Monthly Archives: June 2010

Salt Water

The current initiative at School is to stem the tide of ‘f**k your Mum’s!” Ok, so the Head teacher didn’t put it like this in Assembly, but that’s the current phrase being batted around by kids to an exhaustive degree. It was oh so different last week. The School was ablaze with whoops and cheers as England scored in the World Cup (for some it was just an excuse to scream and go nuts in School). Now there is a discernible lull, a collective dragging of the feet and wearisome insults, it’s not helped by the heat.

Zak is a mess. I explained what causes bloodshot eyes today, in the hope he might go to bed a little earlier. He dictates his own bedtime and it’s visible in his lethargy and bad temper. He’s moved house for the third time in as many months; he is yet further away from School and an hour late each morning.

His mood was erratic and antagonistic for much of the day. To watch him boast to his peers, I had to remind myself this is the same child petrified of pigeons and who refuses to use the School’s toilet for fear of crocodiles. The only light relief came from a child keen to show us a card trick. He asked me to select a card, with his back turned. He then chose the incorrect card. He tried the same trick on Zak, with the same result. “That’s magic!” exclaimed Zak. The trick only seems to work if the person forgets which card they originally chose.

Time stood still during the afternoon exclusion shift. We broke from the syllabus to discuss the injustice of having to pay for sachets of ketchup in certain chip shops. We also played ‘Truth or Dare’. His dares involved me drinking enough salt water for me to go mad, while I ‘dared’ him to recite the 9 times table.

The equivalent School nightmare of turning up for work with no clothes on, would be wrestling a demented child from a packed Assembly. Time again stood still, as I dragged Zak away from another confrontational situation, while trying not to trip over a couple of hundred pairs of feet. To his sole credit, Zak did manage to avoid saying ‘f**k your Mum!” Kate later joined the chorus of teachers who’ve uttered the phrase “I feel sorry for you”.

The new hardline involves telling any parents of their children’s exclusion. As he arrived to collect him, I was about to impart the sad news to Zak’s Dad. For the second time that day though, I found myself looking into a pair of bloodshot eyes. I decided it could wait till tomorrow.


True Lies

I’ve always been grateful for a man in a suit walking around School. When Zak is at his most petulant, I always tell him the man is a Governor, here to check up on the naughty kids. We were visited by people in other kinds of uniforms today, those of the Police, Fire Brigade and Ambulance Crew.

The day started off with a play about knife crime. It seemed a little heavy-handed, considering the kids were only 11 years old. Meanwhile Zak’s behaviour began to turn. One of the police women walked over to me, “is he Special Needs?” she asked. Strictly speaking he’s not, but I smiled innocently and said ‘yes’. Hey, it got me an extra pair of hands and I don’t think little white lies are a criminal offence.

Next up was ‘Stranger Danger’. In a clever little scenario they tricked groups of children into walking off with a ‘stranger’ (a plain-clothes police officer). I watched, hidden from view, as Zak and another child took the bait. For all the fact I knew it was staged, it was still unsettling. The police officer was then ‘arrested’ and revealed her true identity to the children.

The children’s observation skills were then tested in a crime recreation scene. They were remarkably accurate, even noting the criminals “really hairy toes”. A suddenly self-conscious assailant looked as if he’d regretted wearing open toed sandals. Next up were the Ambulance Crew. We knew one of the children receiving CPR was not dead, when he loudly farted. They should have stuck with a dummy.

There was a fire alarm test in the afternoon and I expected the Year 6 to ‘stop drop and roll’, as taught. Zak just ‘slapped, kicked and punched’ his way into an afternoon’s internal exclusion. Chased by three children, Zak ran into the Library, in what quickly became an almost farcical scene. I was quickly there, holding back an apoplectic Zak, with my foot on the Library door. While Zak was trying to escape my clutches, the ‘three little shits’ were on the other side, jump kicking the door. “Let me out!” screamed Zak; “Let us in!” yelled the kids.

