• turbulentschool

16. Vertigo

The juxtaposition of the rise in #coronavirus deaths and the severity of #socialisolation is currently creating a sense of Vertigo in may of us. This is so reminiscent of the period just before Easter, six months after Eydon Vale went into Special Measures. The Roll of Honour Evening created a fresh willingness among the younger staff to take risks despite some of the most disturbing behaviour we had yet witnessed. But the sense of vertigo was providing several staff and quite a few pupils with opportunities for more esoteric learning.

The role played by Rowena Cross, the school’s only full-time RE teacher, was crucial. Her Master’s was in the Study of Adolescent Spiritual Experiences, but after six months as a teacher, she was still unsure if spirituality could ever be taught. Most of her problems stemmed from pupils who had learned bad habits. One morning Patrick Wadsworth, a bubbly Year 8 boy with mild literacy difficulties, deliberately spat in her mug when her back was turned, then watched her drink the coffee. That night Patrick discovered that his grandfather had just died of tuberculosis.

Patrick’s recognition of the danger to which he had exposed Rowena was crucial in changing his attitude to his reading difficulties. In quarantine, he asked his mother to get him help. Rowena lived at home, and her parents put a lot of pressure on her to leave teaching. She needed her whole sick leave to get her bearings. Her dark nights of the soul prompted her to rethink her lesson plans in line with her academic interests.

At her return to work interview, she told me, “I’m going to find new ways of channelling the pupils’ spiritual experiences.” For her first lesson back, she asked Patrick’s class what came into their heads when she used the word “God”. At first, they baulked. Everyone knew what a risk she was taking. This topic was even more taboo than sex, especially if it was to be led by such an innocent. They all stared at her blankly and she held the silence.

Perhaps they pitied her after her health scare. Eventually, one boy said he pictured God as an old man with a beard, sitting on his throne. Another argued that since we all had a conscience, it had to come from someone or something. Just as I slipped into the room, Jo Johnson, a fanciful girl with white hair and fair skin, put up her hand. “Miss, I had a dream last night.” She hesitated in case one of Patrick’s friends cracked a joke, but none did. For once, they were all attention. “I was in New York on a tightrope. It was stretched between the Twin Towers. I felt dizzy but did not fall off. That feeling of vertigo woke me up.

“I have had that unstable feeling a couple of times before. It’s like fear, but I am not afraid. I have not got anything to be frightened of. Everything is fine at home and school’s more bearable. Until now, I have tried to forget the feeling. But now I’m beginning to think it’s something deep: a force to be respected. God’s in this sense of losing your balance. If you let it overpower you, you could come crashing down. But without that sense of vertigo, would you have a soul?”

Noha, a recently arrived Somalian refugee, was next in accepting Rowena’s challenge. “When I am running,” she said, “God is there. God is not coming first or winning a medal or getting on the Roll of Honour. God is my secret, my anger and my freedom. Nothing else matters when I hit my stride. I feel free to my soul.”

There was a catch in Rowena’s voice as she said, “Does anyone else have anything to say?”

Then Patrick apologised. “What I did to you, Miss, made me wonder what I’m really like.”

Amends had been made; good order restored. For Noha and her class, this was a turning point. There was a short-lived, new competition: who could do the most homework.

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