Just go where your consciences take you

6th January 2006 at 00:00
In the crowded dining hall, even with the big screen showing pop videos, Melanie's assault on her fellow students causes something of a stir. It is afterwards in my office that the full extent of the provocation is revealed. Continual name-calling has resulted in two boys receiving the full force of Melanie's school bag.

"If that had been happening to me," I tell Melanie, trying to show my skills of empathy, "I would have found a better way to deal with it."

The thought of a grey-haired male teacher being called a tart by two 12-year-olds produces in Melanie a look which can only be called long and cool. "I guess we've all got stuff," she tells me, "and besides, I did what both of my consciences told me."

I can't resist asking the obvious. Melanie nods towards her shoulders: "My good conscience and my bad conscience."

And so to a Year 7 English lesson and a popular starter. "If you can remember one of the Shakespearian insults from yesterday's lesson, you may say it to your English teacher now." Showing remarkable powers of recollection, the students hurl abuse as thick and fast as English bowmen fire arrows in Henry V: "tickle-brain", "cream-faced loon", "roast meat for worms" and, most unkindly, I think, "box of wrinkles".

Jordan, though, excited by this particular educational opportunity and unconstrained by the stipulation that the insults have to be genuinely Shakespearian, yells, "big ass!" When order is eventually restored, the lesson resumes as a testament to the therapeutic powers of verbal expression and laughter.

That evening there's a rare escape from the tyranny of marking. And what do English teachers do on such occasions? This one attends the launch of a poetry book he's edited. Not Dark Yet is a collection in aid of the Samaritans. With a foreword by Ian McMillan, it has 50 contributions from poets prepared to donate their skills to a good cause. The launch is a great success. A fundraiser, yes, but also a reminder of the restorative power of words.

I am asked several times why I took on editing a book when the demands of an Ofsted visit, self-evaluation forms and updating documentation hang around my neck. I can say quite simply that both of my consciences told me to do it. Because Melanie is right: we all have stuff, and the trick we all try to learn is how to deal with it.

John Clarke is assistant head of Swinton Community School, Rotherham, South Yorkshire. Not Dark Yet. Poems for the Samaritans is available from Currock Press, 3 Sandal Cliff, Sandal, Wakefield WF2 6AU

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