When I was about ten, my mum was taking my brothers and I to see our Uncle George. We were on a bus. It was a Ribble bus. Now if you were on a Ribble or a Crosville bus, your journey was extra special. You were going beyond the limits of your town or city. Indeed, we were going to Maghull. Uncle George lived with his family on Deyes Lane. Now out of the window, I saw a road sign. And it said “Deyes Lane”. I insisted that we should get off as we had arrived. But Mum remained passive. “It’s a long road,” she said in her usual matter-of-fact style. True enough, we waited a bit longer and alighted much nearer to my uncle’s cottage.
I’m thinking of this because my final road in teaching was by no means short. Five years ago, I had just taken on my new year six class.
It was not a smooth start. I needed some time off because of family trauma. When I went back, the class welcomed me with open arms. And what a class it was. It was considered to be a “difficult” class. All classes have their problems but this class seemed to have more than its fair share. But I’m not going to go on about it; it was another year of teaching and I was going to approach it with my usual mixture of discipline, demand and humour.
This was my twenty-second year of teaching and for each of those years, I had been fighting and often denying my increasing physical limitations. Admitting to weakness was out of the question. I had gone into teaching to work my socks off for the great cause of education. As the class teacher, I was king of the castle; a leader to encourage, drive and guide my troops through the jungle of emotions, triumphs and insecurities of the school year. For the year sixes, it’s ten percent of their young lives. So much happens in that time.
But I had a feeling of encroaching darkness. For years, I had been a blue sky thinker. The pride I had gained from consistently doing the teaching, year in year out, was being eroded by the truth. The truth? I had a chronic illness. You can’t hide from chronic illness.
Every day there would be bleak moments. I was running out of excuses. In the run-in to the end of the school day, we would be building up to a positive conclusion. I would be praising the day’s efforts and offering encouragement; today is over, we start afresh tomorrow. A list of jobs would be forming in my head. It would be a mixture of assessment and preparation. I would always be excited by the plans I had.
But as the years went on, I began to crave the peace. Once the children were out the door, I would sit with my head on the desk wondering how on earth I was going to get through the next two hours without the adrenaline hit of leading the class. I felt the clouds silently forming overhead. The limbs wound grow leaden. A searing heat would attack my legs. I would breathe slowly and deliberately, trying to come to terms with becoming a failure.
On any day of the final road, I had to ask for things to be done for me. Bring me some tea, can you pass me that file or can I have that pile of books. That pile of books represented a mountain of intellectual exactitude. I had to mark them. Not only that, I had to write constructive comments and refer to learning objectives. Learning objectives? I was struggling to read anything.
The blurred vision was becoming a problem. I was lucky to get home in one piece. We’ve all seen the special effects in films when the picture goes monochrome but the white becomes dazzling. That was my road ahead. So I had this growing sense of falling. My grip had gone. The effort to just present myself as a normal person was draining me.
As usual, the children were delightful. I have always been determined that the deviant children, despite the causes of their disaffection, would not dominate the class. I focused quietly on the hard workers. I would try to build their confidence and show them what was possible. Most of all, I would inject a regular dose of humour. But even smiling was exhausting.
The most common symptom of Multiple Sclerosis is fatigue. It’s the most common but still the least understood. People would look at me with suspicious disbelief.
Three times a year we had pupils’ progress reviews. The second one of the year was in April of the spring term. Usually, my teaching assistant would carry all my files to the head’s office for me. But on this day she’d been nabbed by a school trip. I managed to carry them to the main entrance. It’s like being wide awake but feeling part of you drift off to sleep. It was the three steps up that killed me. The files and everything else went all over the floor. I heard school life continue around me; the office business, a raised voice in the classroom or the encouragement of a PE lesson. But I felt alone. no-one was going to come to help. Why should they? They had business to do. I struggled down the corridor. And it’s now I can say that one person saw that I was struggling.
The rest of them were too busy with their own importance. They had questions to ask, data to analyse and notes to take. Who cared if I was struggling? Well one teacher did. After the ordeal of the kangaroo court, she helped returned my files back to the classroom. She knew. I still feel honoured by her compassion and understanding. All past differences were cast aside. Respect.
The rest of the school year was a struggle. It was a struggle to keep up the teacher’s face whilst I was being openly criticised and doubted. In truth, I had been deceiving myself. The endgame was fast upon me. After seeing them go on the last day, I staggered to the staff room. I looked round. I knew I wouldn’t be going back. thank-you for reading.