Saturday, 5 April 2014

To Sir, with love.

     Mr Burns. No, not the one from The Simpsons.

     Although if you do want to see a really freaky picture of Mr Burns, I have a photo of The Boy, aged about five days old... Not helped by the fact that he had jaundice, so was bright yellow at the time. ‘I GAVE BIRTH TO MR BURNS’ screams my brain whenever it’s confronted with this. Anyhoo, I’m not talking about The Boy, or The Simpsons…

     When I started high school, it’s fair to say it was something of a shock to me. I’d gone from a very ‘naice’ middle school, all music lessons, sensible shoes, and choir practice, to a melding together of children from all over the city. Somehow, the powers that be managed to combine all of the worst behaving troublemakers from each school and plonk them in one class. That was us. 8HP.

     We were awful, truly. We were the first ever class to be put on class report. The first ever class to have a week long class detention. It wasn’t me, or a small number of the others, but as a whole, we were infamous.  There were genuine arseholes, children with terrible home lives, mouthy little shits, gobby twats, kids who should have been given far more educational support than they were. For the most part, I just tried to keep my head down and not get involved, but even that didn’t work. If anything happened, anywhere, as a member of 8HP, you were automatically under suspicion (And if Mr Stone si reading this, then you are a hateful and despicable bully, and yes, I still remember getting into all kinds of shit because you blamed me for opening a fire exit when I didn’t, you bastard).

     It didn’t help matters that our form tutor, Mr Hampshire, was weedy, wet, and completely ineffectual at attempting to discipline us. He hadn’t been teaching long in any case, and trying to handle this unruly mob of thieves, liars and crooks was far beyond his capabilities. It wasn’t really much of a surprise when, at the end of the summer term, it was announced that he had been chosen to take over another form. And our new form tutor would be… Mr Burns.

     An actual tremor ran through the class. Mr Burns? Mr. Burns. MR. BURNS. Oh shit.

     He hadn’t taught any of us. But we all knew who he was. He was short, fat, not blessed with good looks, scruffy. A witheringly sarcastic Liverpudlian, the type of teacher who, just by pausing in his writing, could make an entire class shrink together in terror. This was no coincidence. He had been selected to sort us out. 8HP was going to change. To 9BZ, obviously, yes, but what I mean is, we no longer were going to get away with covering the form tutors desk with silly string, or breaking into the sheds behind our mobile to set fire to things.

     The first morning of Year 9, we were uncharacteristically quiet and well behaved. We called him ‘Sir’ a lot, as we wrote out our timetables. At no point did anyone fart, deliberately loudly, to create uproar. No one flicked spit balls from their rulers. I was bloody delighted when I realised that we’d been streamed into classes now, and I could leave the miscreants of 8HP behind me, along with two other friends who had survived the baptism of fire in 1992/93.

     The spell was never broken. 8HP was obliterated. 9BZ stood instead, still slightly naughty, still winking, still mischevious. But the anarchy of that first year never returned. Mr Burns ruled us by fear, an iron fist in a steel glove,  clutching lead piping. Any hint of rebellion was crushed instantaneously.

     And then, at the start of 1994, a lot of things happened in my life. My grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She came to stay with us for four weeks, then decided to move back to her own home, just ten minutes away. She died a week later. My parents, whose marriage was always rocky, argued constantly. My dad’s business nearly went to the wall, meaning we would have lost our home too. Then, about six weeks after Gran died, I came home one afternoon to find that my mother had left my father, and was taking me with her, to stay with a friend of hers.

     I know that plenty of worse things happen to people, but it was a lot to take in, especially at the age of 14. Then Dad had a nervous breakdown. So I moved back home to make sure he was ok (my siblings weren’t living at home). Finally, to top it all off, I was told that it was my decision who to live with, and that whoever I chose, would be the one to live with me at the ‘family’ home. The other parent would live elsewhere. There was no mention of visitation rights. Essentially, I would have to choose which parent to keep, and which one to throw away. I chose Dad.

     And then, one Monday morning, after a difficult and emotionally fraught weekend, I was standing in line for Mr Burns to sign my homework diary. I’d had to forge Dad’s signature, and the worry of this deception suddenly became overwhelming. I burst into tears. Everyone else in the class rubbernecked like mad as I howled like a wolf, completely inconsolable, sinking to the floor, making strange and incomprehensible sounds (I think I was saying something about ‘it all being too much’). Mr Burns sent the class out early, cancelled his lessons for the morning and sat with me, as I slowly calmed down and explained everything that had happened over the last few weeks. He was kind, understanding, a good listener. Then he suggested I go home for the day, that there was no point being at school when I was in such a state.

