I Used To Be Against School Uniform Until One Pupil Changed My Mind

Elsa only ever misses one day of school each year, and that is Red Nose Day. It isn’t the £1 you have to donate, it’s because no uniform is worn.
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HuffPost UK

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 week, teacher Kate Clanchy remembers Elsa, a quiet but dedicated pupil who always came to school – apart from on days when children had to wear their own clothes.

If you have a story you’d like to tell, email lucy.pasha-robinson@huffpost.com

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When I first started teaching, more than thirty years ago, I was close enough to my own school days to be against school uniform. What, I thought, was the point of quashing teenage self-expression by making everyone wear the same shirt? Why should contemporary school children dress up like grandparents in blazers and blouses? Wasn’t it much more fun and relaxed in school on Red Nose Day, when everyone paid £1 and wore their own clothes?

Kids like Elsa*, though, changed my mind. Elsa used to come every week to the poetry group I ran with my friend Miss B in our very mixed comprehensive school. Elsa was fifteen, but small for her age, skinny, and mostly silent. She was not brilliant, but she was keen. She came to poetry group nearly every week, and wrote small, sad poems, nearly square. Miss B, who was in charge of school inclusion, was very taken by her progress, and when she was offered a charitable trip to London for our group we agreed at once: a place for Elsa. But we couldn’t get her mum to sign the form.

Forms are an endless nuisance, so we expected delay. Given that this was an inclusion group, we even anticipated it. We photocopied extra forms, we doled them out several times, we nagged, we wrote notes in planners, we phoned home. Two days before the trip, this had worked for everyone but Elsa, and Ms B had given up. She was making arrangements for her to stay in school, when, on my way home at nearly six at night, I spot Elsa walking away from Tesco, holding a loaf of bread. I catch her up, and she is so alarmed, she walks faster, pulling her hood up over her heavy wings of dark greasy hair.

“Don’t you want to come on the trip?” I ask her.

“Yeah,” she says, surprised, outraged.

“What about the form then?”

“I got it,” she says.

“Well then, could we have it?”

“I lost it,” she says, with equal conviction. We have stopped at the gated entrance to the flats behind the shops, where Elsa seems to live, and I have one of my brilliant ideas. I have a spare photocopied form right here in my bag. Why doesn’t Elsa just pop upstairs and get her mum to sign it?

“You want to see my mum?” Says Elsa. And I say no, it isn’t necessary, I can wait right there.

There is a long pause. Elsa looks at her small, turned-in feet. “But,” I say, “I could come in. If that would help. If it would help if I explained.”

And so I fall down an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole and find myself in another land, in a small red room with a loud television and an acrid, woody smell where a woman in a velour dressing gown is huddled in an armchair and a yellow bird bashes my face like a slap.

“They like to fly about,” says the woman. And I see that there is a bird cage in front of her with an open door, and two canaries loose in the room, and seed and bird droppings everywhere underfoot. Elsa still has her coat on. She stands quietly by the door, feet pressed together.

“I’m Elsa’s teacher,” I say, nervously. “I just bumped into her and I thought… There’s this trip to London. I expect she told you?”

“Ain’t heard nothing about it,” says the woman. “We can’t pay this month.”

“It’s free,” I say. “I wondered – could you just sign this form?” And I hand her the form, and she takes it and studies it.

“Uumph,” she says. “Dunno.”

Suddenly, Elsa appears with a pen. “Mum,” she says, “just there, sign there.” The woman puts down a scribble, and I realise she can’t read.

“Miss has to go,” says Elsa, and I can’t wait.

Afterwards I tell the story to Miss B, who nods.

“You wouldn’t know,” I say. “Elsa looks quite normal in school.”

“No,” says Miss B. “Lost property is a wonderful thing.”

And it turns out to be Miss B who greets Elsa every morning for breakfast club, and unlocks the shower in PE for her, and hands out clean uniform. It is Miss B who whizzes the clothes round the school washing machine, the one bought for PE kit, every week.

Miss B says Elsa only ever misses one day of school each year, and that is Red Nose Day. It isn’t the £1, Miss B would give her that. It’s because no uniform is worn.

*Names have been changed to preserve anonymity

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy is published by Picador in hardback priced £16.99.

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 lucy.pasha-robinson@huffpost.com.

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