Heaven preserve me from littleness and pleasantness and smoothness. Give me great glaring vices, and great glaring virtues, but preserve me from the neat little neutral ambiguities. Be wicked, be brave, be drunk, be reckless, be dissolute, be despotic, be a suffragette, be anything you like, but for pity’s sake be it to the top of your bent. Live fully, live passionately, live disastrously. Let’s live, you and I, as none have ever lived before.
(Violet Trefusis, in a letter to Vita Sackville-West, October 25, 1918)
This quote ended my speech to my Year 13 tutor group at their farewell on 23 May. Of course, aged 40, I thoroughly value a bit of littleness and pleasantness, but one of my closest friends had this on her wall at just their age. It strikes a chord for me too. I think that to be so thoroughly passionate about working with teenagers, we have to keep our inner teenager alive. Our quick-to-anger, fiercely passionate, mercilessly loyal side. The one which has Year 9 lamenting your absence at a day’s INSET after months of giving you hell. That one.
In that group of Year 13 students, there were numerous memories. An unforgettable trip to Berlin (with my then 18-month-old in tow), phone calls parents to explain that they Year 10 boy had taken to mooing and baaing in mid-German-lesson for attention. The absolute hilarity of the words ‘fatigué’ and ‘bâtiment’ to the Year 8s of 5 years ago (to my relief, the Head of French saw the funny side), the genuine expression of faith and pride this group of resilient, rounded, fiercely optimistic individuals heading out in the world a great tonic after a week of UKIP…
That Friday was a day of goodbyes. It also marked my last day at my school of eight years. The school which saw the birth of both my children and my move – from metropolitan sophistication, and gradual satisfied conversion to green-belt living. With ‘middle age’ (the inner teenager protests!) came middle management, and a growing ‘maternal’ persona which saw a gradual shedding of an instinct to be liked and a desire to nurture and defend. A year in senior management saw huge new challenges, and with each new challenge, a recognition of how much there is to learn. The black-and-whites of my previous days gradually merged into a greater understanding of the complexity of the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ of school management – student well-being, funding, grades, government targets, changing goalposts, staff moral – all held in a precarious and oh-so-vital balance by school leaders.
The goodbye period maintained a sense of unreality to the end. From the initial, decisive, sometimes-indignant decision to leave to the near-miss of a Free School (what was I thinking?!) to the triumph of securing a (non-acting!) SLT post by being unashamedly ‘me’ throughout interview, to the dawning reality and the racing final weeks. The students’ indignation – at worst, a genuine sense of abandonment – was by far the most bitter pill. The huge number of tasks to be completed, the thank yous and handovers all kept me busy enough to keep at bay the reality of a final ‘goodbye’. But the last day dawned with a real sense of nauseous dread. I knew everyone. I was part of the furniture. At least four students that week had said, ‘but you don’t actually have to go do you, Miss?’ and a little part of me wanted to run back and change my mind.
The day was everything I could have hoped for and more. Now isn’t the time to indulge in the details – that is for the quiet moments, days, months and years down the line. Suffice to say that colleagues did everything they could think of – and more – to make me feel loved and valued. Teaching, of course, is never predictable, and the highlight of that day will remain two utterly unexpected bunches of flowers. The first, a quiet girl in year nine, promptly burst into tears. The second, a boy in Year 12, insisted everyone he found tried to phone to locate me so when I saw the twelve missed calls, I assumed nothing short of major emergency. It’s such a truism, one which comes mainly from people outside the profession, that sometimes we touch people’s lives without realising it. On Friday 23 May, I felt to my core that it had been worth every sleepless night and work-filled weekend. Every last day of it.
Of course, there were those less expansive about my departure. Those who remind me that, yes, ‘you make the weather’, but for goodness sake, it can’t be sunny all of the time. Those who find my ‘enthusiasm’, and my tendency to see the best in people and situations plain irritating. I hear them too. But, to end with two more truisms, you really can’t please all of the people all of the time – and you could die trying – but there are rather more interesting things to spend your life on. And no, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. But it’s certainly never, ever boring.
Let the next journey begin!