Did Sir David get it right?
“There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’d like to come and meet us
But he thinks he’d blow our minds
There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’s told us not to blow it
Cause he knows it’s all worthwhile
He told me”:
Let the children lose it
Let the children use it
Let all the children boogie”
The chorus is gloriously vague except for one thing:
“Let the children”. And the word boogie? We can set off on a whole roller-coaster of inferences and associations by this word alone.
Who is the Starman?
A superior being or entity with wisdom and hindsight?
Between 1991 and 1995, I spent four fantastic years “boogieing” (I checked it on the spell-checker) with children in Michael Faraday School in Walworth. There was learning going on and there was discipline going on but we were surrounded by so much fun, it didn’t seem like work.
I like to think I took a bit of this with me into Southborough. It was more subtle but still an essential part of my philosophy. In between all of this sparkling galaxy of creative learning was a growing respect for all of the small humans that I met. I met some exceptional ones.
Most of us give ourselves a licence to don our rose-tinted spectacles and dwell on the wonders of our childhood. We look back longingly at our carefree fun-filled days when everything seemed magical. We knew there were baddies around but they were given fairy-tale villain status.
Not every child I’ve taught can claim this, however. For some, the circumstances were tipped against them. I can sort of put this into a number of categories. Like Bowie’s lyrics, they are ambiguous and questionable but to use a dreadful teaching phrase, they are formed on a “best fit” basis:
Physical impairment and disability.
I want to give my tribute to these remarkable people because of their courage and determination. Every child wants to play, every child wants to learn and every child wants to learn through play and experience.
Child A was a young boy of 10 with spina bifida. From the waist down there was nothing; no strength or feeling. In school, his legs were supported by braces and special shoes so he could walk with crutches. A was bloody good at it too. He played sports and went out every break time. His limitations were never an excuse. In fact, they were hardly limitations. The determination was there, his spirit was admirable. One day we were at the local police station on a mini-trip. To get in the back way we had to climb five steps:
“There’s nothing for it A, I’ll have to carry you in.” My word, he was not from delicate stock. But I did it. I have taught others with varying degrees of disability. Some have had other issues as well. They may have driven me mad but I still admired them. Growing up is a hard full-time occupation. I’m still doing it.
There are reasons for neglect.
Those who consider ourselves as normal find such reasons unforgivable. In my experience, neglect has stemmed from an addiction of some sort, be it alcohol or drugs. Their circumstances have been fundamentally affected by this. The child who comes into school starving with dirty and tired sad eyes may often be mocked by their peers. Their concentration is poor while they see a widening gap between themselves and the rest of the class.
Child B was the son of a drug addict. His mother was honest about her predicament but like so many, she thought herself a victim. B was seriously disturbed. His behaviour was inappropriate in an intimate and social way. No real school work and learning ever took place.
Naturally, I tried everything but he wouldn’t even do anything on his own terms. It was hard to like him. B was never going to get the special, specific education he needed. He was destined to become one of society’s outcasts. I worried for his safety and sanity. He was shunned by the rest of the class who were quite nasty about it when they thought I was out of earshot. For these reasons, B was exceptional. He could still manage to pass himself off as a reasonable, thinking young person. But inside, I knew he was tortured. B showed uncommon bravery for someone so young. He knew he was going to be different and he was afraid of himself. I hope beyond hope that now, at the age of 33 he is ok. Experience detects a difficult life and I wonder about his mum.I’m not sure if he’ll ever boogie.
There have been other children who have been neglected. Most of them have appreciated my support-you can’t refuse, can you? I’d have organised a whole breakfast club for these poor little souls but I’d have met with too much negative sneering. “We’re not made of money you know. if we do this for some, we have to offer it to everyone.”
It’s not just children with issues. Many parents have intimated their own problems and their concerns about how it’s affected their children. There’s no specific child here, I want to highlight some of the ways mental issues manifest themselves in the classroom. Firstly, the refusers. Why wouldn’t children want to come to school? It goes back to the parents. Some just didn’t care, some were too soft and some were more paranoid about school than their children. The fact that I actually saw the children is a tribute to their character.
One little girl made it quite clear that she wanted to be elsewhere. Her mother was equally emphatic. She questioned the point of holding 30 children at their desks and forcing them into doing things they resented. She was wrong. The little girl had good attendance however. But the mother insisted that we were not offering the right environment. I’m sorry but I was offering the right environment and I wonder what your problem is? An inkling of an answer came five years later after a night in the acute stroke ward in some hospital or other.
The mother appeared in the morning on the day shift. She could not refuse my request to tie my shoelaces. It shouldn’t have been personal but she made it obvious that she resented doing that simple task. I still admire the young girl for responding to my encouragement and humour but indignant about the mother. She claimed teachers were only in it for the money. That was her parting shot as the nice young man appeared to wheel me out. Many years before, another school refuser had most of a term absent from the class. It was a nice class. They were nice to each other. There may have been a couple of potential first class bitches in there but I had the parents on my side. The problem was the girl’s mother. “She’s always layin’ in bed,” she would say while the poor girl had to get herself ready. I had no ideas about the mother’s own problems; depression perhaps? What brought her back was another mum. “I told her that if she comes back, she can come with us to the Bristol carnival.” What a kind gesture from a single mum already struggling with her own circumstances. She was soon back looking very nervous. As she saw me approach, she flinched, expecting the wrath of Khan. I smiled and welcomed her, saying how nice it was to have her own brand of sunshine back in the classroom.
Firstly there are the children who generally struggle. They will often see themselves as belonging to some form of underclass. No matter what we say to them, they know they are battling whilst others are flying. I have to admit, that I have sometimes been left floundering with such children. The demands of a whole class have sometimes taken too much of my focus. But the need for a good working environment has always been my first priority. I may well have expected too much of my teaching assistants. I don’t know. All I know is that I could be consumed by the general needs of a whole class. It certainly improved. By the end, I was on top of it, only to discover the villain called apathy. There would be a look of bemusement at the efforts being made:
“Why are you bothering? I’m not going to. I’m going to sit here, away with the fairies.” If only a sense of helping oneself had been encouraged from an early age; even before school. On the other hand, some children made huge efforts and huge strides. They relished in the attentions charging their way from everyone involved. I had a boy called Z. Z was a festering lump, showing no interest in anything apart from a favourite football team. The head admitted that the school had let him down. His mum was making accusations everywhere she found a target. He was with me for two years. At the end of his year 5 the mother threw the report back in my face whilst spitting blood. It was an honest report, highlighting his attitude and how it affected his achievement. I used a football phrase:
“It’s only half-time. If a team have had a poor first half, they get a bollocking from their manager.”
She walked off in search of the head, a common recipient of this mother’s venom. And football is how I did it. The rest of the class liked it too as the maths became linked to many sports and we looked at report writing. Then he began to read; yes, they were football reports from a dreadful scumbag tabloid, but he began to read and form opinions. We came to a complex word (I wish I could remember it). He read it correctly before I showed the same word to one of my high fliers. He struggled with it.
Many teachers can point to other areas where children have become heroes. I can also say that all of the pupils I have taught have given me an enhanced raison d’etre. Teaching has always been full on.
If you’re committed, you’ll do the work and take the flak.
I had to admit defeat in the end as my body had failed with my spirit. It was total exhaustion. I’m still fighting the consequences. The marvel of social media allows me further contact with a lot of the exceptional people I taught.
By the way, the oldest pupil I taught would now be 47 while my first piano pipul would be 48.
Thank you for reading.