The Ones You Remember by Robyn Boswell
When you’ve been a teacher there are kids who stay in your mind forever. The ultra-bright kids, the creatives, the ‘tough’ kids, the intriguing kids. The school I taught in for many years was the sort of school that could chew a teacher up and spit them out in tears within a few months. Either that, or you were a survivor and stayed for years because even the toughest kids could move you and get under your skin. As an Intermediate school we only had two years with the kids but you could learn a lot about them in that time.
Out of the hundreds of kids I taught it was incredibly rare to find one who I couldn’t reach in one way or another. The most difficult kids were tough and could turn you inside out as you tried to find a way to get through to them. I can only think of three or four whose shell I could never break into. Our kids came to school from homes where they saw things that would make your hair curl; homes that were violent and unloving, homes where 11 and 12 year olds were left to fend for themselves, homes where they went to bed with an empty belly at night, homes where kids were used as drug couriers, but there were plenty of homes that were full of love and no money, homes where parents sacrificed everything to give their kids a good start in life, homes where parents were professionals and homes where parents were unemployed. After 17 years nothing shocked me and I would look at the kids in my class and think ‘What have those eyes seen that I couldn’t even begin to imagine?’
Craig came to my class in Form One. He would have been 11, going on 12. The principal handed me the notes from his primary school with the comment “I’ve put him in your class because I think you can handle him”.
Not an auspicious beginning. The notes had an ominous ring to them. ‘Dominates in the classroom, shouts over others, trouble maker, doesn’t want to learn’. Not one single positive comment.
The first couple of days of ‘getting to know you’ were fine, but then he started to show his true colours. He wasn’t violent or nasty, but he was very, very loud and didn’t respect the other kids. Every time there was an opportunity for any interaction, he took it, shouting everyone else down, never putting his hand up to indicate he wanted to join in the discussion, ignoring everyone else, putting the other kids down with sarcastic comments. By the end of the week I went home with his voice ringing in my ears and the feeling that everyone else in my class was starting to slip through my fingers because Craig demanded every moment of my time – loudly!
I suddenly remembered a strategy I had been told about but never tried. Anything was worth a go. I spent a bit of time talking to him, much to his surprise. I think it was the first time a teacher had actually sat down and talked with him rather than just yelling at him – I’d already discovered that didn’t work. I asked him what he had seen around the school that he would really, really like to do if he could have a treat. He had sussed out that we had a trampoline and said he’d love to have a go on that. I then set up a little contract with him – focusing on just one little – but loud – thing, his calling out in class all the time. There’s no point in trying to change all of a difficult child’s behaviours at once. I made sure he knew it was our secret and no one else needed to know. We split the day into sessions and every session that he remembered to put his hand up or gave others a chance to speak, he could bring a little card to me and get a tick on it. After two weeks he would get a whole hour of free time on the trampoline.
Well, what an unexpected miracle. By the second day there was hardly any calling out and by the end of the week, he was just one of the other kids in the class. That wasn’t all. His entire behaviour changed dramatically and rapidly. I soon discovered that he was a bit of a scamp with a great sense of humour. He and I started to really hit it off.
I soon realised Craig was the class clown, something that upsets a lot of teachers, but often these kids are just full of enthusiasm and actually very creative. He learned quickly what my levels of tolerance were and very soon he was one of the most popular kids in the class.
When auditions were called for the school musical, I was surprised that he turned up. I hadn’t realised Craig’s talents, but he auditioned for and got the lead role. The big problem was that despite his undoubted acting ability, reading was a big difficulty for him – he really struggled. He was quite despondent when he saw the script he had to learn. The kids in the class saw his struggles and took it upon themselves to help him learn the script and the songs. On stage he was incredible. He definitely had the x-factor and you just couldn’t stop watching him. He walked tall around the school as people congratulated him and half the girls fell in love with him.
Later in the year we went on a class camp. On the first day we hiked through the bush to a swimming hole in a river. Craig found a well-bleached skull of a cow in the bush so brought it back to camp with him. By the time we got back to the camp it had a name – Bernard the Bull - and had been adopted by Craig and his group of friends as their mascot. I walked past the outdoor sinks to find them cleaning Bernard’s big teeth with one of their toothbrushes. That night (yes, they dragged me into their prank as well) we walked down to the beach for a cook-out, through a path that is rumoured to be an ancient battleground. The kids always found it a little spooky walking back up the path after dark. Halfway down the path a huge old tree trunk leans over the path so you have to duck under it. As we walked back up the path, we came around the corner to find Bernard perched on the tree trunk with a row of candles around him so it looked like the skull was floating above the path. The screams echoed around the bay! Bernard went back to school with us. I discovered that Craig had even jokingly taken him to the school dental nurse to see if he needed any fillings. Bernard became an extra class member for the rest of the year.
Craig went off to High School and I saw that they were doing a production of Grease. The role of Danny Zuko could have been written for him and I was shocked that he didn’t have a part in the musical at all. He came to see me at the end of the year and when I asked him why, he said that because he was in one of the lower streamed classes, he wasn’t eligible to audition. They don’t know what they missed.
He came and saw me at the end of his second year at High School as well – one of the few students who did that, mostly they just move on with their lives. I forgot about him until 6 or 7 years later when a colleague came into the staffroom and said,
“Robyn, there’s a gorgeous young hunk out there asking for you.”
Craig had come back to see me and his words have always stuck with me “I’ve finished an apprenticeship and got a job. They’ve given me time off and I’m going to travel. I’m going to Europe because you always told us your stories about your trip and I was determined from then that that's what I was going to do. Before that though, I’m going to travel around New Zealand because you also told us how important it was to see your own country before you travel overseas.”
I never saw Craig again, but he will always be one of my most memorable students. As a teacher you rarely know just how much long-lasting impact you can have in a young person’s life.