With matters calmed, we moved to the subject of parallel universes. It took a while, but eventually Zak got his head around the fact that somewhere out there, in another galaxy, is another ‘him’. “He’s probably on an internal exclusion too” I noted. At times like this, I felt sorry for my parallel self.

At the end of the day, Zak and I said goodbye to one of the boys leaving us. “Can we think about him for a little bit?” Zak asked. I was happy to do so. He was a lad that seemed to speak all languages and no languages. While I never understood a word he said, Zak and I both agreed we’ll miss him. As we reached the playground, Zak suddenly stopped in his tracks. “Wait!” he said, wide-eyed in revelation “so that wasn’t really a stranger?”

Still crazy

Today was officially the longest day of the year. Everybody seemed to have gone a little crazy. One child approached me, wearing a baseball cap. “Look!” he said, whipping it off to reveal no eyebrows “I found my dad’s razor last night!” It was surprising as he’s one of the teacher’s children, with a very keen interest in Science. Sir Isaac Newton once stuck a pin in his own eye, so maybe it’s too early to start worrying.

Even the usually reserved School Secretary was affected by the summer solstice. Zak successfully pumped up a football and she remarked “well if I ever need a good pumping I know where to come”. It was like being on the set of a ‘Carry On’ film. Even a quick visit to the toilet was timed by one of the children in class. “Two minutes and 57 seconds!” he roared, upon my return. This was also the one child who had a vuvuzela to hand. Thank God I’m not constipated.

Zak’s removal from the Social Skills lesson was an irony only lost on him. Having retired to a safe distance, he was now laying under a table, as I tried to climb back on the curriculum wagon. I was trying to explain the difference between formal and informal. He seemed to quickly grasp the concept. I can’t help thinking my inadvertent cockney accent to represent ‘informal’ was the giveaway though.

Zak was in an acerbic mood. He told me how he’d ingratiated himself with the new kids in his area, by giving them sticks to beat his brother with. He interrupted Assembly to ask me loudly if you can survive without farting. He also started playing xylophone during a French lesson, with an improvised tune nauseatingly close to Modern Jazz.

I’ve never openly shown my complete exasperation with Zak’s behaviour until today. I returned to our hovel to find he’d sellotaped his mouth and tied his wrists together. “What’s wrong with you?” I cried. He couldn’t respond of course. I walked him to the Head teacher’s office. Anyone seeing him bound and gagged would have thought I’d finally flipped.

I sometimes feel my self-confidence shredded and dignity dented when I struggle to control Zak. At the back of my exercise book I’ve jotted down some sentences from Zak’s statement such as ‘does not listen to adults’ ‘fights on an extremely regular basis’ and ‘a child with severe emotional, behavioural and social difficulties’. I’ll develop it into a mantra I can silently recite while Zak is threatening to put me “in a bath with a shark, where there is no gravity”. He needs to work on some of his put downs.

At the end of the day Roisin confirmed Zak would be going to a Secondary School for children with emotional and behavioural problems. There seems little hope he will ever be in mainstream education beyond the next few weeks. Even Mum and Dad have apparently not told him the news. I gather his parents have invited me over for dinner, I hope that’s not the evening they drop the bombshell.

28 days sooner

For the first time, since starting at the School, I was hung-over. I can’t say I wasn’t warned, “Kids can spot bloodshot eyes from a mile off”. I wandered into the classroom to see a picture of a pale, sickly, degenerate figure. “He looks the way I feel” I thought. Coincidentally, written above the person was the name ‘Tim’. “I’ve definitely made an enemy” I noted.

During the first lesson, all became clear. The figure I’d seen was a character called Tim, from ‘The Highwayman’ by Alfred Moyes. I felt relieved and needn’t have worried about my pallid complexion. “Why does everyone think you’re Adam’s brother?” asked one child during morning break. Adam is the resident School teacher pin-up. I wanted the names of every child that believed this, just so I could give them all gold stars.

