Friday's child

10th September 1999 at 01:00
Mary Carmichael on what it's like to be...a fat boy.

Overweight and under-confident, Alan sits in the middle of the classroom, not wanting to be noticed. He laughs at the jokes of the rebels and ringleaders, and is always on the fringe of any teasing group. He knows he's treading a fine line. His fatness could so easily become the butt of their jokes, the target of their bullying, so he's decided to act small.

The odds against him are pretty massive. Academically hopeless and from a family that doesn't know how to care, Alan looks set to become an educational failure. His teachers expect little from him, but it's perhaps slightly more than he expects from himself. He's in the bottom set for every subject and his attendance record is poor. He thinks he doesn't mind, but that's just because he's inured to failure.

He sits on a threadbare sofa, watching late-night videos. His diet is an endless round of junk food. It's comfort eating, although he doesn't know it. At school, he's too fat to join in the football games and he knows chatting up girls is pointless - they think he's a joke. There are others like him, hanging around, munching. They'll pass for friends.

In school holidays and at weekends, Alan runs errands for his elderly neighbours but he'd never tell his classmates (they wouldn't think it cool) and he has no idea that his kindness is anything special. With no male role model in his life, his idea of a real man is Jean-Claude Van Damme, his favourite film star.

No one in Alan's family has a regular job. His mother does some office cleaning on a casual basis, and his brother has been unemployed since leaving school three years ago. All that Alan knows about work is what he has learned from television and his classmates' predictions of "loads of money". At 15, he's only got to drag himself through one more year of school, but he really has no plans for the future.

Year 11 work experience is a nerve-wracking prospect. Dealing with paperwork in an office, or customers in department stores carries the risk of failure. He tries not to think about it. Finally, when he has to choose something, his only option is a week as a care assistant in a residential home for young people with intellectual disabilities.

When he gets there he finds his good-humour and kindness count, and his weaknesses don't seem to matter. No one knows or cares that he doesn't understand Shakespeare or how to calculate the circumference of a circle, or that he's last at everything on the sports field. For once, he's not merely tolerated but needed. He's the one to make decisions, the one they're looking to, the leader. He makes people laugh with him, not at him. He wipes mouths, picks things up, encourages those around him to have a go and realises that he might have some potential himself.

With a glowing report, Alan returns to school with renewed hope. Maybe life is not all about passing exams or being brilliant at footie. He might apply to do a course in care management next year at college. Maybe he has a future.

His classmates however, are full of stories about their week of glamour, of financial prospects, of smart suits and training schemes. There's not much glamour in looking after people. Maybe he'll just stay in and watch videos. Or maybe not.

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