A little over 30 years ago, its strange how the image has remained in sharp focus. Maybe it says more about me than I would prefer to admit, but it has taken three decades for the sadness and the need of that young man to coalesce in my mind. Maybe empathy has not been my strong suit over the years. Maybe it is stronger now.
He started with us as a new science teacher. A new face for the science staff room. Keen to please and fit in. It wasn’t long before the signals weren’t too good though. Trouble in the classroom. Couldn’t quite manage to keep things straight and tidy. Kids calling out and unruly. Whispers and murmurs. He needs to be tougher, stronger – show them who’s boss. Why doesn’t he just . . .
He didn’t just. He withdrew into himself and became meeker daily. Morning greetings were returned but there wasn’t much more from him. Less and less of a personality and more and more of a cardboard cut out figure. Fitting the mould superficially, but what was underneath? Well, actually all of us would have known what was underneath if we had bothered to sit down beside him. We would have known if we had offered him ourselves to lsten and help, affirm, and attribute him his worth. Instead we ignored his struggles and pretended all was ok, because it was easier, and we didn’t have the time.
All too soon the signs became placards. Hard to hide, imposible to ignore.
One morning he walked into the staff room. Cursory greetings because we were by that time each of us a bit embarassed. “Didn’t know what to do”. (How pathetic that sounds as I read it). He walked to his desk and sat down and stared at his hands. I remember it with crystalline clarity. He did not move. He did not respond to anyone. He was a statue.
The bell rang for class and he didn’t move. I suppose someone may have stopped to ask him if he was ok. That I don’t remember. I do remember that I was embarassed for him. Morning Tea break saw him still sitting where he had been two hours earlier. It was obvious he hadn’t moved. What had happened with his classes? (Who cares now?) He was not in our world. That world had humiliated him and reduced him to where he was.
We had been too preoccupied to help. “Why couldn’t he just . . . .?” After all, we each had our own pressures and expectations to meet and conquer. For goodness sake mate, get a grip. Stand up, walk down to your class and do what you have to do!
But he did not. . . . I understand now that he could not.
He was still there as we were leaving at the end of the day. Rumour had it that his wife had been called to come and collect him.
Thirty years later I am disappointed at how this young man was treated. I am ashamed at how we failed him. I am disappointed with my younger self.
I heard that he had been declared totally and permanently incapacitated and was retired on a pension. I heard that someone had seen him on the street a few months later and he looked and sounded happy.
I hope so. . .
I hope so.
God knows you, young (now much older) man. I have not forgotten you either.

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