Uncomfortably numb

29th November 2013 at 00:00

Callan is like Garfield's hapless companion Odie: always in trouble, but it's impossible not to like him. The teenager occasionally bothers to show up to my film studies class. And he owes me coursework. He owes everyone coursework.

The other day he strolled past me returning from smoking a fag. He bundled over to say hello. I considered berating him for the coursework, but I have a rule: try not to discuss the issues of the classroom outside it. That way, you remain able to see students as more than just blank spaces in your assessment spreadsheets.

"Before you say it, I nailed it, Thornberry! Fucking nailed it!"

"Nailed what?"

"I was up till 4am last night buzzing. Three pieces of coursework down. I even got round to making a start on yours. I was unstoppable."

"Except you did stop at mine."

"Yeah, well, you know, I had to be fresh for today and that... "

Callan's pallid face is not fresh.

"How do the excitements of tourism and leisure coursework keep you buzzing till dawn?"

"A little pick-me-up, innit," he continues. "I swear you should have seen me, Thornberry. Hardly blinked and 1,000 words, BOOM!"

"Are we talking plant fertiliser?"

Callan guffaws and launches into the history of his drug use. He is largely still in the honeymoon, pre-comedown phase. Largely.

"Check it. Gnarly!"

Callan tilts his head back to reveal a sinewy lump of gristle embedded into the side of his septum. I am genuinely shocked - a rare occurrence these days. I stay silent for a while, mulling my options.

"I'm not going to tell you not to do drugs, but watch yourself. It can quickly become something you need to get through the day. So if you're using it to get your homework done on a Tuesday, maybe you need to ask yourself what category you're in."

"Yeah, I getcha, Thornie," Callan says. "Nice one. I'll reckon I'll be ticking that over for the next couple of days. Good to talk to a teacher that isn't just gonna have a crack."

I decide against taking it further, although I would be at risk of disciplinary action should this come to light. Reporting it will only trickle down into a parental meeting with a fixed-term exclusion that leaves Callan getting even higher in the park and falling even further behind. Telling Callan he shouldn't take drugs is like telling the trees not to shed their leaves. More importantly, he would feel that I had betrayed his confidence.

Some would see this loss of trust as collateral damage, but that is not acceptable. We are increasingly operating in a system where teachers are required to follow strict behaviour flow charts. This is monitored in an atmosphere of accountability and fear, and we are no longer free to exercise our intuition. We become one further representative of a monochrome authority, and students become yet more alone and confused in the face of the issues they tackle.

The approach of "covering our own butts" guts the humanity out of guiding relationships, which is a far worse betrayal.

Nelson Thornberry is a pseudonym. He is a UK secondary school teacher.

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