Everything seemed so much more amplified in my fragile state. Every scream, whoop, shout, bang and crash sounded cranked up. I think the previous nights’ ales had also contributed to a trippy dream. I’d been a kid at School, chased, cornered and beaten up in the playground. Every time I shouted in agony, a nearby translator deciphered it. For example, “he said please stop that hurts” and “ouch my ribs”.

Zak was rehearsing possible ‘laughs’. He has an underdeveloped sense of humour, but wanted to make a noise when he thought he’d said something funny. He went through many options and it was like waiting for someone to decide upon a ringtone. The worst was a noise like Woody the Woodpecker after a stroke. Typically, this was the one he plumped for.

We went to the park in the afternoon, where every taunt he hurled at classmates was punctuated by ‘that laugh’. Such were the volume of insults being bandied around; I accidentally called one of the kids by the very name Zak uses to upset him.

It was Zak’s first and last trip to the park. On the way back he refused to cross the road with the other children. Instead, he pretended to run into traffic. Even though I had control of him, it was a heart-stopping moment. Kate, the class teacher, did not disguise her annoyance “he needs at least two people with him”, she spat.

We spent what was left of the day in the library. “I’m in bad shape” I muttered quietly. “Why? what shape are you?” asked Zak. I didn’t laugh.

Every dog has its day

It’s amazing how simple gestures can cross language boundaries. I watched a teaching assistant encouraging a child to eat. The boy seemed to only know two words of English, his name and the word ‘shit’. She pointed out he was about to leave the lunchtime table, having only eaten a few mouthfuls. “Shit!” he said, pointing to his plate. She asked how old he was, by pointing to the boy next to her and displaying ten fingers. He indicated he was nine. She then cut his pizza into nine slices and for each mouthful, she counted down. “Shit!” he said happily, having managed to clear his plate. I nearly shouted “shit!” back, as we waved him off.

I was then asked to take a picture of an autistic boy’s plate, before and after lunch. He too is difficult with food, but the same teaching assistant has managed, despite endless tears and tantrums, to get him to eat. All the more incredible, as this is food that he can avoid at home. It’s nice to occasionally glimpse into another teaching assistant’s world.

Roisin had a neat little glimpse into mine too. She took over from where I left off, trying to persuade Zak to enter class. She took a full ten minutes before he sloped reluctantly off. She sat with him for a while longer in class, showing me how it’s done. I heard my name mentioned by Zak, a little while later. I suspected it was probably something unfavourable. At break time, I discovered that he’d actually said he hopes he has a teaching assistant as nice as me, in his next School. I think this is because, in comparison with Roisin, I’m a softer touch.

The positivity continued into the afternoon. One of the teaching assistants fought back tears as she showed me an ultrasound scan. Her sister had tried for a child for a long time, at last there was some amazing news. The autistic child told me that, although he wouldn’t be on my team for lunchtime football, that he still loves me. This prompted a lot of stifled laughter from the attending staff. I even saw Zak giving Mrs Godsend a massage, while she recovered from a trapped nerve.

Finishing the day, Zak revealed that he’d been bitten on the arse by a dog, the previous evening. Undaunted by this, he would still one day like to own one. Stuck for a name for the pet, we went into role-play mode. We took it into turns to be both owner and dog. We would choose a name and try it in the sentences ‘(name) here boy!’ ‘(name) come here!’ or ‘naaaaaame!’

With Zak trying out the name ‘Caaaaeeeesssaaarrrr!’ and me on the far side of the library, pretending to be a dog, this would have been a legendary time for the Head Teacher to walk in. She didn’t though – I’m chalking off the days (29 left), but today was a good day.

Reality bites

I’m like a coiled spring at playtime. A fellow teaching assistant showed me bite marks on her neck from a previous playtime fracas. “A vampire?” I guessed, “No, a Year 4 kid” she replied.

I actually saw a group of kids intimidate the bell-ringer today. A girl arrived in the playground to ring the bell, signalling the end of morning break. She was quickly surrounded by a small group, who, in no uncertain terms, told her to keep her hands where they could see them.

