We were having a mindfulness and relaxation afternoon. I’m not altogether convinced by mindfulness for children: when it comes to being fully present in the moment I can think of several children who are already performing at ninja levels (most notably in my maths lessons where they gaze with mindful devotion out of the window letting my passionate explanations of decimal numbers float past unheeded).
However, we all agreed that it had been a hectic half term and the kids could do with some quiet time so, for one afternoon, the school had become a temple of tranquillity. There was dimly-lit yoga in the hall, mindfulness colouring in Year 3 and Early Years had been transformed into a cushioned reading den complete with biscuits and hot chocolate.
I was in charge of making slime, which I personally found neither mindful nor relaxing but which was, rather predictably, proving wildly popular with the punters.
At breaktime we compared notes. The general consensus was that it was going rather well.
“Some of them are really struggling with the calm thing though,” the Year 2 teacher observed. “They’re not being naughty, they just cannot relax.”
“Who are you talking about?” I asked as I tried to comb PVA glue out of my hair.
She named four of five children from across the school and we all nodded in understanding. None of these children were particularly disruptive, only one was on the special needs register. All of them were boys.
One of them was Billy in my class. Billy is a lovely boy but relaxed is not a word you would use to describe him. His eyes dart around in his pallid face and when he reads to you his feet tap out a rhythm under his dog-eared nicotine-scented reading book.
But Billy likes school and he tries hard. When you praise him he lights up like a Christmas tree. When he makes a mistake or doesn’t understand something he gets angry – mostly at himself – and retreats into his shell, head down, shutters up.
“I just couldn’t relax Miss. I really tried, I did but it was just, I dunno – too quiet,” he told me.
Quiet is not something Billy has much experience of. Out of school, he lives a life surrounded by noise and intermittent-chaos where levels of care and affection are in a constant state of flux.
I watched him now as he made his slime, happy and busy.
“What shall I do now?” he asked me.
“Why don’t you take your slime and sit in the book corner while everyone else finishes,” I suggested.
Ten minutes later, as we finished the tidying up I glanced over at the book corner. Billy was lying on a beanbag, slime squishing through his fingers, reading a Horrible Histories magazine.
“Are you happy Billy?” I asked him.
“Can we do this again next week?” he asked me. “I think I’ve worked out how to feel calm”.
I thought about this a few days later when I read about a GQ magazine survey which found that, in the past year, a quarter of men aged between 25 and 44 had thought about taking their own life and one in 20 men aged 25-34 in the LGBT community had actually attempted suicide.
As I assimilated these stark figures I wondered what these men were like when they were at primary school. Were they like Billy? In 20 years’ time, would Billy join these statistics?
I didn’t have the answer.
Jo Brighouse is a pseudonym for a teacher in the Midlands. She tweets @jo_brighouse.