In 1974 my wife and I decided to go and work in London. Although I was born in Holland, with an Australian passport I could only get work in the UK and so this is where we headed.
The biggest challenge was getting accommodation but we ran into a friend who directed us to Australia House. At the time British landlords were keen to get reliable tenants who would not pose longterm problems – itinerant Australians and Kiwis were their best bet. Thus it was that we ended up with a small flat in Cricklewood.
Having secured the flat I now faced the task of getting a job. My landlord had given me the phone number of the local education authority and I went to the nearby post office to give them a call. It was a brief conversation – when they realised that I was an experienced teacher from Australia they got me in straight away. It seemed that Australian teachers had a good a reputation and although the term was a couple of weeks old there was still a vacancy or two so I was sent off to Aylestone Comprhensive.
The school was located in what seemed a gentrified area of North London. Yet appearances were not all what they seemed. I had no idea about the British system of education so when I was told that I would be teaching English to 2 fifth form CSE classes I naively assumed that this was equivalent to two matriculation classes. Little did I know that the kids who I assumed were keen, enthusiastic and ambitious students were anything but. They were at school because the school leaving age had just gone up by one year. Furthermore I found out much later that when organizing the classes my colleagues had cherry picked the students – leaving three classes with mainly problem kids – two of these were mine. But there is an advantage to ignorance – I treated them as if they were keen to study and we had a ball.
One of my colleagues used to describe our school to his friends as follows: "It is the sort of school where you 1500 West Indian kids taught English by a Dutchman from Australia with a degree in History." It gave the appropriate flavour of inspired chaos. It was a tough, hard school and in the middle of that school was Alfie.
Fridays were hell for Alfie that was the day we had a keep an eye out for that was the day he would be prone to torch a rubbish bin or two. Alfie was in grade 7 he lived in a foster home near my place and would quite often walk home with me. Friday was a big day for that was the day his mother would come to take him out for the weekend...if she remembered. The moment he got home from school he would pack his little bag and wait in all weather at the gate for his mom. Sometimes she came but more often not and so at around 10pm he would go back inside. As I was in charge of looking after all 300 or so year 7 kids he became my special responsibility. Whenever he saw me I would pick him up and give him a hug (we had not heard of paedophiles back then) in addition on Fridays he was under strict instructions – if he was tempted to torch a bin he was to find me first – it became a common routine – I would b e teaching my sixth form and Alfie would come in and sit on my lap.
It is hard for us to imagine how tough it was for kids like Alfie. I had more books at home then there were in the whole of the school library. I was supposed to teach kids like Alfie about Natural History – yet no-one had ever thought of taking them to the Natural History Museum although perhaps the excursion I had to the museum was a compelling reason for teachers not to repeat the experiment.
Within minutes of arriving at the museum one of the kids had been locked in a small anteroom by museum staff. As you come in into the museum there were a couple of stuffed hippos – all he had done was go up to hippos and fondle their balls – but the museum staff was not amused. Alfie too managed to get into trouble. Alfie was small for his age and of course inquisitive. He discovered the shell of Galapagos Island Tortoise and decided to investigate. He got stuck inside the shell and as I was trying to extricate him one of the museum 'suits' was showing around a party of VIPs about the wonders of the Museum – there was this delicious moment where we all pretended as if nothing was happening.
Alfie had one best mate. Like Alfie he was in foster care. But his mate had a lucky break. His foster family won the pools. They sold up in London, adopted all six foster kids and moved to the country. A couple of weeks later Alfie came up to me all excited. He had received a letter. This was the very first time in his life anyone had ever written to him. Given his interrupted schooling Alfie was illiterate and so needed someone to read the letter to him. I remember every word:
We are living in a nice house. I hope you have found a new friend. Here is 5 p for some sweets.
John Töns is President of the Zero Carbon Network a network established to promote clear thinking about the issues associated with climate change. In addition to operating the only zero carbon boarding kennels in South Australia he is also completing a PhD at Flinders University in the area of Global Justice. John is a founding member of a new political party Stop Population Growth Now.