     The next day, he checked on me at morning and break registration, saw that I was coping, let me know that the school had support systems in place for people like me.

     But that wasn’t the end of it. No, no. I think this was probably the first time in my life I experienced depression. Not ‘oh my god, I hate you, my life is so terrible, why are you doing this to me, I didn’t ask to be born’ teenage angst, but true depression. I couldn’t sleep, eat, took no pleasure in anything. I avoided my friends. And I developed a terrible, crippling phobia of school. It was a genuine phobia. I couldn’t bear to leave the house. I cried at the thought of it. The thought of going to school make me physically retch, shake, fear gripped me like nothing I’d ever known before.

     So I stopped going. Sometimes I managed to get Dad to agree to me staying home (usually by crying). But on the rare occasions he insisted, I’d leave the house, hide in one of the little alleyways nearby for half an hour or so, then go back home, sit up in my second floor bedroom, smoke Marlboro Lights and read. There was one month where I think I went to school a grand total of two days.

     School noticed of course. But, and I don’t know how or why, buy Mr Burns saved my unworthy arse. He looked up my classes, got the lesson plans from the various teachers, and sent them to my house. So I did the work, just not in class. I’d drop it off to him after the school day had finished, he’d give it to the teachers. He arranged meetings with my dad, and got Dad to sign something saying that he was home educating me, so we didn’t get in trouble. When it was exam time, he had the exam papers sent to me, and I, respecting the trust he’d placed in me, sat the papers at home, under exam conditions (let’s ignore the glass of Ribena I had on the kitchen table). Finally, I asked my dad if I could abandon school altogether until the start of Year 10. I don’t know what strings got pulled there, but aside from the exams in June, I had my last formal day of Year 9 in the middle of May.

     And by September, I was ok again. And I slotted straight back into school, with my friends, as if nothing had ever happened. 1995 brought more problems. But outwardly, at least, I held it together. And I always knew that Mr Burns kept an eye on me.

     He was still strict, still sarcastic, still capable of reducing a class of gobby 15 year olds to awed and respectful silence. But he saved school for me. Without him, I would have failed Year 9, failed my GCSEs, probably never have sat A Levels.

     And I never thanked him for it. With the callousness of teenage youth, I moved on, into Sixth Form, and forgot all about Mr Burns, and what he did for me, without ever being asked. He would have got himself into a stupid amount of trouble for colluding with my truancy, and I didn’t appreciate it until so many years later. I’ve tried to look him up a few times online, but nup, nothing. I don’t think he teaches at the same school anymore. Then today, I saw a man. A familiar man. But he didn’t seem to look as old as I thought he would.

     ‘Excuse me, you’re Mr Burns, aren’t you? You won’t remember me, but you were my form tutor a long time ago, my name’s…’

     ‘Lucy Benedict.’

     And we chatted for a few minutes, he remembered all too clearly that awful time in 1994, and what had gone on. He was impressively stunned that I have children of my own now (trust me, if you’d known me as a teenager, you’d be pretty stunned too), and it was great to see him. But more importantly, I got to thank him. To let him know that I hadn’t forgotten what he did for me, that I appreciated it, and that he made a big difference to my life. And that sometimes, the best teachers aren’t the ones you have lessons with. They are the people you learn the important things from.


Anonymous said...

What a fab man! And what an awful experience to go through as a child. Do you have a relationship with your mum now?

Lucy Benedict said...

He was amazing, really, I haven't done him justice. And the stupid part of all this is that my parents eventually got back together... Only to split up again a few years ago.

Mum & I are incredibly close now. I was AWFUL to her for a few years, but she just put up with it, waiting for me to stop being an idiot. Now we chat on the phone for hours, email, do all sorts of things together. Plus, The Girl ADORES her!

Marina Sofia said...

A lovely tribute to a special person. Sometimes the best mentors/sources of support in our life aren't the most obvious ones.

Meesh said...

In the states, if you are truant at 14 (which I was) they can charge you with a crime.

I wish I were kidding about that.

I had lost my mother, had been moved across the country, was not doing well emotionally and had started acting out. I think I went to high school a grand total of 4 days in a four month period before they noticed? Maybe?

I ended up in court in front of a judge. At 14. Because I didn't want to go to school. A judge. In court.

The judge looked at my grades, let me speak, and told me that if he did anything to me that it would ruin my future. That I was brilliant and some day I would need a clean record.

And then he dismissed the charges and sent me home.

I owe him. Everything.

Lucy Benedict said...

Oh my god, Meesh, that's horrific! I can't believe that a vulnerable 14yo could get treated like that. Sickening. Thank goodness you were fortunate enough to be in front of a judge who had compassion and understanding. So glad that he enabled you to have a future.