Of all the places I should have chosen not to land, the private special school should not have been one of them. It’s a red brick building placed in the middle of a council estate in a nice middle-class market town. I never knew it existed until I was asked if I would be interested in doing some supply there. I had nothing to lose. Did I?
My first day was a shocker. It was the calmest day that the place had experienced; calm before the storm. I had old JC creeping in again telling me that I could be of use to these lost souls and that I could bring about a miraculous change through my empathetic teaching. I thought about this for a short, a very short time, and stamped on it. It was a nice day of false sunshine followed by days of rain and thunder.
What a rounding off of a horrible anus (posh year). I half expected to bump into some of the characters from my first book, Liam Flowers or Joel Podrall. I doubted very much that the Leatherman would make an appearance but this I am beginning to doubt. I counted my Prozac and set off on my new adventure.
Sure enough, a few lessons in, I met one of my Piper crew.
It was a greasy haired ginger kid, a rash of spots, tracksuit and a mouth like Satan’s backside on a particularly blustery day. He weighed me up though a lack of eye contact as my own eyes surveyed the assembled crew, identifying possible characters. Most were either glazed over or making animal noises. A few obscenities, half formed and without any real intent, just a general warm up for things to come.
Watching behaviours begin to roll becomes as predictable as a watching a tide washing in and out; the only things that really change are the minutia of sand, seaweed and slow erosion. The tide at the school was a choppy one, with unspoken intent, but obvious purpose. Each time a wave reached the shoreline, it crashed and dissipated leaving only a memory of where it had been.
This was true of the students, who rolled up to the school (a misnomer) each morning with the recidivistic tendencies of a sea creature trapped in the confines of its tiny shell and left stranded for the seagulls to peck over. These kids were the detritus of society, excluded from mainstream schooling, marked out as special cases, the great unwashed , the not so great unwanted, and every morning they were left stranded on the shifting sands of this non-too special school.
Each morning starts off the same.
The staff arrive bleary red-eyed, unshaven, swap their own obscenities, continue with their work wives and husbands, and wait for the morning briefing which is delivered by an ex-soldier camouflaged by tattoos. The talk is delivered in staccato sentences, shot across the empty heads of the staff. There is probably a handful of GCSEs between them but all their tattoos are probably spelt correctly. Why oh why is it that the seriously needy receive help from those who are also seriously in need?
The school makes a fortune for its owners but he owners have chosen to employ people on minimum wages and all the security of a stevedore’s contract. There are issues spilling out all over the place and small groups of like-minded type, again like-minded is used loosely, sitting together.
The ‘it’ boys sit at the back of the room and exchange pleasantries about the previous night. Points are raised on an anecdotal basis and shared with the rest of the group. There is sometimes a general nodding and humming of agreement or a counter-anecdote will spring forth and gather pace. Very loose plans are disclosed to deal with the distant possibility of a recurrence, just in case. The remains of the previous day’s business roll in and the landscape remains the same. Most of these kids will experience this special education until the sanctuary of sixteen and then they will go elsewhere. The tide washes the rocks and sand and then retreats only to begin it all over again; Madness.
One particular morning a student arrived early knocking on my door. A rather inarticulate boy in military style trousers had his face pressed up against the door. Let me in, he kept miming…let me in. He was one of those kids who is totally lost within his own maze of an existence. Like other boys who felt they could handle themselves, he wanted to join the army. I think that is a fine idea as it provides the type of structure and no-nonsense imperatives that the other life does not. These kids will follow orders on the battlefield in the same manner that they would always confrontationally ignore reasonable requests in the classroom. Anyway, this boy was in his own arena of conflict and that was called school; the school that specialises in poor behaviour.
The winds of war had been blowing across the classrooms and corridors since the second day of the week. As the spite of rain whipped across the car-park, and the unseasonably cold blast ripped the temperatures down, the student body (still kicking) reacted appropriately. Vendettas emerged where only a harmless void had previously resided. Fights erupted from a few flaming utterances and sides were taken. Storms, stormed out of classrooms, and swept along the corridors. Helpless calls for help echoed throughout the building in a Mexican wave of a call to arms.
It still surprises me when I think about the raw strength of a relatively small and undeveloped human-being when thrown into a self-induced rage. All of this was garnished with undiluted obscenities and unveiled threats that would be carried through at some time. The boy who had pleaded at my door that morning had been inadvertently caught up in one of these vendettas. His problem had arisen due to the intervention of my Liam Flowers character who had threatened violence and mayhem on several consecutive days. Nice lad, a little misunderstood.
My Liam Flowers was acting up to his billing, without ever realising it.
It was prose in action and I watched this manifestation take form and become something that only the pages of my book had previously contained. Teachers often talk about students who exhibit behaviours that mark them out as special cases, the ones most likely to succeed, the ones most likely to get and stay married, the ones most likely to go to prison. Liam had his destiny written all over his attitude. Sooner or later, he was heading for the big house and there was precious little anyone could do about it. What made everything so deadly certain was the backing group of other students who sang along with, danced with, and supported him with every move or utterance. In their eyes, Liam was the epitome of reasonable, rational behaviour. Indeed, he was the standard bearer for his classmates and comrades in arms. It was the school that was in the wrong.
There is a line, “Meeting their needs,” which is supposed to guide the way in which the teachers and assistants lead education. It is the type of phrase that people substitute for the act of caring, as if merely uttering the line will magically bring about the desired transformation. Like all buzz-words or phrases, it does not work. It is in itself a lie, a profound profanity that insults the audience to whom it is delivered. The school does not meet the many complex needs of its generously state-funded clients. It is merely a pastiche of what an educational institute should be. It wears the right robes, mouths the right phrases, but falls far short of anything that is remotely effective…
And nobody cares…