What They Don’t Tell You About Teaching: A Teacher’s Memoir After His Student Loses Their Only Parent

April had blessed us with the warmest climate in the UK for a very long time. ‘Blessed’ is completely the wrong lexical choice here so let me rephrase that.

April had tantalised the entire country with her radiant rays of sunshine and its prickly heat.

She enticed us to blow the cobwebs off our summer wardrobe a few months in advance only for us to enjoy the climate from the confines of our … garden.

I don’t have a garden. The virus was winning. Yet again.

As I got into my car to set off for work today (if one can call it ‘work’), I noticed that it was incredibly cold, colder than I had experienced for a very long time. The air had a lingering taste of melancholy.

The sky looked forlorn. The wind paralysed my very core. I was filled with an unexplainable sense of void but I could not comprehend what, how or why this feeling hijacked my mind.

A foreign thought (other than food, sleep or wondering what next I would watch on my TV) entered my mind at this point: pathetic fallacy.

Lockdown or not, the English teacher in me was thriving. Instinctively, I put on the heating in my car, operated the highly coveted seat warmer and sauntered on to school.

I sat down at my desk and proceeded to work my way through the menial tasks I had set for the day: reading my emails, updating my work pack list with names of pupils who needed work delivering to their homes, quality assuring a document I was working on with my team from the day before.

The list goes on.

And on.

After completing these riveting tasks (!), I started to make phone calls to the pupils who I was checking in on during this lockdown phase.

I psyched myself up to expect some profound conversation from them as opposed to the usual “I’m fine”, “I’ve done no work”, “I played PlayStation all day” and even “can you stop talking to me?”

Note to self: don’t expect profound conversations from pubescent teenage boys!

My last call of the day was to a pupil who epitomises the word nonchalance.

From his monosyllabic responses to his utterly blasé take on the Covid-19 crisis, this boy loathed the two minutes and forty-two seconds where I attempted to take blood from a stone.

But I persisted and today was no different.

I dialled his number (those eleven haunting digits that have become etched into my memory) and awaited the same seven rings that he waits until he deems it is cool to pick up the line and end the tortuous limbo that I encounter every time I call him. 

Me: Hello! Maybe there is a God – you picked up? How are you?

Pupil: My dad died yesterday.

Do you remember that sense of void? It returned – this time with a vengeance.

The walls started to cave in.

An eerie silence reigned over the cacophony of keyboards typing, doors opening, phones ringing and people talking that typically reverberated around this office.

My eyes moistened due to the non-existent onions that were being finely chopped nearby. I tried to shake off these delusions to confirm what the boy reported was, in fact, what I heard he said. 

Pupil: My dad’s gone. It was his funeral today. 

His mum had left the world when he was a toddler. Now his father?

My voice faltered as I attempted to commiserate, console and comfort this boy who had just become an orphan.

An orphan at sixteen years old?

Sixteen?

I spoke to his sister and his niece who were able to fill in the blanks that the boy could not.

I offered them my details and asked that they contact me if they needed any help or support.

But really, all I wanted to do was to see him to offer him something more than just clinical pity that I had evidently demonstrated.

It became bitingly cold again.

I was physically and emotionally frozen.

With sadness. 

Having been a teacher now for nearly seven years, I somehow developed a notion in my head that pupils were immune from experiencing feelings of death, loss and grief.

What do kids know?

They’re too young.

How could someone so young even begin to understand the old-age complexities of life? And death.

I proceeded to continue the monotony that propelled me to deliver the work packs to our pupils.

I drove from address to address, delivering these work packs that somehow became this manna from heaven – adorning a fake smile on my face as I attempted to alleviate the stress and worry that enveloped our pupils during this pandemic.

I would watch doting mothers or protective fathers embrace their children, in appreciation of being in receipt of this support from school.

Sometimes, if the pupils were lucky enough, I would be met with a set of parents – like two anchors, stabilising an imbalanced boat – who would rejoice at the sight of work that would occupy their child, if only for a week. 

My thoughts quickly turned to the boy who uttered those four unforgettable words: “my dad died yesterday.”

Who will love him now? Who will protect him now?  Who would embrace him now? 

I was broken for the rest of that day.

Every action, every thought, every conversation would lead me to think of the boy who lost his world in a heartbeat.

My mind was inundated with the concept of life and its fragility, its futility. I kept picturing Life to be this fleeting ship teetering amongst the horizon.

Blink and you miss it.

Stare at it too long and the ship disintegrates into little fragments of an illusion.

At dinner, I looked at my parents with a fresh pair of eyes.

I realised just how incredibly fortunate I was to have both of my parents, fit and healthy.

In all my gratitude, I remembered, once again, the boy who was robbed of this fortune. 

With a silent tear, I prayed for him and his family to withstand this tempest that beckoned his way.

I prayed that he can pave a way out of this emotional tumult.

I prayed that his resilience does not falter.

I prayed that his strength of mind and character leads to infinite blessings and successes.

I prayed that he adopts the parents of patience and resolve.

I prayed that we, as humanity, appreciate what we have until it’s gone.

In order to qualify to be a teacher, you endure the rigmarole of teacher training; this is where you learn from the ‘experts’ in the field who fire out “pedagogy” with every breath.

However, there is one thing that no one can teach you about teaching.

It’s not in any curriculum, guidebook or lecture. It’s the inevitable and there isn’t even a cure for it.

Death. 

So how does one deal with death in the classroom? 

With life. 

There is one certainty that I can guarantee to all of my students; that even when their life’s falling apart around them and their heart is shattered into thousands of pieces, there are certain values that will fill that void and heal their brokenness: compassion, empathy and humanity. 

And I pray, that one day, this orphan’s void will be replaced with these values.

These are the things they don’t tell you about teaching.

Written by Al-Moshin Abdullah

Al-Moshin Abdullah

I am an English teacher and Director of Key Stage Three at a high school in Rochdale, in charge of attainment and pupil welfare. In my job, I lead from the heart and not the head. My goal is to inspire a generation to unlock their potential.