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Another True Story

By litherlandb, Jul 21 2015 12:27PM

I’ll call him Andrew, though that wasn’t his name. He was a cheerful soul, ten when I first met him, and met me at every door and on every staircase and always had a ready quip and a word of greeting. I got the feeling he wanted you to know him, to recognise him and to like him. Every new teacher was a new start – until the rot set in. I soon discovered that his teachers found him at best rather trying. He had the concentration of a goldfish and the temper of a badly brought up rotweiler. After a few weeks I realised that apart from his mother and me no-one particularly liked him. Even his mother had reservations.

He had one habit which annoyed staff particularly. He had to be first in the queue for lunch. He succeeded with remarkable regularity. As I approached the dinner hall he was usually to be found very close to the front of the queue, grinning and planning a quick overtaking strategy between the entrance and the serving hatch. He invariably achieved it. The dinner staff liked him – some of the time. It was good to have an enthusiast. Besides, they were local; they knew more than we did.

One lunchtime I was disturbed by the sound of a violent eruption near the dinner hall. I found Andrew in aggressive, confrontational mode with a strict and uncompromising teacher. She had ordered him to the back of the queue. He had mutinied. I shall apply a degree of self censorship and leave to the imagination of the reader the profanities and oaths he emitted towards the teacher from a bright red, furious and tearful face; I will simply state how much I admired his inventiveness; I could never have dreamt a child who was in regular receipt of learning support could use such a range of inventive language.

The teacher stood her ground; she usually did. The other children filed towards the hatch. Andrew unleashed a further flurry of threats and wished both the teacher and her extended family a number of extraordinarily inventive misfortunes and then burst into uncontrollable tears. I intervened and withdrew him to the office. His lunch was held back and kept warm by kitchen staff.

It took some time for him to settle. For a long period of time he was inconsolable. It was only as the tears subsided and he became calm that I learnt the cause of his distress. That lunch was likely to be the only meal he had that day. If he was lucky there might be something at home for him – a plate of beans, perhaps crisps or a packet of biscuits. Often there was nothing. He rarely had a breakfast although he sometimes ‘acquired’ something from the shop on his way to school. Being at the front of that lunch queue gave him a fighting chance of finishing quickly and getting seconds. It didn’t always work. Some of the teacher applied a rigidly egalitarian system. But it gave him a better chance than most. This was particularly important on days when the meal was of a less appetizing nature to those who could afford to discriminate.

He told me all this and then, calm and resigned, we set off to the kitchen. Soon he was sitting at a table on his own, consuming a lukewarm meal. The cook placed my own plate on the hatch. I looked at it. Suddenly I didn’t feel particularly hungry. I had plenty of food at home. Better that Andrew should have it.

I was popular with the kitchen staff in that school but the teacher never really forgave me. She felt I had undermined her authority. She was convinced Andrew was laughing at her. You couldn’t teach these children unless discipline was severe, she muttered. I had taken his side against her.

I suppose I had. I would probably do the same again. I explained her perspective to Andrew but, to be honest, she would always be the enemy because to her he was the enemy too.

Nowadays, retired, I often wonder what became of Andrew. I wonder if he remembers the day he ate his head teacher’s lunch? I hope so. One can’t change the future for some of these children but one can change the moments that make up a day and hope to make a difference.

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