Tuesday morning. My student Nora (5) was brought back too late. As always. She’s been on time maybe five times since the start of the school year. While she lives close to school. Usually she comes behind with her brother Bram (8), who is in group four, on the bike. He is always late too. To the irritation of his teacher Aafke.
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Aafke and I have often spoken to Nora’s mother Liesbeth, a small woman who always looks a bit shy about it – she is screwed because the father of the children, Gerard, never shows up at school. Liesbeth hardly responds, mutteringly saying that she will pay attention. But in practice nothing changes. Even though the director has already sent a letter twice.
Now that I see Nora shyly scratching into class for the umpteenth time, I get angry again. In the afternoon after school, I take Liesbeth, who is picking up the children, straight into my class for a sermon. “Liesbeth, it really can’t go on like this any longer”, I say with restrained anger. “My class is disrupted every day because Nora only arrives halfway through. I’m done with it.”
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To my surprise the timid Liesbeth turns red. Then she starts snarling. “Do you know what it’s like when your husband is an alcoholic, when you’re on your own, when you’re living on benefits?” She cries out: “You with your fine, neat life, with your beautiful job!” She’s so upset she tries to slap me. I deftly avoid him, I am much taller. Suddenly she starts to cry. Very quiet. “Oh sorry, sorry, what did I say now. I feel so ashamed.” I just don’t know what to do. On a whim, I put an arm around her and say, “Let’s talk about what’s bothering you.”
Then Liesbeth tells something that we as a school did not yet know: that she has bipolar disorder. And that Gerard, who is on sickness benefit, sits apathetically on the couch all day with cans of beer. This makes her so desperate that she is unable to do the housework properly. She and Gerard have difficulty setting limits to themselves, let alone to the children. They don’t listen to them. It is a struggle every day to get them to school on time.
‘How brave are you’
I listen quietly. When she’s done talking, I say, “You are so brave.” She looks at me in surprise. “Brave?” “Yes”, I say. “You are having a hard time, and yet you are doing your best.” In consultation with Liesbeth, I call the Dutch Association of Social Workers the next day. The family ends up on a waiting list. Still, Nora and Bram arrive at school on time for the next few weeks. Liesbeth brings them herself. I realize she has taught me an important lesson. Sometimes I have to put an arm around someone and listen. Me, with my nice life and my nice job. I literally became wiser in one fell swoop.
This article can be found in Kek Mama 04-2020.
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