He's in the Army now

27th July 2001 at 01:00
The Standard grade science lesson was about renewable and non-renewable energy sources. "Which of the following will run out first?" I asked. Wee John's hand went up.

"Gas!" he replied. "The others kind o' stay on a bit when you put them off." My bafflement at this line of thinking was swamped by my joy that John had made an honest attempt to answer a question. Small, blond, far from bright and a chronic attention-seeker, he had been an awkward member of an awkward class for almost two years.

He annoyed the other pupils. He arrived with bizarre props - a plumb line or a bird's foot. He offered to show the class his elephant impression which involved turning his back on them, pulling out his pockets and pretending to take down his zip. And, in his capacity as a star of the social and vocational skills course plant-growing programme, he offered to water my geranium.

"That plant on your windae sill needs waterin'. Ah'll dae it."

"Thanks, John, but not just now."

"It needs it, sir. Ah'll dae it. Ah'm guid wi' plants."

"Ach, yer all right, John, mibbe later." My accent changes gear to see if that will work. It doesn't. John gets out of his seat and makes for the sink."SIDDOWN! Now!" "Huh! Ye try tae help ye. That's the last time ah offer tae watter yir plants."

Having exceeded my original objective, not only stopping John from wandering around doing the gardening during a science lesson but securing an assurance that he won't offer again, I feel defeated.

In the final act of the final reel, it all somehow became amicable. This mattered to me and it still does, particularly at this time of the year when pupils leave. John belongs to the past - another job, another school. Session 2000-2001 ended with at least one pupil-teacher relationship - what's the right word? - unresolved.

Resolution brings its own problems. A short time after he left, I discovered that John had put me down as a referee for a character reference. He wanted to join the Army. My first thought was: "Why me?" My second was: "What do I write that is truthful enough not to blow the credibility of any future reference I have to write for the same organisation, but doesn't damn his chances?" I spoke to John's guidance teacher, a wise, sensitive man, and he helped me with a strategy. It must have worked because John was at my door a few months later. He was in the Army. He loved it. He was limping because he'd crashed a Jeep but he'd got a driving licence.

Something tells me he'll run into me again some time . . .

Gregor Steele's geranium died shortly after John left.

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