Pupils I'll never forget
"Who would like to help me give out the books?" I ask brightly. To my consternation, there is no eager forest of raised hands. The group of frighteningly large 15-year-old girls stare at me blankly, clearly unimpressed.
It is 1982 and I am clueless, having switched mid-career from teaching infants in a privileged Hampstead school to working in a girls'
comprehensive in Hackney. Within the first five minutes of my lesson with the CSE English bottom set, one girl has refused point blank to read. The class watches to see who will win the confrontation. It is the girl. A senior teacher removes her and, unnerved, I restart the lesson. Sammy and Jackie sit at the front. They are identical twins, but easy to distinguish as Jackie's hair is braided, whereas Sammy's is an Afro. They are silent for the first lesson, but when, in the second lesson, I suggest pushing back the desks to do drama, Sammy announces, "Oh good, I like this teacher!" and throws herself enthusiastically into role play.
Despite this endorsement, it soon becomes clear that the twins, rather than me, rule the class. Sometimes work is interrupted when they want to chat, sharing with us alarming anecdotes about Sammy's boyfriend, who is allegedly banged up in Pentonville; their previous school, where the kids smoked dope in lessons; and their Rastafarian father's adventures in Jamaica. I don't know how many of these stories are true. It doesn't matter, it is entertaining. I like them. They are open, and entirely lacking in malice.
One day, Sammy tells me that I'm not a bad teacher, but that I'm not much good at controlling them. I can't dispute this. "When you first came in here, you looked so scary. But then when you said hello, we guessed you was shy of us. You ought to put on more of an act of being strict with your next class, Miss. Don't smile at them too soon."
Two years later, I am teaching at another Hackney school when I hear that Sammy is dead, shot by her boyfriend. Such a tragic waste of a young, bright life. But 22 years on, I remember Sammy, who taught me the invaluable lesson that our pupils can be our best teachers.
Sue Gedge, who has taught drama in London secondary schools for the past 20 years, is about to begin a freelance career as a writer and visiting storyteller. Do you have special memories of unforgettable pupils? Write to Sarah Bayliss at the address on page 3 or email firstname.lastname@example.org