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Monday, April 15, 2024
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Postcards from the chalkface: Ritalin and condoms

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This is the first of an occasional series by a former secondary school teacher reflecting on the realities of education today.

‘DO YOU want to come outside a moment, Reece?’ I asked.

I‘d been leaning over the desk to point out to Reece where the paragraph should go, marking the place with a quick // in red ink as per instructions from our new Deputy Head Kim-Il-Ken, when I noticed a wodge of foil packages stuffed into his shirt pocket.

At the door I glanced back; the class were working quietly, itself a small victory, though this was more due to the fact that two-thirds had taken the day off because of the good weather than any teacherly skill on my part. Reece followed obediently. For a boy who, so he tells me, scored 96 per cent on his ADHD test, he can be remarkably calm and benign when there’s something taking place that he’s interested in. We paused just outside the door, out of earshot of the students, but they within earshot of me should they decide to go berserk, which would happen after about three minutes if I didn’t return to glare at them.

I turned to Reece. ‘What have you got in your pocket?’

‘Condoms.’

I could see that.

Reece is the sort of boy who is likeably but incorrigibly naughty, he’s got behavioural ‘issues’ that appear to me to be very typical of a teenage boy but that have been diagnosed as ADHD, and he is prescribed Ritalin to counteract this. Whatever you want to call his condition, it began, typically, around the time his mum and dad split up. His mum is often at the school; she tries her best to help us help Reece to behave; she’s a warm, loving parent who cares deeply about her child. She tells us that at home he’s affectionate and loves to sit curled up next to her on the sofa as they watch TV.

But what she can’t provide is the sort of structure and discipline that Reece, as a bright and vigorous young man, needs in his life. And she can’t fix the grief and sense of dislocation he feels after his parents’ divorce.

As a school we work closely with mum: we keep her informed, we phone her, we send home a copy of his daily report. If he’s in trouble, we’ll call her up straight away. We don’t work so closely with dad, but that’s standard, the rule of thumb being that we deal with the mum unless dad is the primary carer, which is rare.  

‘You seem to have a lot of them,’ I tell Reece, nodding toward the condoms bulging out of his pocket.

‘I’m sexually active,’ he tells me. Something in the calm way he tells me this has me believing him. ‘I’ve got six. For the weekend.’

Nice, I think to myself. Reece is thirteen.

‘Where do you get them from?’

‘From Miss Dibden. It’s C-Day.’

‘C-Day?’

‘Condom day. We can get as many as we want on a Friday,’ he tells me.  ‘So I got six.’

‘You must have a busy weekend ahead of you,’ I comment.

‘I have,’ he tells me with a grin.

I’m aware of the argument about giving sexually active kids access to contraceptives: how it reduces the rate of teenage pregnancy, STDs and the like. I’m aware, but I’m not entirely convinced. We have the highest rate of teen pregnancy and STDs in Europe, and the town where I teach has a high rate of teen pregnancy, even for the UK. So I’m not convinced that doling out condoms to medicated thirteen-year-olds is a positive thing. And I think there’s a whole raft of conflicts going on here, without even getting into the legal aspects.

First thing is, by giving these out to sub-teens, we’re normalising sex for students who are still, to all intents, children. And it doesn’t stop with Reece. We’re normalising sex for all the children he sits with in class, who can all see the wad of foil-wrapped packages in his pocket. And in a passive sort of way, we’re creating a sexualised atmosphere for those students who aren’t sexually active and don’t want to be. We’re saying, This is Officially All Right.

Second, we’re marginalising the parents. Sure, we call Reece’s mum when he kicks off, or when he uses inappropriate language, or throws a chair across a room. We involve her in all talks about his future, and our plans to moderate his often outlandish behaviour. But when we give him condoms, we simply wash our hands of him and his behaviour and say, ‘Go on then, do whatever you want.’

Mum doesn’t get to know.

It’s the law. Or at least, it’s in our guidelines.

I’m sure there’s some arcane child-protection issue here that stops us from informing mum that her tranquillised 13-year-old is being given prophylactics, and I’m sure that rule was brought in by well-meaning people to protect the youngsters themselves, but I’m not sure his mum would agree. In her position, I wouldn’t. Because what we’re doing is diminishing her authority; reducing her relationship with her son. We’re excising her role in shaping a key part of his life.

Thirdly, there’s a huge hypocrisy involved here too, because I know Miss Dibden would not give condoms to one of our Asian girls. There would be a riot. Literally, there’d be a school-burning, rock-throwing riot amongst the Asian community if word got out that their girls were going anywhere near Miss Dibden’s office.

Finally, it doesn’t work. As a teacher, I’m an empiricist. Forget the theory and just tell me what works. And this doesn’t. Teenagers still get STDs. The girls still get pregnant. And the boys learn the lesson that sex is simply another readily available, instant-gratification no-consequence recreation.

‘Well, put them away please,’ I tell Reece, ‘and you’d better get back in class.’

‘Ok.’ He stuffs the condoms into a trouser pocket.

I watch Reece as he returns to his desk, gurning madly at a pal as he passes. Then he starts making whistling noises, like a steam train coming out of a tunnel. I glare at him until he sits down, picks up his pen and begins to pretend to work.

I remember the comment of a new female student teacher a few years ago, a couple of days into her first teaching practice: ‘Why do boys all seem to come with sound effects?’ she asked me.

He’s thirteen, I think. He’s a child. That’s why.

And we’re giving him Ritalin.

And condoms.

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Daniel Ken
Daniel Ken
Daniel Ken (pseudonym) is a former secondary school English teacher. He has published two books about his experiences in the classroom: Bog Standard and Must Try Harder.

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