Pupils I'll never forget

5th September 2003 at 01:00
Irene Dalton, head of Wombwell high school, Barnsley, remembers Nigel's first A grade

It's strange that out of all the children you meet in the course of a career, particular pupils - and particular incidents - really stand out.

For me, it's a boy called Nigel.

It was 1975 and I was the English second-in-command at a very difficult inner-city school. It doesn't exist now. I had gone there because it offered experience in mixed-ability teaching. In the event, it turned out that in Years 10 and 11 (fourth and fifth years in those days) there was a degree of what was termed euphemistically "self-selection". There was a "high aims group", a "moderate aims group", and finally what we called the "general group". All three followed the same study programme, but the general group was quite... exciting.

Nigel was in the general group. He was huge and he was also inclined to be critical. I still remember in its entirety his homework on the DH Lawrence story, The Man Who Loved Islands. "I suppose it was very clever of the man to write such a long story," he wrote, "where nothing happened." You can see his point.

But English literature did not come easily to him. Whatever he wrote usually morphed into a lurid account of Death Bikes or "scrapping" - the acquisition (best not to ask too many questions) of metal for sale to scrap dealers. He loved my lessons, though. He said I had a lovely voice. He liked me reading aloud because that left less time for writing.

One day he gave me a 15- page Death Bike saga "for my CSE coursework". Even for CSE (then an easier alternative to O-level) I couldn't really mark it, but I gave him an A-grade for effort. I've never forgotten his reaction. He blushed to the roots of his hair, then turned away.

"I've never had an 'A' before, Miss," he mumbled. I had never seen him so embarrassed. And that's how I remember him, over all these years. No one, I guess, had ever valued Nigel. Quite probably no one would again. But what had I done to him, in that moment of easy praise?

I've never met him again. I don't know anyone who has. But 30 years on, the memory stays with me. And the knowledge of the extraordinary power that teachers have, for good or ill, over the children we teach.

Do you have special memories of unforgettable pupils? Write to Sarah Bayliss at the address on page 3 or email sarah. bayliss@tes.co.uk

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