by Rafael Henry
'Imagination is more important than knowledge' A once said. I'm going to call Mr Alison 'A' from now on. In fact he quite often said that. It was one of his catch phrases, and a quote from Einstein, who incidentally didn't learn to read until he was seven. A would say that it was through the imagination that we formed all our relationships and was pre-requisite for many other things too, and that I should not be afraid to form relationships with the boys, or certainly with one or two that would benefit from 'something extra special' from a teacher. Alone at night I thought quite a lot about the things A had said to me over the weeks.
The question of relationships. I began to wonder exactly what A meant by this word. Obviously as a teaching assistant, which is what I was technically, I couldn't function without relationships with the boys, particularly the ones I had most contact with, which were the sporty boys and mostly the older ones at that. Some of them left at eleven for secondary schools, probably grammar schools of which there are couple in the area, one of them particularly good at Colyton. The rest stayed on until they left for independent schools at thirteen, with perhaps the odd one going late to a grammar.
Another interesting development was my contact with the resident boys. A suggested that if I had nothing else to do one evening, I should spend some time chatting with them, or playing draughts or table tennis until it was their bedtime. I started to do this and found it an enjoyable way of passing an evening. Again, it was the older ones who seemed to dominate my time with them, always ending up with me making a short tour of the rooms saying goodnight. One night as I turned out their light, one boy asked me quietly if I would read something to them to help them get to sleep. I told them I'd think about it. Later, I saw A on his rounds, and mentioned it to him.
'Lovely idea Simon……..keep it to one chapter a night…….and don't tell the others or they'll all want it.'
The next day I found something in the school library. It was about the friendship between a bully and a boy with learning difficulties. That evening before the boys' light was due to be put out, I read them the first chapter. With hindsight it perhaps wasn't the best choice of subject matter at that time of the day for ten twelve and thirteen year olds. At the end of the chapter I asked them if I should choose something else. Then, in character, David spoke for all of them…..
'No, go on with this one please…..we want to know what happens.' I noticed that one of the boys kept his face out of sight under the bedclothes. At that moment I realized how little things….random events, can be so important.
David is about the best sportsman in the school. He's also an intelligent and quite assertive character. He approached me after hockey practice the next day.
'Yes David, what is it?'
'I think Tim's a bit upset…….when you read to us last night? I think he'd been crying. Do you think you could talk to him please?'
I don't want to bore you with this one because you know what's coming, but cutting a fairly short story shorter, Tim unbeknownst to us was being bullied. All children know about it, and some have suffered from it. Put it this way…..it got sorted pronto. I mention it because reading to them last night revealed the problem that might have continued for who knows how long otherwise.
I happen to like Tim…..he's thoughtful and sensitive, and I check on him regularly now. He's ok. Even David, his best friend, didn't know about the bullying. My relationship with both of them has changed because of that incident. Things are different now.
One of innovations that A has brought in is informal group discussion that takes place out of school time, and thus mainly concerns the residents. Each week A suggests the theme for discussion based on our suggestions. The discussion might start on a particular subject, but wouldn't be confined to it, so who knows where you might end up. No notes were taken and it is all strictly confidential. Nothing that any boy says is going to get reported back to parents or anyone else for that matter. The resident staff had to volunteer to lead the discussion….no one was being forced into something they didn't want to do, or might find embarrassing. Boys that age can, as I found out later, could come up with all sorts of things that were extremely personal, and you had to be able to deal with any kind of issue.
It was all to do with self-awareness and their growth as personalities and I thought a very interesting idea. All the boys had to participate, and were put in small groups. These were carefully chosen by consensus, so no one had to have certain individuals, and by the same token we had an element of choice. I was one of the first to pick as it were, and I had both Tim and David in my group, plus three others. David is in the top class and Tim is in the year below, which makes them thirteen and twelve respectively. The other three are younger, one being just ten years old. If the discussion threw up anything unsuitable for the younger brethren, then it could dealt with in on a separate occasion if necessary.
The first theme, with Tim's problem in mind, was about how we treat each other, which is a fairly standard and frankly a rather corny subject. There weren't many rules, but one was that the sessions had to be at least half an hour long come what may, even if we sat there in silence, rather like a Quaker meeting. We were also free to arrange a place where we would meet and the boys were very keen to use The Hut which was the name given rather appropriately to my residence. Of course we might choose another venue if, say, the weather was warm and then we could go outside somewhere. A would be peripatetic and visit a group unannounced which was a sensible precaution as well as keeping him in the loop generally. It was about halfway through the Spring term I think when David said something that was different, and I thought at the time that he was asking for help.
