Today I made a mistake; a boundary was crossed – if only for a second.
I did something that teachers aren’t supposed to do.
In my defence, I had to do it because she was inconsolable; I had to do it because I have walked a mile in her footsteps; I had to do it because I understood how she felt, but most of all, I had to do it because she was scared.
I hugged a pupil.
For the briefest of seconds – all done in front of CCTV cameras – I offered some solace to a fourteen year old girl, who was crying over her mother being ill.
During English lessons, my pupils and I often discuss the difference between sympathy and empathy. It’s a key factor that comes in to play when discussing how flamboyant words, intricate sentences structures and enduring characters can influence a readers’ thoughts and emotions. ‘Sympathy is something we feel’, I tell them, while ’empathy is something we understand.’ The ability to empathsise with somebody is incredibly powerful because with just the slightest of nods and a look deep into their eyes, you know you’re not alone in feeling the way you do. But, with some of the texts we read and in some of the poems we analyse, empathy is the one feeling I do not want my pupils to identify with.
Whenever I discuss empathy in class, a glimmer of light always ignites somewhere deep in my sub-conscious and I am instantly taken back to when I first read about the Thestrals in ‘Harry Potter: Order of the Phoenix’. Harry could see the skeletal horse-like creatures that pulled the Hogwarts carriages when, in previous books, they had appeared to move of their own accord. He could see the Thestrals because he had seen death.
I would be able to see the Thestrals.
Fourteen year old children shouldn’t have to see the Thestrals.
She walked into my classroom late. We were reading silently. She looked at me as she came in through the door and I asked her if she was okay. There was a flicker of acknowledgement in her eyes because she knew my story and I hers; she began to crumble. Instantly, before the class could see her facade break, I ushered her outside and left my class. In a heartbeat my colleague saw us – gave me the slightest of nods because he too understood – and went to sit with my class.
We’re taught not to ask leading questions when it comes to speaking with pupils in distress. Therefore I didn’t. I didn’t need to. Her emotions overflowed as words she had been keeping to herself were finally out in the open. Then, when it was my turn to respond, I found that when I tried to speak, I couldn’t because my own understanding of her situation had got the better of me; when I opened my mouth to talk, my voice cracked and I too cried. I cried because I felt completely helpless. I lost one of my parents to Cancer so how could I offer her any comfort when my story ended with such a defeating blow? How could I offer her any comfort when I didn’t know the full extent of her own inner turmoil? How could I offer her comfort when I wasn’t the one person she really needed right now?
So we sat.
And she cried.
I told her that there were people in school who were fully trained to give her the advice she needed. She told me that – amongst many other things I am sure – that their advice was to be brave.
“I don’t want to be brave,” she cried. “I just want my mum!”
And that was when I hugged her. We were seated next to each other and I put my arm around her for a matter of seconds because my roles blurred for a moment and I was no longer just an English Teacher; my parenting instinct kicked in as I saw a child in distress. Yes, it’s a maternal instinct to comfort a child in need, but it’s also a human one.
We were both handed tissues by another amazing colleague who too, unfortunately, could empathise completely with us.
“You are going to have to be brave,” I started. “This journey (yes, I really did use the clichéd ‘journey’) you’re about to embark upon is going to be tough.” I explained that chemotherapy was hard and that her mum might have to get sick in order for her to get better again.
I don’t know whether the truth helped, but telling her to be brave wasn’t what she needed to hear.
“But she will get better,” I said. “And that’s what you have to believe. It’s all you have, but it’s enough and your mum will see that.”
The corridor started to fill up with pupils moving onto new lessons and we were ushered into an office where we were both greeted by other members of staff who looked at us as if we were a pair of Thestrals.
I left her then with my colleagues and under their mindful eyes, she composed herself and calmed down. I too composed myself and re-entered my class where I was greeted by pupils concerned for their friend’s well being.
There was half an hour of my lesson left and I decided to abandon it.
“Let’s play a game,” I suggested.
A quiet ‘yes!’ resounded in the room.
“Bookworm,” I said. “It’s a word game.”
A unified groan now reverberated around the four walls.
Within minutes though, a fierce competition had begun and pupils were trying to beat my high score. My classroom was loud as my pupil reentered the room and quietly took a seat near the back to be with some friends.
Because it was normality she craved.
And it was normality she got while seated at the back of my room with friends as I had an argument with a fourteen year old boy as to whether ‘flobbering’ was a verb or not. (It’s not, for those wondering…) She had told me outside that she didn’t want to be brave and yet here she was, and probably without realising it, being the bravest girl in the classroom because she dared to be honest, not only to herself, but to trained staff, to me and, perhaps most importantly, to her friends.
No, she wasn’t going to be seeing the Thestrals – not today. Not for a long, long, long time, I hope.
I may have crossed a boundary.
I don’t even know if I helped or if I was a hindrance. But, what I do know is that I am a teacher and I am a mum, and for the briefest of seconds, I was both.