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This isn't Kes.

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'Can I have a word, Miss?'

I tried hard not to glower at the head poking round my office door. I had a set of minutes to write before I could go home and it was a quarter to six already. I should have protested more vigorously, I reflected, when it had been decided that the cleaning staff should report to me instead of to the Premises Manager after they'd returned from an 'unauthorised absence'. My current visitor was Mrs. Preston, a plump, round-faced woman with frizzy grey hair and a chronic back problem. Everyone liked her because she was reliable, hard-working and unfailingly cheerful, even when her back had 'gone out again'. She looked nervous now, as she edged into my office and stood twisting her hands in her overall pockets.

'Miss, I've come to tell you I'm leaving at the end of the week,' she told me sadly, 'with my back as it is I thought I'd better get a lighter job.' After I'd said how sorry I was and wished her good luck, she got up to go. At the door she paused and asked diffidently, 'I don't suppose you remember our Ian, Miss?' Ian? Ian Preston?

Suddenly, I was back teaching English in my previous school, walking down a green-tiled corridor with a pile of exercise books under one arm and a briefcase dragging down the other. 'Here, Miss, I'll take that,' said a voice, as a hand seized the briefcase. 'You didn't ought to carry a weight like that with one arm. That's how our mam did her back in.' Ian Preston. A small, stocky, dark-haired boy with, I now realised, his mother's smile. Ian, who, at fourteen, had all the easy confidence of a forty-year-old, and who treated everyone, from the Headmaster to the smallest First Year, with the same cheerful goodwill. Ian, who did his best for me in English, producing page after page of ill-spelt, galloping prose, hardly checked by punctuation.

His CSE class had read Barry Hines' Kes that term, I remembered, and we were at the revision stage, examining the ways in which Hines made Billy Casper a sympathetic character. We were looking again at the episode where Billy talks about his kestrel in an English class, when one of the boys said, 'You want to ask Ian about birds, Miss.' Above the friendly cat-calls, I could hear Ian's protesting voice:

'I'll get you for this, Peter Smith!'

'Come on, Ian,' I coaxed, 'tell us.' He sighed in mock resignation.

'I breed budgerigars, Miss.'

'Budgerigars!' came the derisive chorus.

'They're really colourful and they talk lovely!'

Peter protested 'My nan's bought one off him.' 'Right, Ian,' I said, inspired, 'you're excused the essay I've just set. Instead, I want a ten minute talk on budgerigars for next lesson.'

'Jammy beggar!' one of the girls muttered.

Ian's talk was a great success. To the obvious fascination of the class, he spoke fluently and amusingly about his birds, and he produced photographs and recordings of them 'talking'. At the end of the lesson, I called him over to me. 'That was splendid,' I told him. Then I asked the question I always felt someone from that shocking school should have asked Billy Casper: 'Do you want to work with animals when you leave us, Ian? I could always arrange for one of the careers officers to talk to you about it, you know.' He looked at me shrewdly and kindly. Had I not been the teacher and he the pupil, he would have patted my hand.

'Don't you worry about me, Miss,' he said. 'This isn't Kes. I may not be able to spell, but I'm not Billy Casper. I haven't got any brothers to bully me, there aren't any pits round here for me to work in, and our mam's golden.'

'So what do you want to do when you leave?' I pursued.

'It's all set up, Miss. I'm going to stand market with me Uncle Stan. He's got a stall selling pet food and that. Is that near enough to animals for you?' I laughed and told him that whatever he did I knew he'd go far.

'Of course I remember Ian,' I told his mother, returning to the present. 'I just didn't realise he was your son. I left his school to come here at the end of his Fourth Year, didn't I? So he must be--twenty now. Is he still breeding budgerigars and running a market stall with his uncle?' Dismayed, I watched her eyes fill with tears as she lowered herself into a chair.

'Oh no, Miss,' she said. 'He does nothing now but doss around the house. He lost interest in the birds--I had to give them away--and my brother, he--he won't have him near the stall.' She stopped, struggling to control herself. 'You see, he thieved off our Stan, same as he thieves off me given half a chance. It's got so I daren't leave my purse about.'

'Ian? Ian steals from you?'

'Yes, he does, Miss. I can't hardly credit it myself.' The tears were flowing freely now. I automatically reached for the box of tissues I kept for distressed students. She took one and scrubbed at her eyes. 'He's changed that much, Miss. He's got so thin you wouldn't believe it, and he doesn't seem to care about anything anymore--except going about with that gang.'

'Gang?'

'There's a group of them, Miss, and they hang around on street corners and that. When our Ian goes out with them he comes back--strange. Can't hardly focus his eyes and walks like he's in a dream. I've smelled his breath, but it isn't drink. Oh, Miss,' she moaned, looking at me pleadingly, 'you don't think it's drugs, do you? You're a lady. Just tell me what I should do!' She collapsed onto my desk, her head on her arms, her shoulders shaking uncontrollably. Appalled, I stroked her heaving back. 'You're a lady.' With that one word she'd summed up the gulf she perceived between my world and hers. In my world, people not only had more material possessions and 'talked posh', they also knew what to do. Of course, I didn't know what could be done for Ian, that lovely, eager, lost lad. To give myself time to think, I got up and searched for a copy of our pamphlet for parents about substance abuse. I handed it to her and said all the things teachers say to parents about the value of discussing problems honestly with their children and about consulting GPs. She listened patiently, shredding the sodden tissue to pieces, then thanked me and said a listless goodbye. I never saw her again.

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After she'd gone I sat remembering Ian's bright face as he said, 'This isn't Kes, Miss.' I had one of those moments of helplessness that all teachers experience. Ian's school, unlike the institution Barry Hines had created, had done its best for him, and his mother was, as he'd said, 'golden'. Then why...? If this could happen to a boy like Ian, it could happen to any of them. What could those of us who try to guide children into adulthood actually do to protect them from all that life would throw at them? Give them information to make sensible choices and then watch as they make the wrong ones? Whatever we said or did, they seemed to go on using illegal substances, driving cars too fast round bends on wet roads, ignoring advice on safe sex and binge-drinking.

My bleak mood passed, of course. Those of us who have responsibility for children know that we must go on loving them, warning them, protecting them whenever possible and allowing them to grow into autonomy. We must give them a better deal than the one Hines created for Billy Casper. As JD Salinger, a very different writer, inferred, because we know about life's 'crazy cliffs' it's our job to be 'catchers in the rye'.
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Title Annotation:Secondary; Barry Hines' Kes
Author:Millward, Margaret
Publication:NATE Classroom
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 22, 2009
Words:1336
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