Bleak North - The Website of Author, BARRY LITHERLAND


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By litherlandb, Sep 21 2015 04:50PM

I like this little chair. It is six inches tall and is hand made. It has a finely interwoven seat and is a miniature version of expensive chairs which were manufactured at a specialist chair works. I’ve owned it for over thirty years now and, despite gradual wear and tear, it remains in pretty good condition. It has shared six different houses with us and has been permanently on display. It was given me by a child I taught in my very first school – Longridge County Primary School. I can’t remember the occasion. Perhaps it was Christmas or the end of a school year. I don’t remember.

I do remember the child who gave it to me (A.G). Even after thirty plus years I can recall her face. I think her father worked at Berry’s in Chipping although I’m not sure. I also seem to remember he had some hand in making this little item. Perhaps he made it entirely. If so I admire his skill greatly. I wonder where she is now?

Over the years of teaching – 35 of them – I’ve been given a whole range of things, shop bought, home made, tasteful and not quite so. There are very few now where I can remember the giver. I can’t even remember the school. That’s what makes this one different.

It’s different with memories. When I see a picture of a child I once taught I can immediately recall not only the physical appearance of the child but their character, the way they moved, gestures, looks. It’s most strange. Even when their names momentarily escape me I can recall each child with incredible clarity.

It’s all the more remarkable, of course, because they now vary in ages from fifty to eleven. I probably wouldn’t recognise most of them and they certainly wouldn’t recognise the aging, grey haired man as the teacher they knew.

I don’t think about teaching any more. It took me a while to settle to retirement but I’m a writer now not a head teacher. I do find recollections emerging almost spontaneously sometimes though, some sad, some happy, some painful, some funny. I hope they keep coming.

Yesterday, for no reason I can think of I remembered identical twins I taught about fifteen or twenty years ago. They weren’t the brightest lads but made up for it with an irrepressible good nature. At the end of year parents’ evening I recall meeting their parents. I explained (sensitively) that a career in the academia might not be for them. The parents understood; parents usually do. Their mother shook her head resignedly.

‘Yes,’ she explained, ‘they can’t be expected to do as well as the others. They’re identical twins. They only have half a brain each.’

Yep, I guess that explains it.

By litherlandb, Aug 24 2015 12:16PM

One of my many schools had a centre attached where children were educated who could not be placed within a normal classroom. The centre rarely held more than a handful of children at a time. Often there were severe behavioural issues and, very occasionally, restraint was required to ensure the safety of the child, other children and (occasionally) staff.

There was one boy – let’s call him Peter – whose moods varied according to factors which were difficult to establish - the direction of the wind, the phase of the moon, what he ate for breakfast, or something that settled across his mind the moment he awoke in the morning. You never knew what would arrive through the door, a good natured nine year old heavyweight or a creature from the bowels of hell.

After a number of staff absences brought on by stress I bought a couple of receiver / transmitter devices so that I could be on call in the event that Peter went out of control or took off on a dangerous trajectory. Now, when the device buzzed to warn me of an incident I would trot dutifully down a corridor and take control. There would be weeks when nothing occurred and then a sudden flurry of activity. Then things would settle down again. It was working well.

Then came an inspection by Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools. The Centre was inspected and received appropriately high praise. The main school inspection followed. Peter, as usual, spent half an hour each morning in a mainstream classroom. The first two days went well. Then, at 9.10 precisely on the third day, I received the call. Peter was in the doorway of the classroom. He was out of control. He was swearing and lashing out and threatening everyone.

I found him standing in the doorway snorting like a bull with his fists clenched having provided himself with a total exclusion zone just beyond which three teachers were standing. They were speaking calmly, softly encouraging him to either step into or out of the classroom. He was having none of it.

Peter saw me coming and realised the endgame had arrived. He hurtled towards the nearest teacher, fists flying, frothing at the mouth and glowing red like something unpleasant about to boil. I stepped in and, from behind him, caught his hands and crossed them in front of him. I then stepped slowly sideways and backwards so that he lost his footing and we both sank to a sitting position against the wall. I held his flailing legs flat using my own leg to restrain him. In this strangely relaxed position we remained whilst I spoke quietly and slowly calmed him. I indicated to the teachers to return to classes and centre. Peter and I were okay. We were following a well rehearsed path. Give me five minutes without disturbance and we would be ready to continue with our day.

It was at the moment that the three inspectors rounded the corner and walked towards me. Peter was leaning against my chest, throwing his head backwards to try and remove a few of my teeth. At the same time he was spitting upwards with remarkable accuracy and emitting a stream of abuse.

‘You’re hurting me!’ he screamed. ‘You’re hurting my wrists.’

It’s not really what you want an HMI to witness.

I looked up as they approached.

‘Good morning,’ I smiled through globules of spittle.

‘God morning,’ they said.

They stepped over our combined tangle of legs and continued along the corridor and disappeared.

They never mentioned the incident, not one word. It was as if it had never happened.

Five minutes later Peter and I were walking down the corridor, hand in hand, and he was telling me about his favourite vehicles, his main interest. We spent half an hour in the centre, sitting on a sofa and reading stories. It was as if it had never happened.

