Edna. The student of whom I’m proudest

Sometimes when I’m running and it gets hard, and I’m listening to heart-swelling epic classical music on my headphones, I allow myself some self-indulgence.  I think back to all the students of which I’m most proud and run them through my mind as a sort of highlights reel.  While, of course, re-living past glories is a bit silly and sentimental, it does help get me through the rain and up the hills.

Most of the children who come to mind succeeded in my subject; students who worked their arses off and were tearfully jubilant on results day.  Of course some of these children did better than others, but naturally I’m as proud of the Ds as much as I am of the A*s when they were genuine achievements.

But the child of which I’m most proud didn’t pass anything.  She didn’t sit any exams at all.  Given that I agree with John Tomsett that the best pastoral care a school can give a disadvantaged child is a great set of examination results, this runs against the grain for me.  But, Edna is the child of which I’m proudest and in this blog, I’d like to explain why.

Edna was part of the final year GCSE geography group I inherited when I began working at the British International School in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  She sat at the back.  Wrote nothing.  Never said a word.  Doodled manga in her exercise books while the rest of the class made notes on ox-bow lakes or demographic transition models.  When challenged she said nothing.  Did detentions without complaining and doodled manga in them.

It wasn’t long before we called her parents in.  Her dad, a stern and successful Ethiopian businessman with a company in the US told us Edna couldn’t read or write.  “Her sister’s the clever one,” he said, “she studies psychology in Washington.  This one, she says nothing.  She won’t even try.”  Edna, of course, didn’t say anything and just stared out of the window.

Fortunately my school had just appointed a SENCO that year and so was one of the few in Ethiopia that had any provision at all for students like Edna.  It didn’t take long to work out that she was heavily dyslexic.  Given the developing world context it wouldn’t be fair to blame the very late recognition of Edna’s problem on anyone in particular but the lack of support had been devastating.  Edna had given up and shut down and was deeply depressed.  The manga images she drew were frightening; dark clouds, shrouded figures and wide-eyed girls hanging in nooses.

Our SENCO tried to help Edna but, because she’d failed at everything in school her whole life, she wouldn’t even try.  Sat in his office.  Said nothing.  Doodled manga.

I hated having Edna in my class.  While the rest made steady progress she sat like a black hole amongst them, sucking all my enjoyment because every time I saw her I felt so sad and guilty.

Eventually I snapped.  Edna couldn’t go on like she was and neither could I.  In a meeting the Headmaster and I agreed it would be pointless and cruel to enter her in any exams at all.  After all, we knew what she’d do in them.  But we also decided something had to be done.  Perhaps it was too late for Edna to pass exams but that didn’t mean we could give up on her altogether.

We decided we would timetable two hours for Edna each week with just me.  Edna had once showed me her portfolio of manga characters, which meant I had more of a relationship with her than anyone else in the school did.  Edna would do one, big, meaningful project; on history, because that was my subject and the one I felt I had the best chance of helping her with.  The idea was, although Edna would have no grades, she would leave with something she could show others; something that would demonstrate that her entire schooling hadn’t been wasted.

The first couple of our sessions didn’t go at all well.  When I asked Edna what she’d like to do her project on she just shrugged and wouldn’t even look me in the eye.  So she sat while I talked at her.  Once I realised this approach wasn’t working I changed tack.  Instead I suggested topics she might be interested in and give her some basic information about each.  There was no flicker of interest until I told her about the red terror, which was the name for the years in which Ethiopia was under a communist dictatorship led by The Derg (Committee).  During this time, in the 1980s, all political dissent was banned and the families of some of those shot for resisting were forced to pay for the bullet that killed them before the body was released before burial.

Edna’s eyes lit up.  “That’s interesting” she said, in a voice rusty and squeaky from years of lack of use, “I’m interested in people dying.”

It wasn’t an auspicious beginning but it was a beginning.  Edna and I, over weeks and then months, explored the Red Terror together.  Neither of us really knew much about dyslexia and I’m sure we made every mistake in the book but Edna didn’t seem to mind.  I read to her while she sketched manga style drawings of what I’d said.  Soon she wanted to label her drawings to explain what was in them so, slowly and deliberately, we did.  After that Edna wanted to learn more so she brought books to me and asked me to read them with her.  We did.  Slowly and steadily, in our two hours a week and the increasing amounts of time Edna was spending on her work at home, something quite impressive began to emerge.  Edna was proud of her project.  She carried it around and worked quietly on it while other students studied for their exams.  She began showing it to other students and teachers.  It was around then, for the first time, I saw Edna smile.

Midway through the year we had a review with Edna and her father, who was visibly impressed by what his daughter had done.  “This is good,” he said, gruffly, leafing through the pages, “I remember these bad times well.”  Edna looked at her dad.  “You were there?”  He nodded, and then began talking about his own memories, explaining this was why he’d moved his family to the US, then back when the Terror was over.  A museum had just opened in the town centre and, after Edna asked him to, he agreed to take her.

