(This was written in 2011 as the introduction chapter to my book, More On Being a Teacher)
Mat was a wonderful student and now that he was in his final year, he had become almost a part of the staff on our regular walking trips.
A late blast of winter fell on the Peak District National Park with a sudden and complete freeze. The low afternoon sun danced on the waters of Ladybower reservoir and Lose Hill threw long shadows across the forest. At the banks of the lake, Mat kicked a rugby ball out ahead and we both sprinted after it. The ball bounced awkwardly in front of me, one way then the next, I grappled with it for a second then pulled the ball tight against my chest and ran as fast as I could. But Mat was young and much fitter than his old teacher and he was on my heels in no time. He lunged forward, locking his arms around my shins and toppling me. My body crashed on to the hard, frozen ground. He had triumphed. Mat beamed with delight and laughed at his success. But immediately, something in my eyes revealed the secret that all was not well. His face changed and he leaned down to me to ask if I was okay. I brushed away the concern, puffed heavily to regain my breath and told him that I was fine.
But I was not fine. The two bottommost ribs on the left of my body had snapped angrily as I impacted with the solid earth and were now screaming out in pain. I composed myself and was helped to my feet by Mat. Again, I reassured him that I was okay and we both walked slowly back to the lake’s shore to join the rest of the group.
That evening, I dragged myself in to the Edale Youth Hostel canteen, sitting carefully next to my two colleagues. The students were starting to appear, presenting themselves politely at the food counter and arranging themselves in friendship groups around the room. Gill and Jon looked visibly concerned at the effort I was employing simply to sit and breathe. Gill suggested that she drive me over to Sheffield hospital to get checked out. But, as a not too careful rock-climber who has had his fair share of accidents, I knew that there would be little point. After all, there isn’t a great deal that you can do with broken ribs. You simply must wait. I had managed the rest of the walk that day, and felt fine except for my ribs protesting at every move. Three weeks would pass; the ribs would heel and I would forget all about it. That’s just the way it is with this injury. So, we carried on the trip as normal.
Three weeks did pass. But the pain had not gone. The familiar sharp, immediate pain that broken ribs throw at you each time you try to change position had indeed subsided and I was now able to turn in bed and sleep for more than twenty minute bouts. But something remained, something strange. A low, dull, aching pain. A very unfamiliar pain.
Finally accepting that the pain was not simply going to disappear by itself and that I should try to join the modern world occasionally, I reluctantly visited my GP, who immediately packed me off to the General Hospital, where I was prodded and probed in every conceivable way. Finally, on a wet Tuesday morning, I rang Helen at school and asked if she could find someone to cover my first lesson while I made a quick detour to the doctor’s surgery. I had been asked to attend a “discussion” about my test results.
And then my car was up on the verge. Yards in front, a fisherman looked at me with alarmed eyes. The car was stalled and muddied.
Moments earlier I had been sitting in the GP’s office. She looked too young to be a doctor, I thought to myself as she continually bounced her shiny blond hair with her hand. Her lips were moving, but I could not hear the words. She softly touched my knee with her hand and stared for long moments in to my eyes as she mouthed silent words. As I left the surgery, the world was like treacle. Then I was in my car driving slowly and deliberately along the wooded lane. Everything felt very far away, my hands were numb and I could not hear the hum of the car, the trees in the wind nor the passing traffic.
Then, out on the road in front of me, The Word bounded terrifyingly towards me. Hurtling along the lane, getting bigger and bigger. The Word smashed through the windscreen and rattled my brain. Yelling at me. Shaking my entire body.
I couldn’t breathe. My hands fell by my side. The car mounted the kerb and gunned up the grassy bank, scraping the underside and throwing dirt and branches along the doors.
I sat for very long moments. The fisherman was shouting words at me. But I was only aware of The Word.
Suddenly I could breathe again. I drew in massive gulps of air and could hear everything. Every sound was deafening. I could hear a howling scream. It sounded like a wounded animal and I panicked at the thought that I had run over a deer. And then I noticed it was coming from me.
It was March 6th 2006 when I died.
What I did next mimics what I always do when faced with tragedy. I thought and thought and thought. Then I slowly collected myself back together and drove to work.
When I arrived, Helen met me at the main entrance with a worried look. I apologised for being later than I had expected and assured her that everything was okay. And then I taught. A normal day. I had fun with my students and consigned The Word to a secured place deep inside of me where it could not see the light of day. I arrived home that evening, chipper as ever and did not utter a word about The Word.
It was March 6th 2006 when I died. The man who existed before that young doctor had spoken those words would never again exist. This was the day, as a lifelong devotee to teaching, I decided, as I watched my Year 10 group happily working, that I was leaving teaching. There were so many things left to do, so many dreams, so many challenges not yet met. I would leave my beloved profession to pursue these in whatever time I had available to me. My mind was set. I resigned the very next day.
I have never spoken or written of any of this until this moment.
There is a look that people affect when they hear that someone is suffering with cancer. A slight tilting of the head, a dilation of the pupils and gentle furrow of the brow. A look that one might give an injured puppy. It is pity. And I would not allow that look to be shown to me. For many of my friends, family and colleagues reading these words now, this will be the first that they have known about any of this.
As I write these words, it is 2011 and I am in terrible pain. My pancreas, my spleen and I are not the best of friends. But, I am well.
When I left the teaching profession, it was like having a very special part of my soul removed. I cannot begin to tell you how hard it was for me to go.
Cancer stole from me the most precious thing in my life: the ability to be a teacher. I yearn constantly to return to the classroom, to be with incredible students like Mat, who are so eager to learn and grow. I yearn to be a teacher, but five years on and the pain is too much; I cannot summon the energy to give teaching my all and I will not be a suboptimal teacher.
As I sat and listened to the young girl solemnly tell me that I would not see the end of the year, at the front of my mind was my classroom. I have so much to do, I thought.
Five years on and, for whatever reasons, my body continues to fight on. Those wonderful people I met at the beginning, diagnosed at the same time with the same condition have died one by one. Only two of us remain now. I don’t know why that should be the case, I don’t know how much longer it will be the case, but I do know that I yearn to return to teaching and that one day, if I am able, I will.