Slippery matter of the soap dodgers

14th April 2006 at 01:00
Mrs Jenkins didn't like it when we told her that her son was smelly. After a rant down the phone, she arrived in the head's office demanding retribution.

If nothing was done she was going to the local paper. But I couldn't see it. Would they print a headline announcing that "Carl is a stinker"? Hardly essential reading, especially when it is true.

But as complaints officer I must take these things seriously - interview those concerned, investigate, write a report, letters about the investigations and the report. And what are my findings? Yep, Carl is honking. No change there. What a waste of time.

Should the teacher have been making apparently personal comments? After a couple of hours dealing with the consequences, I might be inclined to say they should hold their noses and shut their mouths. Except that it wouldn't be right. How could a professional ignore it? Carl is going to work soon - at least he believes so. Suddenly, he'll realise that those funny-looking people in his class are girls. We mustn't let him go through life smelling like a bin bag. It's what being a teacher is about.

I am sorry Mrs Jenkins feels her family's reputation has been dragged through the mud - which is, of course, how Carl appears most days.

Undeniably, her 16-year-old son must take more responsibility for personal hygiene. The advice has to go beyond deodorant and a bath. It will have little impact if his clothes are put back on. Carl is apparently stitched into his school outfit in September and surgically removed from it in July.

So we also have to talk about washing clothes.

This is clearly a very personal issue which can quickly become a personal insult. We are not just talking about him, but about his mum. We are implying that his mum doesn't do these things. And, to be frank, she doesn't. By telling Carl he has to take responsibility, we are criticising his mum. Even Mrs Jenkins can see that.

What the teacher did was right. She had a concern and raised it as delicately as she could. Except that Carl has learning difficulties, and anything that is not entirely direct escapes him. It is a tricky one, but his classmates are much less inhibited: "Carl, you is humming boy! You is not sittin' next to me."

In such circumstances, what else could his teacher do? We have a duty.

However painful it might appear, we must exercise that duty. The comments from his classmates he accepts. When his teacher says them, it is quite another thing.

Ian Roe is a teacher in north Wales

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