Haunted by the helpless
Children are incredibly resilient, even when difficult things are happening at home. But occasionally, we experience situations with children that tear us apart inside.
Stephanie had always been a challenging child, but we were successful with her and she achieved well.
Years later, she brought her daughter Angela to us, asking if we could enrol her. There had been an aggressive dispute with a neighbour, and Stephanie and daughter were living temporarily with her mother. I accepted willingly. I had a soft spot for Stephanie and I'd been pleased at what she had achieved with us.
I soon learned things hadn't gone well for her. Out of work, she'd split with Angela's father and he'd made threatening phone calls, upsetting Angela. But Angela wasn't the easiest of daughters; she had her mother's quick temper and, despite everything, she missed her dad.
Nevertheless, after a difficult first month, Angela settled into school routines and made several close friends. Before long, I barely noticed her, apart from the smile as we passed in the corridor.
Then, when I gave her a part in the summer musical, she seemed withdrawn. I didn't know that relations between mother and daughter had deteriorated to the point where Stephanie told her she intended to get sterilised, to avoid having any more annoying children. And Angela wasn't getting on with mum's new boyfriend either.
One afternoon, her father came into school asking to see me. He'd been drinking. Angela, it seemed, was going to live with him now. Stephanie was refusing to tolerate her any more. I called Angela to my room and she sat beside her dad. No, she didn't mind living with him, but hoped she'd be able to see mum occasionally. Dad explained that his new girlfriend was expecting a baby and Angela managed a smile, telling him she was pleased. I explained to dad that if there was anything we could do he should call us. We never saw him again.
Weeks passed, and Angela was having difficulty forming a good relationship with Dad's girlfriend. She was allowed to speak to her mother on the telephone, but dad would stand behind her, making aggressive comments about his ex-partner. Angela's class teacher patiently explained that adults sometimes had relationship problems, reassuring her that mum and dad still loved her, even though they no longer loved each other.
Suddenly, dad didn't want her any more and told Stephanie she'd have to take her back. He packed her things into a small case, and sent her to school. But Stephanie now lived outside London, and it meant Angela would have to leave her friends and the school she loved. Mum arrived at lunchtime, telling her she'd have to behave because she wasn't putting up with any nonsense. I gave Angela a hug, and said I'd miss her.
That weekend, the 11-year-old went into her mother's bedroom, put a black plastic bag over her head and fastened it with Sellotape.
Fortunately, Mum found her in time. Police and social workers became involved, and while lengthy investigations were made, Angela went to live with her grandmother. She returned to us and we eased her through the final few weeks of her primary years. I don't know what happened to her after she left us. But barely a month goes by when I don't wonder.
Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.