I love living at The Hut. It's quite secluded, and now summer is here it is absolutely wonderful, and I will be very sad to leave it. It was built in the nineteen fifties as a gardener's cottage, but for the last ten years it has just been used a summer residence for visitors. Thus it's the ideal place for me. It's basically two rooms at the front……a sort of living room with a stove on the outside wall, and it has a small sofa and a couple of easy chairs….bookcase etc. The other 'front' room serves as a kitchen cum dining area with a very adequate square pine table topped off with a blue and white checked oilcloth on top. There's no gas, but it does have electric wall heaters that come on 'off peak'….storage heaters I think they call them. Anyway, they seemed to keep me pretty warm in the winter months. At the back there's a good sized bedroom, a separate loo, and a rather basic bathroom with a bright yellow bath in it plus horrible black tiles, but it's all perfectly adequate for what I need.
The beauty of it is that the Hut is separate from everything else. The whole thing is constructed mainly of timber, with a simple shallow pitched roof of those weird reddish thin tiles set at right angles to how they normally are……presumably some sort of man-made material. I have a radio but no television, which doesn't bother me as I have never been that interested in television. If I'm at a loose end I can always walk into Crediton, or just walk…..or go and see the residents. Sometimes I wouldn't have to make much effort to see them because one or two would find their way to me, although my hut was technically 'out of bounds'.
It's June now, and over the weeks I had established a good informal relationship with quite a few of them. I Know they like me, and of course by this time I have developed rather a liking for them I have to say. It's a nice feeling to have……..a sort of warm glow when I think about them. I think about them quite a lot actually. They are a warm and friendly bunch, and I'm including all the staff in that.
My bedtime reading sessions have become a fixture. It got round the others of course, but it has never been extended to the younger boys. We decided that it was a privilege just for the top dormitory and the others would just have to wait…..and read for themselves. One story in particular that went down well was Peter the Wolf. For some reason they really loved that one. It became a ritual that I would never miss, or very rarely if it just wasn't possible.
Something that rather shocked me at first was the boys' attitude, or rather the lack of it, to nudity. As a PE teacher, or a would-be one, there are inevitably times when you will see boys naked, usually after games when they have to shower. The school's policy, quite rightly in my view, was that all the boys should go home clean after games with no exceptions. Some individuals would have preferred not to expose themselves in such a way, but they had no choice, and duly accepted the rule. Not all boys are that great to look at naked and neither do they want to be observed. But as teachers in that situation we have to look at them, just in case. It's a just a cursory glance, that's all…..not really any more than that. Problems can occur in any family, rich or poor. In my school, showering was not compulsory, and I rarely saw another boy nude.
I had certainly never had any sort of 'relationship' with another person of my own sex, and not really one with the opposite sex either. I think the girls I came across at various sporting events had little interest in those things. Everybody was absorbed with fitness and performance and all that stuff. I have never thought much about sex frankly. Puberty, despite my parents amusing and embarrassing concerns at times, came and went as it were. I was all smooth, and then I got a bit hairy in places and that was it really. I didn't get acne probably because it didn't run in the family….just the occasional spot easily dealt with. With regard to certain other things that pubescent boys' bodies start to do, mine did that too a lot more than it did before and occasionally with surprising results, especially at first, or to be precise, the very first time which I remember vividly. Now I allow myself as do most boys I think, the occasional bedtime adventure whilst alone with my thoughts. I have to say that I have met some pretty girls, before you start thinking….whatever you're thinking. During my 'adventures' , at least to start with, I didn't need an image. It was just the sheer physical feel of it all……that was enough. Later I did resort to images of girls as I tried to imagine them naked.
I have to be honest here…..there was one boy who seemed to want to be friends with me quite badly. I must have been fourteen or so at the time. One day after kicking a ball around in the local park he said he needed to pee. He motioned his head towards me obviously wanting me to follow him. I did, and round the other side of this bush and out of sight, he took out his penis that looked a bit bigger than I would have expected it to be. Then he said a couple of things that made me realise what it was all about. I think my reaction both surprised and disappointed him. I wasn't rude or anything……just a bit shocked really. We didn't see much of each other after that, but I often thought about what had happened, or not happened to be precise. I began to imagine what might have happened. The shocking thing was that I wished it had, and on a number of occasions thought about contacting him……just to say 'sorry'?
