Of The North

Kevin’s expression spoke of his problems with sleep. He was ashen-faced and his eyes seemed to have sunk into his head a little too far. I greeted him with a Monday morning cheer that went some way to being a grunt. His response was even more dismal.

What’s wrong, Kevin?

Kevin is like me. We are the wrong side of fifty. We have interests that provide our lives with enough of an additional spark to see us through most of the dark days. Like me, he has dismal squalls that sweep in off the sea and reduce his capacity to see beyond their temporary reign.

“I don’t think I’ll last the week,” he said.

I asked him why he felt that way, though I already knew.

“It’s just this, this nonsense. It comes for me every now and again. All it takes is a tiny pin-prick and then it’s gone.”

It turns out that the pin-prick was with a Year 11 class. Although he is a supply teacher, like me, we have been given examination groups. The school can’t find decent permanent teachers and have to resort to a couple of grey-templed types to drag the less academically able students through the final few months of their secondary experience. I have the lesser of the two groups but my students are not burdened with the indifference and arrogance that the slightly more able groups appeared to possess. In a moment of frustration, Kevin told me that he had lost it. Not a fully underpants on the head moment nor a screaming fit that would have be suited a banshee, nor one of my personal favourite “Here’s Johnny” moments.

What Kevin experienced was an honest response to kids who had learnt not to bother or to take any personal responsibility for themselves and their efforts. When accused of not preparing them well enough for a mock examination, he lost it and told them that he was in fact only a supply teacher and that, like me, we were not responsible for all their learning or lack of it. When he told the group that he didn’t like their acidic insinuations, he then explained that he had the freedom to leave at any moment he chose.

He may have said, euphemistically, that he really didn’t give a …., but I think he fell some way short of that. Whatever he said, did find its way back to the resident head of English and she gave him a little dressing down about the need to tread carefully around the children because many were vulnerable, very vulnerable. At this point I felt the pain in my heart from the imminent blood-loss.

I had a buddy moment with Kevin. I did the, “We’ll stick it out together” and, “We’ll get through this” (until at least Easter). I didn’t break into a Vera Lynne song nor did I launch into a damning tirade on the acceptance of poor behaviour and lack of respect from fragile kids towards equally fragile teachers. What I did was to feel empathy and not a little sympathy for a fellow traveller who was reaching the end of a long journey.

Like a soon to be written out member of the Night’s Watch, my journey is also ending. I have stood on the wall for too long watching the movements of the wildlings beyond. I have made forays into the wilderness and have glimpsed beings such as wight-walkers or executive headteachers or overly enthusiastic trainees. At the sight of these, I did not flee. Instead, I took up my sword and faced them; and lost.

And now winter is coming. I can feel something in my bones that is telling me that my fight is done. Just to rub that one into the marrow, my oddly nice Year 7s turned up for a lesson in moods that can only be described as psychotropic. Before the end of the session I had recorded behaviour marks for half a dozen of them. One boy, who I like, went back to his twittering and wittering and strange noises conduct whilst another jumped up from his seat, threw a bottle across the room and shouted at his erstwhile buddy before slamming out of the classroom. Another sat gurning and rolling his eyes whilst whispering conspiratorially to his associate on the desk they shared. At the same time, another yawned incessantly in an attempt to explicitly undermine everything I was trying to do. There were others, my maths isn’t that bad. The point is that you can’t get complacent; the wildlings are the least of your worries.

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