Tale of the 'little nanny' was poignant ... big time

25th July 2008 at 01:00

Sometimes it's hard not to let particular students get to you. However much you call on your experience and professionalism, maintaining objectivity can be tough.

It was like that with Dilka. A bright 19-year-old, she had dropped out of school and worked behind various shop counters before coming back to college to catch up on her missed education.

At interview she was full of good intentions that were somehow never put into practice. She arrived late and missed classes and deadlines. When assignments did appear, they were skimpy pieces that smacked of carelessness and haste.

In tutorials, she spoke vaguely of "problems" at home. She was late, she said, because she had to deliver her younger siblings to school.

She did just enough to stay on the course, but "bare minimum" seemed to be a phrase designed especially for her. I delivered my "lots of students have problems but be careful you don't ride on the back of them" speech. She nodded sagely, but that was as far as it went.

Six months into her course, Dilka went missing for a week. Her friend sidled up to me in a quiet moment. "Dilka's pregnant," she said. In another week, the friend told me Dilka was now un-pregnant, but that I should understand that this had brought her a whole new set of problems.

Was I beginning to feel less annoyance and more sympathy? Dilka's family had come to Britain from the Middle East. She was clearly caught between two cultures, and I suspected she was getting the worst, rather than the best, of both.

Then Dilka turned in an essay that changed things. It was autobiographical, naive, quite artless, but very, very poignant. It was also totally devoid of self-pity.

As the eldest of six children, Dilka took on the role of carer at an early stage. Her father had hit the bottle and given up work. Her mother spoke little English and was forced to take night cleaning jobs.

"At the age of 11," she wrote, "I already knew how to feed, dress, wash and put a baby to sleep. I was a little nanny. Although I loved looking after my sister, the sleepless nights she gave me made me miss school for days, weeks and months."

In her early teens, she found herself doing all the other tasks of a parent: taking siblings for doctors' appointments, open evenings at school and helping them with homework. "Trust me, for a 13-year-old it was hard work," she wrote.

Then came a lengthy description of the decline and death of her father. Excluded - being a female - from the funeral, she watched from a nearby corner. Meanwhile, she was discovering cannabis and being suspended from school for it. Finally, school went altogether and she began her "career" in shop work.

With a late burst of work, Dilka managed to pass her course. I was glad, and told her so. She was still "getting to me", but by now it was a different kind of "getting".

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