There’s a junction in North London soon before the A1 meeting the A406 where I invariably have an moment when I start to signal to the right. This was my route to work for several years – to a comprehensive school in North London, led by Kevin. In that moment, a number of thoughts go through my mind. Kevin would delight in hearing about my stroppy daughter’s latest display of stubbornness. He’d ask after my husband, my Mum, my Dad, my brother-in-law and my cats (all by name). He’d be proud and happy that I’m loving my new job and thriving on new challenges. There’s so much to tell him, ask him, share with him. And, in that moment, I wonder how on earth I’ve left it so long.
And then I remember. On the Sunday of the August bank holiday weekend, Kevin was found dead in his flat. He was in his late forties. I have kept a record of the following days in my blog: https://thosethatcanteach.wordpress.com/2014/08/27/losing-your-head/. The funeral was a humanistic ceremony. Unflinching, celebratory, full to bursting, with people jammed into every corner. ‘Awkward to the last,’ we joked.
You know what? I still haven’t been able to tell my children he’s dead. I changed my youngest stinking nappy in his office. He threw them sky high, invited me in to teach when my youngest was a 6 week old in a sling on my front, and totally undermined my attempts to boycott Isla’s Hello Kitty fixation by supplying her with every Hello Kitty article he could find. In her short life, my eldest daughter, now seven, has had to hear news of death a number of times. She goes to a religious school, and we have endless discussions about whether her great Grandmother is in Heaven; whether Uncle Peter can see her now; whether Sheila is still in pain. We’re not a religious family, and I frequently find myself coming back to the simple idea that people live on in our memories, our values and our actions.
This may sound rather pithy, but it’s never been truer than now. Kevin’s pride made you feel a million dollars. He celebrated success by writing to our parents. He simply thrived on, was fascinated by, loved to nurture and grown and inspire people of all ages. He transformed the school from a urine-stinking shabby one in Special Measures to a brightly coloured spectacle full of laughter and impulsiveness and small (and rather larger) animals. The cleaning staff were treated like royalty. He knew everyone’s name.
There was an infinite sense of exuberance and optimism and possibility in the way he led. He loathed negativity, found criticism difficult, and would take on ‘toxic whingeing’ head-on, frequently with dramatic scenes and melodrama. Any idea was embrace – run away, do it, and come back with the impact!’ he’d say to the latest proposal. ‘Yes! Go to New York!’ ‘Bring in your children!’ ‘Write that novel!’. His promises frequently seemed outrageous, but he had an uncanny ability of making them come true. His faith in people to always be better seemed infinite.
He could be a real pain. Having settled Year 10 to their latest controlled assessment, him bursting in with a loud rendition of 99 Luftballons (with appalling accent) was rarely welcome. His new kitten used the middle of the classroom to relieve itself. He’d change his mind suddenly about a policy, and initiative, leaving others to deal with the consequences. Employ someone he’d met on Hampstead Heath with no consultation. Take personal responsibility for finding a missing student.
But, as an emerging leader, he instilled in me several things for which I will always be grateful. His sheer passion for people – with their idiosyncrasies, their foibles, and ultimately, always, their potential was infectious. He spoke endlessly of kindness, supporting upwards, honesty and transparency. He was constantly presenting around the school, his energy appeared tireless. He took injustice and tragedy at global scale almost personally – most recently, he was shattered by the death of Ann McGuire.
All of these values are so much a part of the fabric of my teacher identity that I’m barely conscious of them. At times, too, I can be annoyingly impulsive and have to check myself. I don’t always think things through either…
I often quote him talking about doing up your own seatbelt before you help others on an aeroplane. The importance of well-being was paramount to him. He could spot you having a bad day at 200 paces. He poured compassion and support into those who needed it. I only wish that, in the end, his own seatbelt had been done up a little sooner, and a little more tightly. Look after yourselves, people. It’s the most important thing you can do. Then, and only then, can you be what you want to be for those you care about.