An attempt at playing ‘Cops and Robbers’ was disbanded today, as nobody wanted to be the police (or ‘po-lice’ as these Americanized kids call them). A girl saved a worm from a marauding, feral, lynch mob and another kid told me how his great-uncle had once pooed into a sandwich bag and thrown it over a bridge.

“Your stomach is different to Adam’s” piped up another playtime progeny “yours is spongier”. I tried not to take too much offence, as Adam is the School’s resident male Adonis. I think I did subconsciously suck it in though, at least for the rest of the break. The same brat waltzed past me, singing “Mr Lonely”. I’m unable to socialise with the other teachers, due to having to keep a constant vigil on Zak. I do cut a rather isolated figure.

With the Year 6 kids away on an adventure holiday, from which Zak was barred, we returned to our usual nomadic lifestyle. We moved to any spaces we could find in the School, before being uprooted by others. Zak showed me a faint shiner, “there was ten of them” he informed me. Through a process of interrogation his story altered. “Ten boys” went down to “five boys”, which was then reduced to “two boys”, then “one boy”. Eventually it unravelled that it was a girl who had hit him. “She was 14 though” he insisted.

To most Zak is a bully that, in this instance, probably got what he deserved. It’s interesting how he so neatly fits the basic bullying stereotype. For example, he has desperately low self-esteem. You would only need to see how, days after the fact; he still can’t cope with being rejected. “She smells of dumb!” “She goes in baby classes!” “Her name doesn’t exist!” “She picks her bum!” are just some of his recent outbursts.

He also has a turbulent life outside of School, which feed his deepest insecurities. I do have to, on occasions, put my ‘social worker hat’ on (complete with dangly earrings). I do my best to allay his fears with what little experience I have. It always ends with us running just that bit quicker to our afternoon kick about.

The day ended in another classic blooper. This time, I was demonstrating the walk of Neanderthal man to Zak, just as the Head Teacher walked past. I could have pretended I was having a seizure, but sometimes you just have to start digging a hole.


It’s odd just how many kids I now bump into from School. I’ve seen one kid in Sainsbury’s (while buying ‘Tooth Whitening Mouth Rinse’ – my secret is out), another on the Northern Line and one who appeared and ran alongside me in the park. I’d forgotten what a thrill it is for kids to see you outside of the School domain. One child treated me with such reverence, outside Snappy Snaps, I half expected her to ask for an autograph.

Along with learning about the law of diminishing returns of anonymity in public places, I’ve learnt about the power of distraction. With Zak it’s getting easier. We start the day in our corner, which doubles as a ‘naughty corner’ the minute he kicks off. This is how distraction works;

Me: Morning Zak

Zak: I hate this school! I hate Roisin! I hate you! I want to be by myself!

Me: (pretending to read article) oh

Zak: (with sudden piqued interest) what?

Me: nothing

Zak: (grabs article) show me

Me: please

Zak: please (looks briefly at article) what is it? read it to me please

Me: according to this a planet is being devoured by a yellow dwarf’s heavenly inferno

Zak: is that good?

Mission accomplished.

With most of the Year 6 children away on an adventure holiday, I thought Zak would miss having kids to fight with. I needn’t have worried. He found someone to fight within minutes of entering the building. Mrs Godsend sat them both down and had them join little fingers for a ‘pinky make up’. It was just about humiliating enough to stem any further bad behaviour.

The afternoon drained away slowly. Zak, once again, corrected me on the pronouncement of his name. This is the third time this has happened. When he began at School, I called him Zak (as in the English name Zack). After a few months he told me his name was in fact pronounced with a guttural noise at the end – the kind that can sometimes bring up unwanted phlegm. I agreed to this, only for him to change it again.

This time he introduced an ‘h’ sound into the middle. Now it sounded like someone was fighting for breath halfway through pronouncement. Thankfully, we’re now back to plain old Zak again. This is what it must be like working with the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.