes and a broken tooth later, the fork was retrieved and then locked in the valuables box - never to see daylight again.

Does all this sound a bit silly? And did I mention the fact that they were Year 8s? Everything matters to the emotionally vulnerable, thus the trivial can become the vital: whose desk space is ... where? whose pencil is sharpest, whose brother is hardest.

I do my best to understand this, but sometimes even I'm surprised by the delicacy of need present in these individuals.

Two weeks after this mealtime battle, I did a standard home-visit to Lewis's house. I was half-expecting to see a display cabinet of Royal Wedding commemorative spoons, the fixation with decorative cutlery explained - a hereditary condition - but there was nothing like that.

There was nothing at all. Not a toy or a book or an ornament or a picture on the wall. The telly was smashed and lying on its side; and beyond the window, grey sounds of traffic and road works dominated the air for miles and miles. Suddenly, the King Fork, with its fancy exoticness, seemed like a forbidden pleasure.

If the truth be told, I'm not just looking for great dinner-party anecdotes; but somewhere amid the individual education plans, I realise I believe in my work.

I remind myself that an individual is more than a brief summary of actions and behaviours; that lives are complicated and cannot, for some, be easily sanitised by the donning of school uniform.

I do this job because I accept that even the most inexcusable behaviour has an explanation hidden somewhere behind it, and if no one tries to find that explanation nothing will change.

I do this job because I, unlike my disloyal subjects, am keen to learn - about the world beyond the end of my nose. And I also know the answer to that controversial question about education for all: why do bad kids get to fix motorbikes?

Louisa Leaman is a behaviour management teacher in the London borough of Waltham Forest. This is her winning entry in The TES's New Columnists competition

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