I looked at the teacher. ‘It did happen, didn’t it?’

She shrugged.

‘I’m not sure any more. Perhaps not.’

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.

By litherlandb, Jul 1 2015 03:38PM

I once taught two children whose grandmother had the great misfortune to die five times. You might consider that unfortunate enough but this poor lady, who was only in her late fifties, managed to achieve this distinction over a period of only twelve months. She also remained very much alive at the end of that time, no doubt facing the unenviable possibility of even more fatalities.

Between these sad events she was plagued by a number of dreadful illnesses which would foster compassion in the heart of a robot. How she managed to endure these setbacks with such equanimity I shall never know. All I can tell you is that whenever I saw her between these bouts of death and illness she seemed a picture of rosy, good health. I admired her exceedingly. I wish I had the strength of character to face adversity with such optimism.

I first became aware of this poor woman when her grandchildren were absent from school for several days without explanation. We had failed repeatedly to make contact and were obliged to make contact with Social Services. The next morning (quite late) their mother appeared. I could see at once that she was greatly distressed. She looked as if she had only recently woken after a very few hours sleep and had been too distressed to wash or clothe herself properly. Her eyes carried heavy shadows and the pupils were like tiny, black dots. I suspected she had required medication to sleep.

The grandmother was suffering from dementia on that occasion; she could no longer dress herself or visit the toilet. She couldn’t cook, could barely manage to eat. Her daughter was understandably concerned for her welfare and, being a dutiful young woman, had stayed with her for a number of days. Unfortunately the children had been obliged to accompany her. They would return to school the next day. The grandmother would be going into a home where she could be properly looked after.

I am delighted to report that the grandmother recovered admirably from her bout of Alzheimers and very quickly too. She learnt how to do all the things she had forgotten and there was no need for her to leave her home. I know this because the very next term the poor woman had a heart attack whilst shopping in town. On this occasion the outcome was tragic. She died. The children were off school for several days for the funeral and then attended only sporadically, no doubt due to their grief. Their mother, for whom I was desperately sorry, was once more on some form of medication.

During the following term that poor grandmother died of kidney failure and then she suffered a lingering death from cancer. On the very evening of this last death her daughter’s car had its windows smashed and disgraceful messages were painted on the side. Some of the neighbours completely misunderstood the frequent number of sympathetic visitors to the house. They failed completely to comprehend the poor woman’s medical condition and her need for strong medication. They persecuted that poor family at the most trying of times. As if the poor lady hadn’t suffered enough. People can be so cruel.

A bout of bronchitis the next term required convalescent support for the grandmother but it proved futile because the following month she contracted a virulent flu. It was a particular misfortune for the lady because no-one else nearer than China had suffered any symptoms. When you’re down, you’re down.

Fortunately she had recovered from this fatality by the following week when she attended a concert at the school. I didn’t enquire after her health. It would have been unkind.

You may wonder where the father of the children was during these crises. I assure you we should not misjudge him. He generally worked nights (he was self employed but I am unsure what trade he pursued. Generally it involved parking in various parts of the town with his window down and trading with other people) and he slept a prodigious amount during the day, no doubt exhausted.

Eventually we felt such sympathy with this poor family that we offered them the support of a group of workers from the police, social services, education and health. We even offered the children alternative accommodation should the situation not improve. We also insisted that we should have regular meetings to ensure we were doing all we could to help and we arranged for people to visit them at home.

They were strangely ungrateful.

By litherlandb, Dec 13 2014 03:54PM

I cannot remember now which particular zone we visited last. I think it may have had something to do with play. I remember that the children were particularly keen. It was remarkably quiet when we entered. There were spaces between the people, actual gaps. You could see the floor. I relaxed. I repeated the rules and we agreed a time and a place to reassemble. In twenty minutes we would leave and go to the arena where we would be reunited with the others. I would know they were all there. I would feel a moment’s peace. I could almost taste it.

The children departed and, as they did so, it was as if a deep, impenetrable fog had suddenly gathered around us. I don’t know where the people came from. Within moments I could barely move. I pushed my way through the jostling mob vainly hoping to catch sight of one of my group. I failed to see a single one. What I did see was a turnstile at the very end of the display. It was only then that a feeling or real panic set in.

Anyone who passed through that turnstile had passed out of the zone. There was no way back. Only the vastness of the dome lay beyond. What if one of the children had passed through it? Or all of them? It would have been so easy to do. They would have been swallowed up by the crowd. They might never be seen again.

I tried to calm myself. I walked back through the zone searching for my lost group. I walked along each display; I missed nothing – nothing, that is, except the children. I did not see one of them. I convinced myself they had gone forever. I saw a Sun headline looming. It would be better to end it all here, throw myself on the ground and be trampled to death. No-one would notice until the place closed.

I hacked my way through the undergrowth of visitors and waited at the designated point. They were all late; every single child returned late. Even the most reliable was three minutes late. Chris was seven minutes late.

I could have died during those seven minutes – easily.

However, panic over and heart rate gradually restored, I led them towards the arena and the show.

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