The Case I Can’t Forget is a weekly series that hears from the people working at the coalface of public service about the cases they have carried with them throughout their careers.
This time, teacher Robert Kazandjian reflects on his relationship with Harris*, a pupil who, at first, eyed him with wide-eyed worry but later came to accept him.
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It was a Ghetts lyric that helped me find direction in my life. The Plaistow MC asked: “How can the son of a teacher be an underachiever?” My teenage years were turbulent. I made it out but wasn’t taking my studies seriously, stumbling through an English degree. I wanted to achieve something and to me, helping people is an achievement above all others. My parents worked in education; I would do the same.
After graduating, I got a job in a specialised school for teenagers who had been expelled from mainstream education and often from the pupil referral unit that typically follows expulsion too. My role involved one-to-one mentoring and teaching English to small groups. The majority of our children were black boys, revealing a lot about the education system’s attitude towards black boys and absolutely nothing else. This is where I met Harris*.
Harris was 14. He was tall and incredibly slim, with big eyes that communicated worry, even when he smiled. He had a diagnosis of ‘Social, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties’ for which he was prescribed medication, but the fragrance that lingered on his tracksuit suggested he was self-medicating. Like all our children, it took Harris a long time to attach to me. And why wouldn’t it? Why would he trust my intentions, when the adults in his life outside of education were chaotic and inconsistent?
That being said, we bonded over a shared love of music; I schooled him on 90s Hip Hop and we fiercely debated the winner of the epic clash between Grime collectives, Boy Better Know and The Movement. Harris liked that I could just about give him a half-decent game of chess and was able to sort PE lessons at my boxing gym. The worry in his eyes melted into a weary trust and I became his key worker.
I learnt that he spent his formative years, crucial in a child’s development, witnessing domestic violence. His dad eventually left but the psychological scars his violence inflicted on Harris’s mum meant she struggled to function, turning to alcohol in order to cope with the world. Harris quickly became hyper-independent, looking after himself in ways no child should have to. Then, as he was about to start secondary school, his dad returned, now gripped by his own addictions. Harris told me he preferred his dad this way because “at least he was chilled.”
Underpinning all of this was poverty. If Harris hadn’t turned up at school, I’d drive with a colleague to his house to pick him up. The majority of the furniture in his living room was plastic garden furniture. He didn’t have a working fridge in his kitchen; they stored food in a cool box outside their back door, the contents of which often made Harris unwell. Someone had to provide for the family.
Knowing all that I knew, how could I judge Harris for the risky choices he was making in order to survive. When I was his age, I thought I was about that life, but in reality I wasn’t because to really be about that life would not have been a rational choice for me. For Harris, it was entirely rational. That doesn’t mean I condoned what he was doing; I simply understood. I tried to give him the experiences and tools he needed to ultimately do something else.
In surroundings where Harris felt safe, with adults he trusted, he expressed himself in beautiful, creative ways. His art work spoke of pain. He was a fantastic writer, spinning wild tales about fantastical worlds. I arranged for him to spend some time in a music studio and he spat concise, furious bars over 140 bpm beats. For a boy who had been constantly told he struggled to follow instructions, he didn’t miss a beat in the boxing gym. When we signed our children up for a course of Equine Therapy, essentially trying to get horses to follow instructions without touching them, he was the only one who exerted the calm assertiveness required to be successful. I was so proud of him.
Then one spring morning, I slept through my alarm. I downed a coffee, jumped in the car and then sat in gridlocked traffic. I called my boss to let her know I was running late but she didn’t pick up. I was gutted to be missing breakfast in our shared common room. It was my favourite part of the day, where we prepared food and drinks, then sat down together to eat like a family. The children relished the opportunity to be nurtured and shrugged off the weight of whatever they were carrying from the night before.
When I pulled into the car park, I was met with chaos. Several colleagues were outside. A hole had been kicked in the glass panel door to the building. Harris was enraged. He’d removed his shirt. His nose and mouth were bloodied. He’d spent the night before exchanging messages with another one of our boys, who he usually got on with. The messages ended with Harris telling the boy to “suck his mum”. He’d crossed a line and there had been a fight. The boy had swung first. He remained inside the building but Harris wanted retribution. I stood alongside him. I paced up and down with him. First quickly, to match his movements, then I slowed, hoping he’d mirror mine. I said little. I showed him I was listening, first to his fury, then confusion and finally sadness. “I didn’t know his mum was dead innit. He never told me,” he sobbed.
My car door was still open. I asked Harris if he wanted to take a seat. I pressed play on How I Got Over and let him calm down to the beat of Questlove’s drums. My boss gave me some tissues. She looked guilty.
“Rob, I’d already called the police when you arrived, they should be here already,” she said, almost whispering. “What the f•••,” I screamed inside my head. My interactions with the police as a teenager had never been positive but they were straight up pleasant in comparison to the way my black friends were treated. I leant into the car to pass Harris the tissues and told him. He laughed the sad, short laugh of someone who had been waiting for the moment they’d inevitably be let down. His eyes were worried again, worried because he’d played this game before.
“It’ll be OK,” I said.
As the police car rolled into the car park, Harris stepped out from mine. He hadn’t put his shirt on. His hands were behind his back. I stood next to him. A single policeman approached us. I stepped towards him. “Officer, he’s totally calm now. He doesn’t like feeling trapped so please don’t handcuff him,” I intended to say. The policeman cut me off: “Just let me do my job,” he barked, pushing past me. “Give me your hands,” he demanded of Harris once, loudly. Harris said nothing but shook his head. The policeman grabbed him and threw the child face-down to the ground, his skin tearing against the asphalt. I lunged towards the policeman, shouting, wanting to make it all stop. I found myself being restrained by my colleagues. And while I struggled with them, and the policeman struggled to place handcuffs on Harris’s wrists, all that trust he’d built for me spilt out of him, lost. To be honest, it never really came back.
*Names have been changed for anonymity
The Case I Can’t Forget is a new series from HuffPost UK that hears from those on the frontline of public service about the cases they have carried with them throughout their careers. If you have a story you’d like to tell, email email@example.com.