Govy school classroom 3 in special education. A boy with a smile. His good looks marred by a missing front tooth; his appearance: yokel; his aura: scruffy street fighter; his appeal: rough diamond. In the front of that same govy classroom. A teacher. Floundering. A missing-front tooth smile (of anyone older than 8!) awakes a lifetime of preconceived ideas. Just standing before these boys whose common bond is their referral here by the children's court entails a total paradigm shift for this teacher who has for years been cozily cushioned among the créme de la créme of Latin and English learners in mainstream education.
I was that teacher ... a traditionally result-driven academic “magistra”. Until the day I lost my post in favour of a man who could coach rugby and teach English (in that order). I was hit hard. Hurt. Humiliated. But just another statistic without a classroom and the long summer holiday for it to sink in. Too soon the new school year started ... One idle morning a phone call shattered the quiet of my home and before I could say ABC, I was in classroom 3 and face to face with the yokel. Whose missing front tooth smile, mad mop of mousy brown hair and gorgeous green eyes instantaneously touched a chord so deep within my heart that he ultimately became my just-about blood child... my man-child, because in "been-there-done-that-got-ten-t-shirts" he was more man than child but in vulnerability, more child than man. Something in that first expression of his demanded a response from me; I, however, had no idea how to answer ... whether to answer because what was being asked of me was that I break my mould and not judge a book by its cover, but that I revise my lifelong framework of Calvinistic rigidity and go where angels fear to tread.
In those early days my black was still black and my white oh so white, but my heart had begun its transformation. I couldn’t know yet that destiny had intended that I get down from my plush pedestal of high I.Q.s in order to change forever the life of one normalish I.Q. dyslexic boy from a dysfunctional home, a largely value-absent environment and life teetering on the edge. That I only realised much later when a multitude of new lessons had been learnt about a book, its cover and content and about prejudice which is a 4-letter word “EVIL “and that preconceptions need not be baggage lugged around for life ... and that you can teach an old bitch new tricks!
In the months that followed, I became a bricklayer and embarked on the building of a solid new pillar, using the brittle, broken, and botched-up bricks that had made up the old pillar. It was a pillar that many architects would have condemned in its entirety, blaming the faulty foundation, the mediocre materials and the haphazard construction. I almost did too ... till I heeded Norman Vincent Peale’s advice and “threw my heart over the fence, confident that the rest would follow” ... I took up the challenge: if I remoulded and cemented the whole lot with love, I could even end up with a weight-bearing pillar.
In this pillar, some of the “all-good-things-in-moderation” bricks had to be laid and relaid with much effort and patience; the “respect-instead-of-defiance” ones had to be baked anew and ooh boy, “school-work-and-academic-results...” well the odds were enormous.., after all, only nerds studied, not street-wise macho “cool” guys.
It all took time, I walked through fires, I stood on the red carpet too. But so what? I believed in what I was doing and I was growing and changing too – all for the better. I’d willingly chosen the “high road”: the sacrifice was great ... the reward immeasurable.
The first, thankfully, was the repair of the strategic front tooth! And how my delinquent blossomed: as an individual who no longer measured his worth in x-number of one-night stands and marijuana pipes, but in attaining Cs and Ds for learning subjects, spelling 1 out of 4 words correctly and his passion, ironically, captaining the first rugby 15.
The evening Brendan's headboyship was announced, it was a case of “my cup runneth over...” Then I knew why I’d lost my post teaching society’s privileged in mainstream education. And why I had had to play second fiddle to a male teacher and Bobby Skinstad's sport. It was to save one human being from a life precariously close to the gutter and to discover within myself a conciliatory, understanding and “grey” depth I didn’t know I possessed. Don’t get me wrong though... there were (and still are) obstacles, obstinacy, over-reactions and oh-such-ordinary days. On occasions I needed to haul out the vacuum to catch the dreams that were turning to dust. But I learnt, to quote Dolly Parton, “if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.” And dry the tears. And let go, even if you think his roar, like The Lion King’s Simba, is not quite up to it yet.
It was time for him to go to write life’s test for which I had tried to equip him. My parting advice was predictable: “Bren, try hard never to judge a book by its cover ...”
This feature: Fleetwood, Ynor. (1999). From Post to Pillar. Child and Youth Care. September 1999