I still remember most of the children (there were hundreds) who each spent at least a year ‘in my hands’. I loved them – and some of them even loved me, I am sure.
Each child had a story in which I became a part.
Here, I have included a story of one small boy, recalled from some years ago.
I called it, ‘A Year with Billy O’Dowd’:
He was the youngest of a large farming family; happy-go-lucky, cheeky and unbelievably grubby. Billy O’Dowd had been a thorn in the side of his first two teachers. I was the third teacher to have the pleasure of Billy’s company for a year.
Now he was in Year Two, he was even more competent at creating chaos. Blissfully unconcerned with his grotty appearance, Billy also seemed unaware of the difference between right and wrong and had absolutely no awe or fear of any chastisement, punishment or threat, even when issued by the school principal. At just seven years old, Billy was one of those kids who makes you wonder why on earth you ever wanted to make a career of teaching.
In the playground, Billy was not one to get into fights or arguments. That was not how he caused continuous stress. No, Billy was the one to always be ‘out-of-bounds’, looking for an imaginary snake or chasing the ball he was sure had gone over into the adjoining property. Billy would be the volunteer to fetch the wayward football from the school roof (without permission, of course). He could run like the wind and climb like a small Sumatran orangutan. If there was a school rule Billy had not broken, I was unaware of it.
Billy’s academic achievement was a somewhat secondary concern for me while dealing with him. Keeping his little bottom on a chair for more than 60 seconds was a major accomplishment. To have him complete any set task, a miracle. I’m sure he lost more library books and readers that the rest of the school student population put together. And any books that weren’t lost, were often barely in a suitable condition to be returned to the shelf.
All Billy’s possessions were battered, bent, torn and (mostly) filthy.
As winter approached, Billy began wearing a dark blue nylon parka every day. He really liked it and kept it on when in the classroom.The edges of the parka’s collar were often in his mouth. Eventually he could even talk while chomping away on the collar. After a while, he began to nibble at the cuffs also. Perhaps there was a deficiency in his diet. One day, for ‘play-lunch’, he brought to school a tube of blue toothpaste, which he proceeded to squeeze into his mouth, have a little chew and then swallow. At my stern expression of disapproval, his calm reply was, “But, it’s delicious!”
Every school day of every year, Billy ordered a meat pie from the school canteen. Summer or winter, a pie was his lunch. (That’s about 1,400 pies over the years, I think). Whether it was the pie diet or the thick layer of dirt that covered his skin and provided some sort of protection from virus attack, is anyone's guess, but Billy was never ill. His school attendance record was perfect. So there was no respite for his teacher for even a day.
But there was no doubting he was a happy little boy. The fact that Billy was almost always in some sort of trouble at school was of no consequence to him. It was water off a duck’s back. He was not purposely a horrible little kid. That each of his teachers, in turn, ended up a little the worse for wear after the experience of a year spent in Billy’s company was certainly no concern of his.
As my year with Billy rolled towards a close, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. My heart was also feeling lighter, because now he could read a little, his Maths was “coming along” (as we say) and even some pages of his workbook were still intact. There was only two-thirds of the old blue parka left (Billy having eaten much of it) but otherwise I felt quite successful. At least I had survived.
This was all way back in the 1980s.
Several years after he had left school, I came across Billy, the grown teenager, with some mates at a tourist area in our part of the country. He still looked very much the same, only much taller.
“Hello, Billy,” I greeted him brightly.
“G’day,” he replied and, before I was out of earshot, he turned to his mates and said, “Who the f--- was that?”