Mr and Mrs Pineapple read The Daily Mail. For those unfamiliar; The Mail is a right-wing, xenophobic newspaper that mourns a Britain that is no more. It gleefully frightens its readers with opinion disguised as fact. I play a game when I come across a copy: how many pages in until there is a story about the staggering and relentless wave of immigration undermining our great nation? The re-hashed article will always contain the phrase “…and Britons have every right to be outraged.” When I point out that I am in fact an immigrant and does the sweeping generalisation mean that I too, have to return to where I came from, the reply from the readership is always I am a good kind of immigrant.
In lieu of a good immigration scare, The Daily Malicious (as many of us lefties call it) will always fall back on a good paedophile story. “They are everywhere, maybe next door to you. Right now. And Britons have every right to be outraged.”
A fortnight ago, Razia; a lively, smiley and gregarious 10-year-old pupil arrived breathless and a full 30 minutes early for our early morning Breakfast Club. She had taken the bus to school with her older brother who attends the local high school. They separated in the U-shaped park that borders our school site, with Razia making her way independently to have some toast and cereal at school and get extra support with her homework.
As she would later tell the police, she was followed through the foggy, early morning and otherwise empty park by a slim man, about 30 years old, who suddenly emerged from the bushes. He followed her for about 50 meters, the whole time talking into a mobile phone. Razia thought little of the incident until the man closed the gap between them and began to ask her name, age and where she lived. Throughout he continued talking into the phone in a language Razia “did not recognise.”
When she failed to answer his questions, the slim man became more pointed. “Why won’t you talk to me?” he insisted. “I just want to know your name.” At this point our young pupil told the man she did not speak to strangers and ran. She ran all the way into the school site and into the Breakfast Club, breathlessly and tearfully relaying the incident to our staff.
Within two minutes she was brought to my glass box of an office; still visibly shaken and uncharacteristically clinging to the arm of one of our female teaching assistants. I commended her quick thinking and her adherence to the Stranger Danger safety techniques which are drummed into all children in the hope they never need be utilised. Razia gave a comprehensive description of the man; down to the rip in his jeans just below the right knee.
The police were called and in the meanwhile I gathered together two members of my staff to sweep through the park in the hope we could spot the man with the ripped jeans talking into his phone in a language Razia did not recognise. As I walked to the park with our caretaker, he told me that he had spotted someone fitting the detailed description the young girl had provided. He had seen him a full 30 minutes before Razia had, whilst sweeping the playground.
The park was empty but one of our staff was passing through on his way to work. He said that he had seen someone fitting the description. He pointed to the far end of one of the U-shape’s great green arms.
Razia’s parents and the police arrived within minutes of each other. The child, much calmer now, repeated her detailed description of the man who had approached her. The female police officer spent the best part of the morning interviewing her and double checking her story. They suggested we keep an eye out and ring them immediately with a special code should he be spotted again. In the meanwhile they would make sure there was a police presence in the park before and after school for the next few weeks.
When incidents such as Raiza’s encounter occur, schools alert each other. We provide brief details of the incident so that neighbouring schools can be extra vigilant. It is a system that works.
As I composed the message for the nine other schools in our vicinity, one of the Assistant Heads hijacked the last 5 minutes of assembly to repeat the Stranger Danger message for the children. It is the best we can do in the circumstances. To tell the children that there was an actual incident that day would only serve to create a state of hysteria where the children were seeing the man with the ripped jeans and talking in a language we couldn’t understand everywhere.
“Sir, Sir! Keisha saw the man with a rip in his jeans just below the knee and talking in a language I didn’t understand in the Maths Cupboard! She told Maluku that she thinks he stole the calculator from Year 4. And he called Nazrira a gay”
Even more so, we have to be careful what to tell the parents. It is important that they know to be vigilant, but equally there are few issues more inflaming than a possible child predator on the loose. The wrong level of information could easily mean some poor man having his skull crushed in with a brick just because he had a rip in his jeans just below the knee. Even if he spoke a language we all understood.
Two weeks passed and the slim man, in his 30s, mobile phone and ripped jeans was not seen again. Raiza even seemed to forget about the incident. The school moved on and the only reminder of the event was a tattered memo hanging on the staffroom wall; the same one sent to other local schools, warning staff to be vigilant.
Today was the coldest day in ages and certainly during the exceptionally mild autumn we have experienced in London. The park was sprinkled white and heavy smoke bellowed from the early morning walkers as their breath crystallised in the December air. I was still warming my ears from the trek from the car park to my glass box when one of my teachers rushed in. It was the same colleague who had seen the man in the park two weeks prior and pointed out in the direction of the great green arm of the U.
“I think I just saw him again…in the park…on the phone…gray striped jumper.”
Immediately I phoned the police and made my way to the park to see for myself. The vast U-shaped space was empty except for three figures; one walking a dog, another walking along the perimeter fence wearing a gray striped jumper and a third- talking on a mobile phone and also wearing a striped gray jumper.
Dear readers, I consider myself a level-headed, open-minded and non-judgemental sort of person. Surely if the villagers ever gathered with pitchforks and burning torches to crush in the skull (with a brick) of a man with a rip in his jeans, I would be the one calling for reason and peace. Therefore it pains me to describe the immediate and innate desire I had to administer some street justice, Charles Bronson style, to the man who had frightened Raiza. It was my responsibility to make certain he didn’t approach her or any other child, including my own. But which man in a gray striped jumper was it?
“Right you two wearing the same jumper, which one of you approached a ten-year old in the park two weeks ago?”
“It wasn’t me.”
“No, it can’t be, you speak a language that I understand. Therefore, I can deduce it must be YOU, Mr Other-Bloke-Wearing-the-Same-Jumper.”
But that didn’t happen.
Before I could reach the pair of identically dressed potential threats to children, the police arrived, sirens wailing at the park entrance. Children were now in full flow through the park, arriving for school and were quick to work out something was amiss; I am never anywhere but the playground or my office before school and to be talking with two policemen must mean something big was going down.
The Assistant Head rang the bell early and the children filed into the school building.
Meanwhile, on the edge of the park arrests were being made. Or at least two men dressed in a similar fashion were helping police with their enquiries. Back in my glass box, I kicked my pitchfork under the desk in shame. My size 11 Doc Martens (remember Dear Readers, equally at home in a budget meeting or hiding the figurative evidence of my outrage as an adopted Briton) tapped the floor nervously; their thick, oil-proof soles suppressing some basic desire for justice welling up through the floor of the glass box.
My role as a Head Teacher is first and foremost to keep the children safe, even before they learn the alphabet. My role as a human being is to promote tolerance, peace and understanding and to embed these notions deeper in society’s collective conscience. My role as one of “those good immigrants” is to resist the urge of mob-rule; extinguishing the emotional torches and hiding the pitchforks of self-serving justice under the desk.
And when the police spoke with Razia for a second time today, asking her to identify which of the two men dressed in similar gray striped jumpers was to one who approached her, she answered with the clarity she showed on that day two weeks ago.
“Neither one. That’s not him.”
Keep the Faith,