Back in the locker room, which was where we were a moment ago, my education continued with regard to the male anatomy. Perhaps it's not something we should think about on a regular basis, but there are definitely good looking youngsters and not so good looking ones. My visual memory is quite acute and I found myself recalling images of one or two individuals whilst indulging in an 'adventure'……..and that these events were happening more frequently. I'm still only seventeen and actually still growing and developing, and will be for quite a while yet I think. I'm finding that what I'm thinking is not good…..not what I should be thinking……but I am.
After 'story' one evening about nine thirty, A said that he had to be away very early the next morning to attend a conference or something and would I mind doing what he called reveille. It was essentially the 'wake up' process for the boys. Mr Bird would do the three rooms that the younger boys slept in, and I would do the other two. He explained the procedure in detail.
At seven fifteen the next morning I performed my duties exactly as directed. The experience was both a bit shocking, as I mentioned earlier, and rather beautiful at the same time.
There are eight boys in the room, four beds either side…..door one end, and a lovely eight over eight Georgian sash window in the opposite wall, a pleasant shade of peach curtains drawn across it making the room much less bright than it would have been on this late June morning. I go and draw the curtains fully across and the room is instantly flooded with light from the west. It's a fine view right across two cricket pitches to the open air swimming pool in the distance, and some fifty yards from the Hut. The moors in the distance appear blue….bright yellowy white clouds making their way over their gentle undulations. I lean against the window and wait. If A has informed me correctly, I shouldn't have to do much.
The winter duvets have been replaced by a top sheet and blanket…or just a sheet for most as the nights have been warm. Gradually the bodies appear. The boys can wear what they like in bed because there's no hard and fast rule. Pyjama bottoms, and tops for that matter, can be shed in hot weather. The first two to emerge have tops on but no bottoms. The third is fully clad in bright red cotton. The fourth, nearest me to my right, puts his feet to the floor and looks at me and smiles….
David keeps looking up at me and after some ten seconds have passed, he looks down and covers himself with his hands, and moments later looks back at me and sees that I'm still looking at him, smiling. He smiles again…….removes his hands and places them either side of his legs, palms flat on the bed. He looks down again for a few seconds. I stop smiling and look away because I have just given him more evidence, quite innocently and inadvertently, of what he already knows to be true. I'm embarrassed. After a few seconds have passed I say…….
'You had better hurry David…….you'll be last in the queue.'
He shrugs, stands, and turns away from me to find something on his bedside cabinet underneath the small pile of clothes. It's a clean flannel. Like several others, he's nude, quite tall and slim, and one of those boys whose appearance and natural demeanour demands more than a passing glance.
It's a matter of poise more than anything I think.
He turns towards me, his eyes are on mine, and he sees me look down. I look up and his eyes are still on mine as he passes. I feel ashamed and in danger. I check the bathroom….eight basins in use, pyjamas and towels on hooks behind the bodies at work. Ten minutes later I repeat the process in another room, and those boys take over the basins now abandoned by their seniors, the place smelling of soap and wet towels. Dressing is going on, some still naked save for socks, others at the underpants stage wrestling with stiff buttons on freshly laundered grey shirts.
David is in his…diminished now and packed away from dreams, grey trousers in both hands ready to pull up and secure over the grey shirt……..no ties now in this warm weather……no comfort needed from soft grey wool jumper. David glances in my direction, unsmiling, as he turns for the door, almost the last to leave.
I'm alone in the room, but not alone, because I think he knows…..and I have learnt something more about myself.
A said it would be like that……..I would learn a lot more about myself while I'm here, and he is right…..absolutely right.
I spend a few moments wondering how I feel about that and I come to conclusion that I want David to know. Why shouldn't he know……why should it be a secret? But what exactly is it…what he knows? What is it ?
Well, every teacher knows the answer to that one, but experience has subsequently taught me that it's quite incredible how they do know…..how very aware they are. I think at the time I knew that there were only weeks left, and that somehow it would matter less and less, and that things could get resolved and questions answered before it was too late and regrets became permanent.
The best questions are the ones that ask a new question. Later that day I saw David because deep down I wanted to see him. When I caught up with him 'accidentally' on the field in the boys lunch break, he gave me the distinct impression that he was almost expecting me. It was a really odd feeling…….like it had been arranged or something which of course it hadn't. I had nothing in particular to say, but he had.
'You know our discussions…….can Tim and I go on with last week's……..just us……and you?'
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