Scenario. It’s 11.10 and you’re on your way to an important meeting or training session. You pass members of The Class That Keeps You Awake in the corridor. ‘Where are you going, Miss? Where are you GOING?’ Subtext – you have left us to perish in the deserts. How very DARE you? What better reason do you have to be here than US? They have driven you nuts and yet their attitude makes complete sense. This.
On 28 April, 2006, I mustered up the courage to tell a group of Year 11 students in my tutor group, whom I’d known since they were scuttling under tables in Year 7, that I was leaving. The moment is indelibly stamped on my memory.
The reasons for the momentousness of this moment go against so much of what I’ve thought, advised and written since – I felt searing guilt combined with a need to justify to them why I was moving on. I still talk about this in interviews – I was standing up for my subject. MFL should never have been consigned to the option blocks (N.B. I stand by this!). But, but… I didn’t actually expect to have to really say goodbye.
‘Nobody is indispensable’, ‘you’re part of something much bigger’, ‘true leadership is what happens when you’re not around’… I’ve used each of these lines at least once in the last month and a dozen times a year. I’ve written about humility here.
Those young people of 2001-2006 almost certainly got more of me – or possibly something different of me – in the years before I had children. There were late evenings spent mulling over French verbs and confidence crises and a late night detective work to find errant parents to wish them a happy birthday. Nights on coaches all over Europe spent philosophising and speculating on the horrors and joys and challenges that lay ahead.
My last minutes at that school were spent, not saying tearful goodbyes to colleagues, but with my tutor group, playing crazy table-tennis and sealing a time capsule of god-only-knows-what (I think there was a set of German verbs and a table tennis ball in there) behind the boards which concealed the computer desks. (I wonder if they’re still there…) In the days when such things were acceptable, I spontaneously met with them and their families for a farewell picnic on Hampstead Heath. A group of us went on to meet regularly and, ten years down the line, there’s a hard core who still make sure a lunch happen, to debate whether N. really did call me a bad word that day (it never gets tired) and to speculate on how the student who told me exactly where to stick French ended up a successful businessman based in Paris with French better than mine could ever be.
My next eight years were spent seeing students and their siblings through my own blur of my early parenthood. The group to whom I’d said goodbye 12 months before negotiated their way across London to welcome my first-born to the world with fluffy toys they still play with. A similar group somehow managed to negotiated the M1 three years later to surprise me at my 40th birthday party.
In my new post, I experienced the leadership of a huge and talented and feisty and challenging department, and the wonderful contradictions of teaching the Year 9 set that once caused you sleepless nights. There were wonderful exam results and appalling ones. Inspirations and huge challenges.
I left because it was time to do so, but remember the day itself, like many momentous events, with a distinct sense of disproportion and unreality. My colleagues said kind things I couldn’t take in. The most unexpected of students ran to me with roses. There were some awkward farewells in between, which feigned the emotions we were ‘supposed’ to feel. I ended the Year 13 assembly with a quote from a letter from Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville West (shamelessly stolen from a close friend):
‘Be wicked, be brave, be drunk, be reckless, be dissolute, be despotic, be an anarchist, be a religious fanatic, be a suffragette, be anything you like, but for pity’s sake be it to the top of your bent — Live — live fully, live passionately, live disastrously if necessary. Live the gamut of human experiences, build, destroy, build up again! Live, let’s live, you and I — let’s live as none ever lived before.’
I’d known the audience since they were in Year 7. I was busting with pride, rumbling with anxiety and entirely disconnected from the reality.
Our Headteacher died not long afterwards, by which time my context had changed dramatically. I was part of things – but not. Emotionally involved but diverted elsewhere. This was, if I am honest, both a relief and a kind of torture.
The following three years saw, for a number of reasons (few of them sinister) me jump from school to school. I finished my Doctorate – hoorah – but had to say goodbye to three sets of students in three years.
Here’s one of my – stroppy, wonderful – GCSE students. I was permitted to tell them only in my last week. She was going to her home country on the Sunday before. I waited until the very last moment of Friday afternoon before seeking her out. She thought she was in trouble. I started to speak. She realised. The look of sheer…. what? There is no word for this. Something which combines resignation with disappointment with rage. This is a look that will stay with me always.
Another one year temporary contract with children in a great school who will get the very best. It should have been easier. But I still catch myself imagining I see one of them in the canteen queue. Or about to ask another whether they like the Philip Pullman book I lent them, or whether their Mum’s recovering or how they feel about what’s happening about events in Syria… before realising they have an almost-but-not-quite Doppelgaenger.
And now? There will be few specific details about my current school – it is not my place to share them. What I will share is that I have very recently had it confirmed, officially, that I’m STAYING. I’m staying to watch them grown and dip and rise again. I’m staying for the tears and the tantrums (from the students too….). I’m staying for the moments of confidence and the moments of crisis and the moments of rage. I’m staying for the data-crunches and the monitoring exercises and the appraisal meetings. I’m staying for the births and bereavements. I’m going to be part of the furniture, part of the rough-and-tumble, part of the crises and part of the triumphs. I’m staying until the grey hairs outnumber the brown ones and the great food has taken its justified toll. I have no illusions about the challenges and googlies and downright opposition that will come my way or the apologies and reviews I will have to undertake, but I’m STAYING. And I’m delighted and privileged to be doing so.
When I told my daughters this news, the youngest (just 7) said, ‘you’ve won! When can we go there again?’
Nobody in a profession is indispensable. But some are indelible. And, for all the crises and disasters and the (entirely understandable) ‘had enough’ moments, let’s take a moment to acknowledge what a difference our students make to us – and us to them.