There’s no such thing as a ‘bad’ kid

I’ve just got back from my first afternoon visiting a Teens and Toddlers project at a nursery. Much as I’m ashamed to admit it I did have preconceptions about what the teenagers would be like. I’d assumed they’d be surly and uncommunicative, and that it would be difficult to engage with them, especially given that the teens on our programme are chosen precisely because they’re deemed to be more ‘at-risk’ (of dropping out of school, having children young etc.) than their peers.

But I’m delighted to say my experience was a total eye-opener and my preconceptions have been shelved. The six boys on the project I visited are all thirteen years old, and whilst they are typical teenagers who don’t always listen, aren’t all that keen on looking you in the eye and occasionally act up, on the whole they’re really lovely kids.

Classroom sessions aside, the real joy for me was seeing the way the boys interacted with their ‘toddlers’ in the nursery. It was a gloriously sunny afternoon which meant the toddlers were racing around outside in the play area. One of the boys had arrived at the nursery fuming about having had a personal possession stolen at school, and the facilitators were initially reticent about allowing him into the nursery to see his toddler, lest he carry his anger through to their session. Once he was out there, however, he was totally unselfconscious and behaved impeccably with his toddler. He even had a number of toddlers gathering around him to play because he was so much fun to be with.

Another boy, who had in the earlier classroom session refused to look any of us in the eye and acted bored, came alive with his toddler and spent ages lying on the ground play-fighting with them. I saw each of the six interacting with their toddlers in such a heart-warming way that it made me see every one of them in an entirely new light. When we returned to the classroom after the session with the toddlers they were alive with enthusiasm and keen to talk about the progress they had made with their toddlers.

At one point in the classroom we discussed what age would be the right age to have children. All the boys unanimously agreed that older than twenty five was ‘past it’ as far as they were concerned, which made me – a childless woman of thirty one with no immediate plans to have children – laugh. It’s been so long since I was their age I’d forgotten how old twenty five seems; like a lifetime away, though of course it’s really not.

Watching the boys – and the toddlers, come to that – today, it really wasn’t obvious that they have turbulent home lives. But I was reliably informed by the facilitator that some of them have an awful lot on their plates given their age. It’s hard enough being a teenager without having a host of problems to deal with in your personal life.

I’ve come away feeling more certain than ever that the work my charity’s doing with vulnerable children and disadvantaged teenagers is vital for the future of this country’s young people. No young person is inherently a ‘bad kid,’ it’s just that some of them need extra help to navigate their way through turbulent periods in their lives and stay on the right track. Shouldn’t every young person in that situation have the right to such help?

Meeting the boys today made me think of the boys I taught in Tanzania in 2007, some of whom were about the same age then as these boys are now. I wonder what became of them and where they are now.

You had me at first click – Part Three

By the time they reached their teens Johnny (or John, as he now liked to be called) and Jenny (who now answered to Jen) had changed. They were still close, in part because they still lived on the same street, but John was now a slave to rugger, whereas Jen had shed her tomboy persona like a snake sheds its skin, and was now partial to more traditionally feminine pursuits like ballet and book club.

But one Saturday in the autumn of 1984, everything changed. John was walking home from rugby practice through the local park. The late afternoon sun easily penetrated the thin canopy of skeletal trees above his head, settling on the piles of crisp orange leaves at his feet. He kicked them up as he walked, swinging his gym bag as he went.

When he looked back on that day – as he was prone to doing in subsequent years, no matter how hard he tried to avoid it – he often wondered if he had been humming a tune. It sometimes tortured him not being able to remember, though he knew it was of no significance at all.

The first scream stopped him in his tracks. He looked about him, briefly wondering if he had imagined it. Then he heard the second, and this time there was no doubt in his mind. Someone was being attacked, and they were close by. John threw his gym bag to the ground and spun around in a desperate attempt to locate the sound. To the left of the path was a dense thicket, and when the scream – by now more of a whimper – rang out again he ploughed straight into it, mowing the thick foliage down with his powerful legs.

It didn’t take him long to reach the girl. She was lying in a clearing, her face pressed into the mud. She was naked from the waist down, her white cotton knickers lying several feet away and flecked with blood. Her shoulders were shaking – through cold or fear he couldn’t tell – and she was sobbing with such intensity she sounded more like an animal than a human.

Instinctively John removed his coat and covered the girl’s modesty. She bristled at his touch but didn’t turn towards him. Her hair was wet and stuck to her head in muddy strands. Buried amongst the strands was a piece of material. John gently tugged it out. It was a red ribbon. His blood ran suddenly quite cold.

The girl turned her head then, and looked at him. Her face was so thick with mud she was almost unrecognisable – almost, but not quite. “John?” she whispered as her tear-soaked eyes found his.

“Jen.”

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Writing this reminded me of a guest house I stayed in when I was in Vashisht in northern India. It was a squalid place which with the benefit of hindsight I should never have stayed in, but I was taken with this view from the rooftop and my little attic room and so I did. The owner was a creep who preyed on vulnerable lone female travellers. i managed to evade his clutches despite his best attempts to get me on my own but the day after I left a girl confided that he’d tried to get her drunk and go into her room. I confronted him and we had a slanging match on the street, with him accusing me of being racist (which I’m absolutely not). With hindsight that was also inadvisable, but sometimes emotion gets the better of you. That day I saw the darker side of travelling alone.

Chasing dreams

Lottie was born different to most little girls. She knew this not because people regularly told her so (although they did), but rather because she could see with her own eyes. Not that she could ever understand why it mattered – apart from identical twins like Janey and Suki at nursery nobody looked exactly the same. And anyway, wasn’t there a famous phrase about variety being the spice of life?

As she grew up Lottie’s parents tried to manage her expectations of what she could achieve in life. She would never, they told her, be an athlete. But Lottie took exception to this. Why couldn’t she be an athlete? If she didn’t see her disability as insurmountable then why should anybody else?

For a while, during her early teens, Lottie towed the line. She concentrated on her grades at school and had a couple of boyfriends, pretending to have given up her wild ambition to be a sporting legend.

But behind the scenes she was as determined as ever. She found an academy and worked hard to win a scholarship. The day the letter came through her mother found her jumping for joy in the kitchen. Her jaw nearly hit the floor when Lottie explained what it meant.

“Running?” she’d said, a look of total incomprehension on her face.

“Yes Mum,” Lottie had replied. “Running.”

“But you don’t have….”

“Lower legs. No Mum, I don’t. But I do have these.” She pointed to her blades.

Her mother sighed and shook her head, and in that moment Lottie knew they’d crossed a boundary in their relationship that could never be uncrossed.

They couldn’t understand why she did it, given how hard she had to work at it, how much it took out of her.

But Lottie knew exactly why she did it.

She ran to chase her dreams.

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I’m ashamed to admit I can’t remember the name of this beautiful boy, who I met whilst volunteering at an orphanage in Tanzania in 2007. He was wheelchair-bound and required daily physio in the form of his fellow orphans and myself and my fellow volunteers following a set routine of arm and leg bending exercises. I never felt he was getting anywhere near the level of treatment he required, and he often looked as if he were in pain, but he never complained and always had a wide smile on his face. I felt so sad remembering him just now that I cried. I pray he’s somewhere happy and safe, receiving the care he so desperately needs.