Hard case touched a soft spot

23rd July 2010 at 01:00

When Eddie came to us, eight years old, angelic smile, he was barely tall enough to peer over my desk. He'd attended three other primaries - all of which, we eventually discovered, would have been happy to wring his neck.

He told his teacher his other schools had given up and let him do what he liked. "I'm a taker, not a giver," he announced. "If I don't feel like doin' stuff, there's nobody can make me."

It seemed he was right. I was soon summoned to his classroom, where he'd been verbally abusing children and refusing to listen. "Don't worry," I said to his teacher, "I'll remove him."

Though he was small, this wasn't easy. I grabbed him forcefully and sat him outside my room, where he shuffled through some story books. My new School Improvement Partner was visiting that morning, and when she arrived she looked at Eddie and said: "Hello. Are you poorly?" "Nah," said Eddie cheerfully. "I've just bin assaulted by the 'edteacher."

The next day, I had to remove him again. I told him to sit at the back of the hall until I'd finished teaching choir. Instead, he shot to the top of the PE wallbars, gesticulating obscenely at me. I said that if he continued like this, I'd expel him. "Couldn't care less," he said.

We cared, though. I'd never expelled anyone, and we knew that beneath the tough exterior there was an unhappy, lonely - and probably frightened - little boy. And despite the rudeness, there was something very likeable about him. When his guard dropped, he'd chat happily and his general knowledge was excellent.

His young teacher, talented and capable, wouldn't be beaten. She designed his work carefully, allowed him certain freedoms in the classroom, and spent lunchtimes chatting to him. Bit by bit, he grudgingly accepted that she cared about him a great deal. He was given time to explore the things that fascinated him - computers, electrical circuits, science experiments, learning the tenor horn. And though his writing was dreadful, he was an exceptionally able reader. When he was in an especially foul mood, she'd send him to another classroom, where fortunately he'd escape into a book for long periods.

The dedication of his teacher led to a massive improvement, and by the end of the year we thought we were on the home straight. Not so. In September, his new male teacher refused to let him wander to the toilet whenever he felt like it, so Eddie picked up a stool and threatened to hit him with it. "Oh, go on then," his teacher said. "Get it over with." For a moment Eddie hesitated ... and then put the stool quietly down. It was the beginning of an excellent relationship between the pair of them.

By the end of Year 6, after three outstanding teachers in a row, there had been a sea change. I desperately wanted Eddie to finish his time with us by going on school trip, but his family couldn't afford it and his father refused because he was naughty at home. I persisted, and even said I'd pay for it. Eventually, Dad agreed. I've rarely seen a child so excited. When they returned, he'd won the prize for the most pleasant, helpful child on the trip.

In the playground yesterday, he ran up and flung his arms round me. "Who'd have thought it three years ago?" I said. "I told you I'd turn you into a model gentleman." "You ain't done a bad job then, 'ave yer?" he grinned.

He's been quiet for the past few days. He's aware he's about to leave, and he's anxious about the future. But I think he'll be fine. And I'll miss him. I'll really miss him.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London. Email: mikejkent@aol.com.

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