I sat bewildered. Perhaps she’d been drinking. ‘Bloodshot eyes certainly indicate the occasional dalliance with Johnnie Walker,’ I thought. Or perhaps she’d been the subject of a botched lobotomy; a last-ditch attempt to sever the nerve fibres responsible for her unpredictability and mania had failed, leaving her even more unstable. Whatever the explanation, I found it difficult to absorb what to me seemed incomprehensible.
‘You may not agree with our decision,’ said her henchman and our Assistant Head. ‘But after seeing Ali’s home,’ he paused and loudly exhaled, as if to demonstrate his overwhelming compassion, ‘we are not willing to exclude him.’ Ali, a year 10 student, had been caught red-handed with a number of mobile phones he had stolen from a group of year 7 students the day before. ‘Even though we’d normally exclude,’ he continued, ‘we can’t allow him to spend any more time in that house than he has to. If anyone has any objections, that’s tough; you weren’t there; you don’t know what it was like.’ I’m sure he could detect a general uneasiness among the staff being addressed, hence his defensive, implacable stance.
I for one was certainly feeling uneasy. ‘Has any consideration been given to the victims?’ I thought. ‘And what about the other 500 students in the school, what message does this send them?’ I shuffled my feet restlessly, desperately trying to remain inscrutable, even though I was beginning to feel particularly disputatious. Just at that moment, my subconscious cruelly invaded my nervous system and shook my head in disapproval. I couldn’t believe it: an involuntary reflex had exposed me as a dissenter, a rebel, a potential insurrectionist. I sat hoping that no one had noticed.
The following week an emergency meeting was called to discuss the deterioration of student behaviour. According to our Head, Jackie, we were not being consistent enough in the classroom; students were getting mixed messages and, as a result, behaviour was getting worse.
I found her charge of inconsistency astounding in its shamelessness, breathtaking in its hypocrisy. Against my better judgement, I raised my hand in protest. ‘How dare you accuse us of inconsistency? Just last week you refused to exclude a student – a student that, in your own words, would have normally been excluded - on the basis that he is underprivileged.’
‘Yes…and?’ she replied, visibly bemused.
‘Well, the implication is that if he had been from a stable home, you would have excluded him. That’s double standards; it’s inequitable; it reeks of inconsistency.’ I could sense my career, with all its glittering potential, ebbing away with each word. Red-faced, flustered and floundering, Jackie stuttered and stumbled over her response. I continued, unrelenting in my assault, determined to vent years of frustration. ‘In your misguided determination to protect Michael, you haven’t even considered his victims. These are year 7 students, some of whom also come from terrible homes. School is the one place in which they feel safe. Well, did feel safe. They are now aware that they have to share their school with an unrestrained larcenist. Indeed, the school appears to offer little protection.
‘The decision doesn’t even help Ali. He still has to return to his dysfunctional home after school, and has now been taught that his actions have no consequences.
‘Most damaging, however, is the message it sends to the rest of our kids: if you come from a deprived home, you can do anything you like; you can break the rules with impunity!’ At that point our Deputy Head intervened and the meeting was rapidly adjourned.
What a release! I felt truly redeemed, liberated even. Hitherto I had silently colluded in the school’s destructive, misguided prejudices. Not anymore. A speech that I had mentally rehearsed over and over again had all the cathartic effects I had imagined. Yet these were short-lived. The next day I was summoned and reprimanded; scolded for daring to think the unthinkable.