TRUTH BE TOLD         

Goolbai Gunasekara is in a state of anxiety over a vexed issue

What to tell a parent about a difficult child is always a vexatious issue. It vexes both the principal and teacher; and when deciding where to draw the line between the truth and tact, I have often found myself in a position of generalised anxiety.

Let me start with the story of a differently able child whose parents refused to acknowledge that there was anything wrong with their offspring. They were both in total denial when I told them that their little one might be better helped in a small school for special children. Even the words that I used had to be chosen with extreme care.

A six-year-old boy was brought to me for entry into Grade 1. His mother prefaced her conversation with the words: “He talked only when he was four but he’s very bright. The doctor told me to enter him into a normal school because he is really smart.”

In the meantime, the little boy had grabbed the bell I use to summon the maid and was ringing it so violently that the latter thought I must be having a stroke or something else and rushed in. Deprived of the bell by an irate maid, he then attacked the pens on my desk. Clearly, something was wrong.

“He seems a little hyperactive, don’t you think?” I asked the mother, who didn’t think it was necessary to admonish her son.

“Oh no Mrs. G, he is simply interested in everything!” She seemed rather proud of her son’s appalling behaviour.

“Mrs. de Silva,” (not her real name) I replied as nicely as I could – considering that he had broken the nib of a Mont Blanc pen, which I was sentimentally attached to: “I don’t think my teachers will be able to handle all the excitement he displays. Try a smaller school.”

“No no Mrs. G, the doctor said there was nothing wrong with him!” she said.

“Why did you take him to see a doctor in the first place? Did you feel he needed it for some reason?” I shot back.

Eventually but still in denial, the mother decided to try elsewhere. She was most displeased with what she called my ‘strange attitude.’ She had a problem on her hands and didn’t know it. Reality would hit home hard one day.

Let’s take an older child – a senior student rather than an adolescent. Adolescence has been discussed to death and most teachers can deal with it. But what does a highly experienced and qualified teacher tell parents who have sent their child to complete the final two years of schooling at an international school and sit for the London exams? Especially when the child in question is seriously disturbed…

We might feel the student is in dire need of a psychiatrist or counseling; but can we tell a mother this? Of course, we can’t. We can hint… but frankness is usually not an option. And what was the case?

It took place many years ago and the young man in question is no longer in the country so I can relate it without embarrassing anyone. The 16-year-old Rimu, with excellent O-Level results from a local school, entered the A-Level class. On paper and also at the interview, he seemed excellent material. His teachers and I looked forward to fine results at the end of two years. But instead, the young man was so aggressive that his classmates refused to even sit next to him.

He picked fights at random and tended to physical violence. The prefect he attacked was somewhat bemused. “I only asked him to let me check his schoolbag along with everyone else’s,” he pleaded. “You know we conduct occasional searches, Mrs. G.”

“He had no right to open my bag,” protested the furious attacker. “It’s an invasion of my privacy.”

“This is a school, Rimu. Not a social gathering. Bags are searched regularly for unsuitable videos, video games and so on,” I replied.

Rimu’s bag contained a knife. Not a harmless butter knife but a dagger. And given the precarious state of Rimu’s temper, one wondered if he ever intended using it.

“Why do you need to carry such a thing?” I asked him. “You realise I must inform your mother… Don’t you?”

His mother was furious with the school. Gentle phrases were used to start with.

“Perhaps Rimu would be happier in another school. He seems to be very suspicious of everyone here.”

“And he is very rude to all his teachers,” chimed in his form teacher.

“So punish him,” came the pat response.

“Mrs. P, are you aware that he carries a knife to school?” I asked.

“So what? Has he used it?” she challenged.

“I am hardly going to wait for that to happen before I take action. I really do feel another school would suit him better,” I said, in a firm tone.

Rimu was eventually removed (after all the fees paid were returned.) An angry mother didn’t accept my tactfully worded suggestion that some counselling might help Rimu’s aggressiveness.

“You should have told her he was a mental case,” said his form teacher.

But would I have dared to say so?