By the end of the year Edna’s project, spilling out of ring-binders and folders, really had turned into something special.  It charted a narrative through the causes, events and consequences.  It had manga style illustrations (of course) and photographs she’d taken while out on trips with her parents.

To celebrate we invited Edna in with her father to eat some cake, drink some tea and try to make a plan for what she should do when she got the US.  This felt like an exciting breakthrough as it was the first time in years Edna had expressed any interest in the future at all.

Slowly and steadily Edna’s dad began leafing through her project, turning each page carefully and reading everything on it, drinking in every illustration, tracing the lines his daughter had drawn with his thick finger.  He didn’t say anything for a long time.  Then his shoulders began to shake and I realised this big man, this captain of industry, this stern gruff figure with his scarred face and powerful shoulders was crying and couldn’t stop.  Edna and I looked at him and then each other.  I passed him a tissue.

“God bless this school,” he said.  “You have given our daughter back to us.  She has come home.”

Edna leaned over and gingerly patted his still shaking shoulder.  “Don’t cry, dad.” She said, in her funny, rusty little voice.  “I’m OK now.”

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7 thoughts on “Edna. The student of whom I’m proudest

  1. That’s beautiful Ben. You made me remember a student I taught in Ethiopia who, like Edna, was profoundly dyslexic. I worked in a state funded secondary with 100 in a class and no special needs provision. My ‘Edna’ was in the lowest stream and would never pass a test but she had an active intelligence that shone through and was one of the few students who seemed to question why things were the way they were. I wish I’d had the capacity and imagination back then to take the time and care that you took with Edna. Bless you Ben. I hop she’s well somewhere.

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    • Thanks, Ed. It’s always lovely to hear from someone else with experience in Ethiopia and especially over this as I know you understand the context well.

      Edna was lucky in that she wasn’t poor, and very lucky indeed that we’d just appointed a SENCO. I like to think that if she’d got to the US someone would have helped her but glad we got the chance to do some

      The memory of her dad in the final meeting will always stick with me. He was, I suppose, a typical ‘Big Man’ of the type you might know from Ethiopia. He was just so very, very relieved. Relieved Edna was OK, relieved she had a talent, relieved she had a future and, I suspect, so very relieved he’d done nothing wrong and her difficulties weren’t either the family’s or Edna’s fault. A undemonstrative man most of the time but he really did love her a lot.

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      • Ethiopian dads of my experience are very much like mine was – soundemonstrative that you could easily miss their deep love. You made a real impression on that man.

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  2. Thanks for sharing this recollection, Ben. I am a strong believer in the value of exams and tests actually, but this is a pertinent reminder of the many hidden success stories of the classroom. It is also told with great skill and sincerity.

    I was teaching in Qatar in 2011 I had something similar (but not nearly as dramatic) A new girl arrived from the US. She was more nervous than usual in my IGCSE history class – like a Bambi in the headlights. She was also just vague and vacant for a while; almost catatonic. When we moved to 20th C US history I showed a video on the KKK and we began to discuss origins and subsequent developments post Civil War. Her eyes lit up and she started talking. She told me that her dad was an African-American guy who got a college basketball scholarship, married her (white) mum, and they had her.Then he relapsed into his former drug culture and, tragically, was killed in a gang shooting. Her mum remarried and moved to Qatar with her new partner.

    She had lived in New Jersey and began to tell us of the ‘hood’ and the (small) remnants of white supremacist groups which are still there – along with the gangs etc. Her dad’s sister had a drug problem and was not feeding her children. The other siblings took to giving this single mother only food and clothes for the kids – no cash. Apparently she still sold the clothes for drugs.

    She took to staying behind a bit after lessons to chat, and she also began producing good work, even though she was also a bit dyslexic. She confided that she was unhappy living with her new dad, but there was no indication of anything sinister.

    She got better and better at answering source and short essay questions and happily joining in discussions and debates (which was not happening in any other subject apparently) Then suddenly she left – apparently to live with her maternal grandparents in West Virginia. This was probably the best thing for her but it was sad to see her go.

    History ‘study’ sometimes has a great power to help damaged kids, at least a little bit. I think it helped her a great deal to talk, read and think about stuff very relevant to her very disturbed life.

    I am conservative pedagogocally too, having seen an international school succumb to what I think he worst aspects of modern UK education are (‘revision’ became a dirty word – among many other loopy nonsense). I think Toby Young’s “The Blob” makes good sense, which might concern even you. However, I am also politically conservative, and there is probably much we will disagree on there, although if you have the time and energy I am happy to debate anything.

    Keep up the good work you are obviously doing

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