Knowing your limits

I opted to stay as an LSA. It was the right decision. A few years ago, I was asked to teach some year 7 and year 8 English classes, because of a staff shortage. The year 7s, still lit with the after-glow of their primary-school obedience and desire to please, were absolutely gorgeous. I loved them and they loved me. The year 8s, though sweet kids individually, were little bastards en masse.

After coolly assessing me for a few lessons, the collective decided that I was a bit of a push-over and that my classes were a fun space to play, and to avoid work. No-one dared challenge the collective decision. Even the children who liked me became truculent in that room, although lovely when I met them outside it. All teenagers need to be part of the tribe, and to avoid work if they can, and they knew if I berated them they could argue the toss without serious consequence. They were very good at being disobedient without being unpleasant and, coming from F.E., I used to forget I could issue punishments. I’d stagger out of lessons all flustered, like a cowboy with an arrow through his hat, and suddenly remember, “Damn! I should’ve given the little swine detentions!” And I was nervous of doing it, too, fearing the conflict that would follow.

It didn’t help that I was entering that sudden, steep decline so characteristic of anorexics when, after wandering slowly downwards, your weight suddenly falls off a cliff. After holding it together for so long, you suddenly cease to be able to function properly. My throat locked up, for some reason, so that I could only whisper or shout hoarsely. Abi thinks this was psychological; I’d assumed it was physiological, although if it was caused by the decay of neurons, I guess it could be both.

I truly think the voice damaged my relationship with the students. A loud, carrying timbre is of immeasurable benefit to a teacher, allowing them to be heard and impose themselves, while still sounding kind and caring. I had to opt for either sounding pathetic and incapable, or sounding angry but ineffectual. One or the other. Whereas I was neither; I was in such a lather of exhaustion and bodily malfunction that I could feel neither anger or self-pity.

I think the more perceptive students thought they’d caused me to have a nervous breakdown. (Teenagers are terribly solipsistic). I’m sure we all recognise, from our own school days, that mixture of guilt, pity and self-justifying disdain, and that tiny thrill of power, that we all felt when facing the teachers we thought were nice but ineffectual. How often have you heard kids say, “he just can’t control us!”?

I wanted to say, “Don’t flatter yourselves: I was a fuck-up long before I met you!”

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