The Badger's rebuke - or alternatively - little voice.

by David Ellis

In a previous life I was the Head of Sixth Form in a very large comprehensive school. This school lies in deepest Yorkshire, right in the middle of the mining belt. The decline of mining in the region had created untold pain and poverty in the communities which the school served and as a young and passionate teacher I was determined to support my charges in whatever way I could. I truly believed (and still do) that education was the answer for many of the disadvantaged young people in our school.

Not all of the sixth form pupils were taking A-levels and traditional academic courses. We had recently introduced a programme of vocational studies for young people who would not have traditionally had a sixth form career, so for the first time we had a truly representative body of young people in our sixth form.

One lunchtime, as I was making my way to the dining hall I was accosted by ‘the Badger’ - a thick set, terrier of a woman - a dinner lady - duly called because of a white flash in her otherwise jet black tangled hair. She was roundly hated by most of the children because she was aggressive, abusive and could only rasp out her words - I don’t think I ever heard her talk softly. Even the teachers were scared of her - no one doubted that she would whallop you if you didn’t concur with her every opinion.

‘I’ve expelled her!’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘That lass in your sixth form. The lanky one with the bleached hair. The one that looks like she’s a heroin addict - saying that she probably is.’

‘You can’t expel anyone - you’re a lunchtime assistant. And can you tell me what happened with Sarah, that’s who I assume you’re talking about - come to my office, I’m not having this conversation in the corridor.’

I was furious. Sarah was a girl who I knew came from a very challenging home background. She was chronically shy and had very little self-confidence. I could not imagine what she might have done to spark off the Badger’s touch paper.

‘I told her to pick up a fork from the floor and put it in the basin. And she said it wasn’t hers and that it was the persons in front of her. I told her that she was lying and told her to pick it up and she just stood there like a dummy. So I told her again and she just stood there - so I sent her packing and told her not to come back. What kind of an example is that to set to the Year 9’s - sixth formers are supposed to set a good example.’

‘And so are we. Is there any possibility that she could have been telling the truth? Did you see her drop the fork?’

‘I didn’t need to - there was no one else about.’

I suggested to the Badger that if she had adopted a less confrontational approach that perhaps Sarah might have been more likely to pick up the fork - irrespective of the fact of whether she dropped it or not.

She was not happy with what I said and asked me whose side I was on. I told her that I was on the side of fairness and trust and respectfulness - at which point she said she was going to see the Deputy because she wasn’t happy with the way |I had spoken to her. My colleague informed me that she did indeed seek him out and gave him a flea in his ear too for supporting what I had said to her.

I decided to wait until the following morning before speaking to Sarah, however she didn’t show up at school, or the next day either. I was unable to phone their home because they didn’t have one. (This was before the days of the mobile phone too - back in the black and white era!)

So I drove around to Sarah’s house the following morning. It was in a housing estate in a nearby village, extremely run down and looking rather like a war zone with stray dogs roaming the streets and smoke billowing out of a dustbin across the road from Sarah’s home. Cars and car parts were in various states of repair in many of the front gardens and I spotted 3 children riding their bikes who attended our school - why weren’t they in school?

I knocked on the front door and was immediately terrified by the howling of what seemed like a grizzly bear from behind the door. Then a scream and shouts of abuse.

‘Who the chuff is it? What the f**k do you want? Jimmy’s not here. We haven’t seen him for weeks. Get down you stupid bloody dog.’

There was a loud whelp then a whimper and more questions about who I was and what did I want. I explained that I had come to see Sarah.

‘What’s the little tart been up to now?’

‘She’s not in trouble - she hasn’t done anything wrong. I just would like to have a word with her and find out when she thinks she’ll be coming back to school.’

‘You’d better come in then. Mind the dog - it’s bloody stupid. You don’t look like a teacher.’

As I walked into the front room I don’t know what shocked me the most, the dismantled motorbike strewn all over the place, the overpowering stench of dog excrement or the massive pile of coal in the corner. The woman noticed me wide-mouthed, assessing the coal stack.

‘Those thieving little s*s next door would rob your teeth if you left your mouth open - it stops the b****s nicking our coal.’

‘Of course.’

At this point the mastodon leapt on me and I crashed to the ground like a sack of potatoes.

‘He’s just playing with you. He likes you. If he didn’t he’d be at your ankles in a flash.’

As I struggled to my feet and brushed the coal dust and oil off my trousers, I spied Sarah out of the corner of my eye, peeping round from what I assumed to be the kitchen door. She was acutely embarrassed and her eyes swollen with tears. Sparing her further pain I suggested we go outside.

Once out on the pavement, I explained that she wasn’t expelled and that I’d like to see her back in school in the morning. I asked if she’d come to my office before lunch for a quick chat before going down to the dining hall. I was aware that we were being watched from many angles. The errant pupils had stopped riding and were swinging from the bus shelter whilst glaring at Sarah as if she were a traitor. Her mother was watching us through the living room window whilst wrestling the dog, snatching at it’s collar and mouthing silent obscenities. A couple of youths, I suspect about to set fire to another bin, sneered in our direction - it was time for me to leave.

The following morning, Sarah came to my office, silent, subdued, unable to look me in the face ( which was quite normal). She was dressed in clean clothes and they were quite fashionable - how on earth she managed to look that good and hold a school career together living the way she did was nothing short of amazing.

I spoke and she listened intently. I told her that I understood that she hadn’t dropped the fork and that I wanted her to stand up for herself, speak out and let the world know that she existed and was an important person. I wanted her to use her voice, assert herself - let no- one bully her ever again. Your voice is your best weapon - you have a right to be heard, I insisted.

She left my office without speaking and I collected the registers, preparing to take them to my tutors for afternoon registration. After answering a short phone call, I left my office for the staffroom, dodging darting pupils in the corridor, excited because it was raining and they were therefore allowed to stay in school over lunch.

Suddenly I spied Sarah running towards me down the corridor. Her face was flushed and she looked excited, free - like I’ve never seen her before. Breathless she was at my side and declared…

‘I did it Sir’

‘Did what?’

‘Used my voice. ‘

‘How do you mean?’

‘I went to see Badger’

‘And..’

‘And I told her’

‘What did you tell her?’

‘I said Badger.. F**k off!’