I had got to the point in my teaching career when I was beginning to hate what I was doing… not the students, they were great, fantastic young people with great potential, not my colleagues who were under as much duress as I was, not even the school which had given me over ten very happy and fulfilling years… it was the bureaucracy, the paper-work, the ridiculous targets and management-speak… Then fortunately, having met my husband at school, I had children and was able to escape, swearing I would never ever ever ever teach again!
A neighbour was the head of a pupil referral unit in our town and she kept badgering me to do some supply work for her when my children were at school… I kept refusing, nothing but nothing would get me back into teaching. Then one autumn evening she came round and almost begged me to do two days’ supply, she was desperate, the team had been hit by a bug and she didn’t want to send children home. When she mentioned the enormous rates of pay for supply work I had second thoughts and agreed to do just the two days, only two, mind!… So fourteen months later I was still there, having loved every minute of working with these so-called ‘difficult’ children. It launched a new career for me as I moved to the West Country to a permanent position in another PRU where I worked for ten years.
On my second day of teaching at the unit, I was working with a very experienced teacher, a tough bloke but with great kindness and empathy for the young people we were working with. There were four lads and the other teacher and me; I don’t really remember three of them, but one of them drew my attention. Joseph (not his real name) was extremely thin, tall and very, very pale. He wore a dark coat buttoned to his chin and a beanie hat pulled down to his fair eyebrows. He sat with his eyes closed the whole time, occasionally putting his hands over his face as if he was exhausted.
He didn’t speak much, reluctantly answering when we spoke to him, in a low, flat voice, making cynical and sarcastic replies. We had a friendly and casual style of teaching, the children called us by our first names and there was not much formality, we wanted to engage with these kids and re-engage them in education so they could be helped back into school. On that day we did not re-engage with Joseph at all.
At the end of the morning, Joseph slipped away without a farewell and it was almost as if he had never been with us, a pale ghost of a boy. The other boys stayed chatting joking and laughing with us before they too left and I could ask my colleague about Joe. He had intrigued me; he was not the usual lad to be attending the PRU. He was obviously intelligent, I had gleaned that much from his almost sneering responses to us, but I also got a sense of sadness, of ennui and loneliness.
“I try my best with Joe, but there’s not much point,” replied the other teacher. “You’ll never get through to him.”
He went on to tell me what little he knew of Joe’s background; he lived with his mum who had returned to education, done an MA and was now doing a PhD in a city forty miles away, commuting there, and often staying over away from home… leaving Joseph alone. This had gone on since he was at primary school, once she had left him aged ten alone all weekend with no food in the house. He sometimes went to his grandparents but they were very elderly, and although concerned about him were not in good enough health to do much more than give him a good meal when he was with them.
There was an elder half-brother who lived on one of the worst and most deprived estates in north Manchester. If you know Manchester at all, you’ll know where I mean. There was no father on the scene… and I don’t now remember if a dad featured at all; that doesn’t mean Joseph didn’t know his father, I just don’t remember.
My colleague sensed my interest and was quite happy to off-load tutorial responsibility for Joseph on me. It was a struggle and I had to make most of the effort, but gradually I began to build a relationship with Joe. He began to open his eyes when he talked to me, and yes, he began to talk to me. He argued with everything I said in his rather dreary, flat voice, cynical and world-weary. He was often left alone in the small terraced house where he lived with his mother; she was obviously an intelligent woman but obviously had no sense of responsibility for her boy, often leaving him without any food or money to feed the electricity meter – no wonder he was so thin. When he came to the PRU, based in the further education college, I would blag meals for him – he wasn’t strictly entitled to any.
His attendance improved – mainly because I would go and pick him up and bring him in, then deliver him home afterwards – there was an option for us teachers/tutors to do this with our students and I got a fuel allowance. He became more talkative, but was always argumentative – I didn’t mind, as long as he engaged. He had a great general knowledge but his literacy was quite poor, lack of practice, I suspected. I gave him books I thought might interest him, CDs he might enjoy and actually managed to persuade him to do work experience.
All school children do work experience in their last year of school, unpaid work in a placement which might have some relevance to their job ambitions. Joe wanted to be a mechanic so a place was arranged in a garage; it was a cold, miserable, little place, kind enough but without anything much he could really do. We had managed to speak to his mother as we needed her permission for him to go on work experience, and she had agreed to give him money each day for lunch… which of course she didn’t. So when we used to go to check on how he was doing, often as not, my colleague or I would get him something warm to eat.
His birthday was in January, like me, and I gave him a little gift, a copy of John Lennon’s ‘A Spaniard in the Works’. He told me more and more about his life; sometimes he would go out at night and wander the streets of Manchester. He would go to see his brother and walk back in the early hours of the morning through the dangerous streets of the estate. It worried me, but I saw him as a pale, ghostly figure, flitting almost unseen along the alleys and ginnels of the city. He always wore black, nearly always wore the low-pulled beany hat. He had bright fair hair beneath it.
In the summer that he was sixteen he left us. I gave him a hug and never saw him again… but I’ve never forgotten him either.