Real people, real grief

24th March 2000 at 00:00
PAUL BETTS visited our fourth year last month. The father of Leah, who died after taking an ecstasy tablet at her 18th birthday party, now devotes his time to speaking to young people and parents. He is part of a trinity of dads - with Jim Swire, of the Lockerbie relatives, and Trevor Hicks of the Hillsborough parents - who have coped with early and tragic deaths by throwing themselves into energetic campaigns, their daughters' forever young faces regularly appearing on the pages of newspapers and periodicals.

Of course, some people are uncomfortable with this. But that is hardly the point. Paul Betts's visit was not maudlin or funereal. Although there were times when staff as well as pupils were in tears, there was also a lot of laughter and more than a few moments when his patent anger gripped everyone in the hall.

Above all, it was an inspirational afternoon. He told the pupils that, when it came to drugs, "it's your choice", but he also left them in no doubt as to the results of the wrong choice being made. Because of "the curse of the uncool", a fourth-year audience is hard to impress visibly, but the reaction that Thursday afternoon was remarkable.

A month later, it is still a talking point, and every fourth-year parent I have met since has commented on his ffect on their child. As he remarked himself, even one life saved would make it all worth while. For this particular teacher, the sensation of standing in front of a year group and being too choked to talk was certainly novel, as was the spontaneous outpouring of sympathy from pupils only a couple of years younger than Leah, who hugged him in tears at the end of the afternoon. Even the Fourth Year Lads were moved.

The experience sent powerful messages to teaching staff. The suffering of the Betts, Swire and Hicks families should serve to reinforce to us how precious are the lives that we seek to educate in their brief time in school, but our pupils' reaction should also remind us of the basic humanity of our calling. Paul Betts connected with our fourth year because, with the sharpness of youth, they recognised he was genuine; they were being exposed to real emotions.

Despite the need for professional detachment, we should beware of hiding our humanity behind punishment exercises and performance indicators. Any memoir of "my favourite teacher" recalls not what was taught in that classroom, but how it was taught and what the teacher was like.

That is the legacy we pass on and we would do well to remember Paul Betts's final words, and "take care" of them.

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