Well, I guess I’ve reached that age. A year ago, shortly after I left my old job, my former teaching colleague was diagnosed with what turned out to be a particularly aggressive cancer. He was the second in as many years – and there were others, too, people I wasn’t as close to personally or professionally, but enough of them that we started muttering about the school’s cancer cluster. But, unscientific supposition aside, I suppose the phenomenon is something like the rumoured suicide cluster at that big factory Apple uses in China: when you consider the number of people involved, it’s statistically inevitable.
In my pre-teaching incarnation, I worked in a very young workplace. I may even have been the oldest there (bar one or two of the company directors) – I was certainly in the top ten. Teaching is different: the age range varies from people in their early 20s (some of whom, in their training years can give the appearance of being interloping sixth formers) to people on the edge of retirement, who have been in the job for 30 or more years, and have seen ‘em come and seen ‘em go. The tide ebbs and flows and the fads come in and then, like fads do, they fade away. What never goes away, though, is cancer.
A school represents a large population. Over a thousand kids, over a hundred staff, and then, like satellites, the parents and carers, grandparents, aunts and uncles, beloved family pets and friends of friends. Death, or the threat of it, is ever-present, and the form it too often takes is that catch-all term for an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells.
When I was a little boy, I was bewildered by the whispered word, why it seemed to strike such fear into people’s hearts and faces. My own parents’ deaths weren’t cancer-related, and I don’t know enough to know how many of my grandparents were affected by it – which means I didn’t know enough to understand the fear. Now I do.
When people your own age have it; when someone nearly 10 years younger than you gets it; then you understand: how random it is, how unfair. Unfair: is that the word? Unreasonable, unjustified, disproportionate, excessive, extreme: are those the words? Cruel, arbitrary, tyrannical, oppressive: those are others.
Two close colleagues at my old job, one in remission (touch wood) and one with a very bleak prognosis. Then I started at this new school in September, and I was immediately confronted with the fact that one of my new departmental colleagues has literally just come back from long-term cancer treatment, in recovery, still very fragile. And then someone I had barely met (the administrator for the department) goes off on sick leave for her cancer treatment. The treatments we have for cancers are so extreme themselves that surviving cancer is hard. My new colleague really dreads events like parents evenings: those 12+ hour working days, teaching all your lessons then spending over three hours talking to parents. It knocks even the healthiest teachers sideways. I am, by the way, the oldest member of my new department.
You hear of teachers off with stress, depression, anxiety disorders; teachers having nervous breakdowns; teachers with months-long attacks of bronchitis, talking for a living with a hacking cough. And on top of all this, the cancers. It feels as if we are living in a hail of invisible bullets. You are standing in the teaching trenches and your brother in arms, standing right next to you, teaching the same subjects to the same students, is struck down.
Lee was a non-smoker, didn’t drink heavily, wasn’t overweight. If he had a vice, I would say it was his habit of eating Pot Noodle for lunch almost every day. So is that it now? Is too much Pot Noodle going to do for you? You hear, don’t you, about those 20-a-day smokers who live into their 90s? Cancer hits smokers just as randomly and unfairly as it does the rest of the population. It may be more likely, but it’s just as capricious and unpredictable. Pure guesswork on my part, but I think an earlier diagnosis might have helped. It took several months for Lee’s diagnosis to come through, by which time it was too late. If there’s a message to us all its that we shouldn’t put up with niggles. The persistent feeling that something might be wrong: not wrong enough to stop us getting up for work in the morning, but an irritant or a pain or a tiredness or worry? Get to the doctors. It may take a long time and many visits. I’ve not been ill much in my life, but I know when I had whooping cough as a kid that the first doctor we went to missed it. So don’t allow your shitty employer to heap pressure on you not to take time off for medical appointments. Fuck them and their spreadsheets and formulas and snide remarks.
It’s not about me, all this, but it’s a heavy weight all the same. Someone you work with every day is dying and you just don’t know what to say. None of your daily bullshit matters. My misery over the recent holiday with my fucking shitty teeth? Doesn’t matter. The insomnia, the money worries, the bit hanging off the car, the Doctor Who Christmas Special, none of it matters. I’ve been struggling with the guilt I felt at leaving my job around this time last year, thinking at the time I was leaving my lovely students in Lee’s capable hands. And then he was off, sick, and what a disaster that all turned out to be. I think about them, and I still feel so bad, but you know what? Big Picture? I don’t need to say it.
Lee always had a better relationship with his students than I did. We both taught Film Studies, but he actually still liked and went to see films, whereas I’ve got very little time for anything after about 1982. He was good at remembering details like actors and writers and directors – never my strong point. I was the Big Picture theory and technical guy and he was the rapport with the students and enthusiasm for the subject guy. We complemented each other and were a good team. He was a generous soul who could see the good in everybody, which made him a teacher that a wide range of students responded to. He always made sure to bring in the box of books for World Book Day. He remembered everybody’s birthdays and loved giving small gifts. He would get angry sometimes, lose his temper, but it would die down as quickly as it flared up, whereas my own seething resentment and rage would drag on and on. He made terrible jokes and ate Pot Noodle for lunch.