None of the 60 cracked. Not a single one. But I almost did.
The final day of the school year rolled out today. Two full classrooms of pupils were dismissed for the final time; onto the playground and through the school gates, never to return. Come September they will be in high school.
It was the 25th year in succession I have witnessed this great rite of passage. It is consistently the slow march, the backward glance, the apprehension at leaving behind childish things and embracing the immediate future. But this one was unlike any of the preceding 24.
Every prior final school bell has been met with sheer emotion for departing pupils. A dozen, maybe more, sometimes less, but always a few of the pupils will sob on that slow march. It may be the realisation that their time as big fish in a small pond is gone; high school signals a new period when they are once again the youngest in the school. It may be the fact that the first, the only institution they have ever known has been outgrown. Whatever the personal motive, one can be certain at least a few will be overcome by the fervour.
This final day was different; eerily so. Indelibly so. It will ferment in my memory to become a cherished retrospective of my career.
First, not one of the 60 departing pupils shed a tear. They walked silently, not joyfully to the school gate. Only one, perhaps two turning back to wave goodbye. Many of us staff members stood watching the procession and commented on its uniqueness. Never in a quarter of a century of teaching have I witnessed such a thing.
But it was a one-on-one farewell that will burn even brighter.
About 10 minutes before the final bell, there was a knock on the door of my glass box. One of our staff had brought a young girl (let’s call her Farhana) to my office. She had asked to come along to say goodbye.
Farhana is one of the 40+ children at our school with severe special educational and learning needs. Such children at our school have a range of needs, many of which are sadly life-limiting. Many have a solely sensory-based curriculum in which we attempt to broaden their experience through touch, sound, sight and signals.
The girl who had come to say good-bye has severe cerebral palsy. The past 9 years she has been at the school have been spent improving her communication skills. The aim was to have her speak a word before she left school.
Each of the high level SEN pupils communicate in unique and different ways. It is important that when we as staff members seek to interact with the children, we remain consistent. One young boy, through constant repetition, responds to me with a high-five when we cross paths. The high five is the interaction which allows him to know I am near by. Although his eye sight is failing, I can signal to him by saying “High five” as I walk past his wheelchair and he will respond by putting a hand in the air for me to clasp.
Farhana’s signal was to laugh at the same game. If I saw her, I would duck behind her wheelchair and slowly call her name. I would jump out in front of her and laughingly, gently say “Boo!” She would giggle infectiously despite not having the facial muscle control to speak.
A month ago, the staff who work extensively with the young girl told me the news that she had reached her goal; Farhana spoke a word. Since that day she had been keen to learn more and was reaching a spoken vocabulary of 5 or 6 words. Throughout the past month I was keen to hear her speak but each time I came across her in the school, we got no further than our “Boo” signal which caused her laugh contagiously but not to speak to me.
On this the final day she would be at our school, Farhana entered my office with a member of staff who said she had come to say goodbye. I sat on the edge of the coffee table in my glass box so that I was on an even eye-level with the child and told her she would love her new school as much as she had loved ours. I was about to go behind her wheelchair to undertake the Boo ritual when Farhana opened her mouth and straining to speak said, “I’m scared.”
My soul soared, dear readers. This child who I spent time with every day for two years had saved the moment I had craved for our last encounter together. To hear her voice beyond that unique laugh was one of the best moments of the past 25 years. I hugged her tightly and told her not to be afraid, repeating that she would love her new school.
She laughed again. I laughed but must admit my eyes were welling at this point. Her face tensed as she strained to say something else. Both me and my staff colleague fell silent to hear her words.
I watched as Farhana was hoisted into the transport at the end of the day. Over my shoulder, the departing pupils were on that slow march through the school gates for the final time. Someone said to me they had never seen such a display of stoicism by a group of leavers.
Their fortitude was refreshing, dear readers. They were not fearing the future, the young pupils were instead, embracing it. ‘Twice as many of you are leaving here able to read and write’, I reminded myself. ‘We could have done no better by you or for you’.
Make no mistake, I am immensely proud that we have sent them out into the world with the skills to communicate through writing and reading. But it will not be that feat that will come to mind, when years from now, I recall this Class of 2011. I will remember what we did for Farhana; how on the last minute of the last day I heard her voice for the first time.
Keep the Faith,