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Try a little tenderness

"It must be lovely teaching primary school children. They're so sweet at that age," Marie says. My wife pats me on the back to stop me choking on my bruschetta al salmone. Marie is the wife of my old mate Chopper Woods. We played football for the same pub team back in the days when football boots, like Ford Model Ts, only came in black. We became "friends" again via the miracle of Facebook and thought it would be good to catch up over a meal at La Bella Nosha.

While Chopper refills our glasses with vino rosso, I disabuse Marie of her fairy-tale perception of primary children by rolling up my trouser leg and exposing my right shin.

"Nice bruise," Chopper says. "Burly centre half, was it?"

Chopper is dismayed to discover that it was courtesy of Zoltan, who is not an oversized thug with a penchant for two-footed tackles but a slight eight-year-old. "It happened while I was trying to restrain him," I explain.

This morning Zoltan came to school in one of his less accommodating moods. Rather than taking his coat off to begin learning, he withdrew deep into its hood and passed the time by repeating my every word. In the forlorn hope that he would get bored, I tried tactically ignoring him and encouraged the other students to do the same.

They say ignorance is bliss, but it wasn't. Although it was better than the attention that Ryan gave Zoltan when the latter hit him on the head with a triangular prism. Ryan has a very low "ignoring" threshold at the best of times, and being abused by a piece of maths equipment turned out to be more than he could take.

His retaliation was swift and decisive. As Maisie went off to summon behaviour support, I hugged Zoltan to my chest, primarily to stop him counter-retaliating. I continued to hug him even when his raw fury had subsided to a series of heavy sobs. I doubt hugs feature much in Zoltan's day-to-day experience of physical contact.

Chopper shakes his head and, after pouring himself another large glass of vino rosso, sets out his own philosophy for improving school discipline. This begins with the reintroduction of the cane and extends to the death penalty.

I sigh wearily and explain that brutality is something that's already been tried with Zoltan and it doesn't work. The only thing that hasn't been tried is love and affection. I empty the remaining vino rosso into my glass before acquainting Chopper with some facts about the physical and emotional consequences of child neglect and abuse. I end by reciting a saying that is used frequently in our school: "If a child is giving you a bad day, it's because theirs is a lot worse."

Chopper reflects on my words then says: "You know what I think?"

"No, what do you think?" I ask, trying to keep the irritation out of my voice.

"I think we need another bottle of vino rosso."

Steve Eddison teaches at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield

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