What to do when fiction mirrors students' real-life dramas
Although J B Priestley's motivation for writing An Inspector Calls was to demonstrate his socialist vision for 1940s Britain, death is undeniably a dominant theme: the play centres around an investigation into the suicide of a woman called Eva Smith.
When I teach the play, the main points of focus are the factors that drove Eva to suicide, how Priestley uses her story as a critique of the British class system of 1912 (when the play is set) and the lack, at that time, of a welfare state.
Eva's suicide is brutal - she drinks disinfectant and dies "in misery and agony". When we read this section in class, there is always an element of shock. But, ultimately, in a world of near-constant exposure to violence, it is short-lived. The trickiest question I usually encounter at that moment is: "Miss, why would she do that?" Fortunately, Priestley answers that query for me in Acts 2 and 3.
So I was unprepared when I was told that the mother of one of my students had committed suicide the day before our first lesson on the play. When I discovered that he was in school and waiting for me in my classroom, I panicked.
I walked in, acting as normally as I could. There, standing in front of me, was a young man clinging on desperately to every single bit of normality he could find, as his whole world collapsed in around him. And in my hand was a play about a young woman's suicide. A play that we were supposed to read in that lesson.
For that session, at least, I felt I had to make a quick diversion: I set the class the task of revising semi-colons for the entire 50 minutes. However, as I sat at my desk that evening, I knew I had to work out a way to move forward. I was going to have to face Eva Smith and her suicide at some point.
I sought advice from my head of department. What she told me to do was simple but effective.
I asked the student in question to come and see me. Quietly and calmly, I explained that the play was going to cover topics that were very raw and potentially upsetting. I asked if he wanted to stay for the teaching or if he would rather study independently in the library. He was determined to stay. Then I explained the outline of the story so that he knew what was coming.
Finally, we devised a signal for him to use if he felt things were becoming too much and he wanted to leave. All he had to do was put up his hand and tell me that he had a music lesson. All the power was in his hands.
To the absolute credit of this child, he stoically attended every single lesson, engaged enthusiastically in class discussions and didn't use the signal once. He completed his GCSE and achieved an A grade.
This situation is one that teacher training simply does not cover. It was heartbreaking and something that I hope never to encounter again. But at least if I do, I will have an idea of how to cope.
Katie White is an English teacher at Kingsbridge Community College in Devon
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