Small child, too big a life burden to carry

27th February 2009 at 00:00

He's four-foot tall, has a permanent sullen expression, unkempt hair, and wears a cardigan to school. And I've had this Titanic moment, recognising that, big and strong though I am, he has hidden depths.

I don't know the background to this kid, and I suddenly realised that I had only seen the tip of this iceberg. The disgruntled face is just a tiny bit of this complex character.

He had done a few assessments, with some interesting results that just didn't add up. So I did something I don't usually do - and asked him about his background.

He told about how mum read to him when he was little. He told me about how good his dad had been at mending cars, mending houses, mending anything broken. And the sullen look went and the wee face grew pensive.

I can't begin to piece together what has happened since and his test results may just be one piece of the jigsaw. But how can I ever really know what he's been through, even if I were to read all the social work reports, all the police notes, the referrals to the panel?

In one respect, it is not my business - I am a teacher, not a psychologist, social worker, child protection officer, police woman. But I know how hard it is to bring up kids at the best of times. How hard is it when you live in poor housing, with inadequate education, no money? How hard is it when the drink or the drugs take over, and become more important than the kids?

And how hard is it to be that kid when you never know from day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute what will happen next? I don't know what went wrong for him, but there is a hell of a hungry look in those eyes.

He grinned, and it would be nice to say he is one of life's survivors. But these children experience things that damage them beyond repair. We see just a tiny fragment of their lives, and if we reject that fragment, then what hurt do we unwittingly do?

We don't know - except it is more than we think. Faced with that mop of hair, that defiant little face, the huge weight he carries hidden, can we give the kid a chance?

Penny Ward is a secondary teacher.

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