A jiggling prefect relayed the first message of the morning. “Danny’s gone mental and he’s throwing stones at Mrs Farley.” Reaching for my jacket, I braced myself. Working with troubled teenagers was trying, especially when their rebellious behaviour rocked the very foundation of what I believed that everything and everyone can change.
Most students perceived my room as ‘not a cool place to be’ and rumour had it that I was a ‘shrink.’ When thirteen year-old Danny Macken was excluded to my room for the first time, I may as well have been a spy from the mafia. I was not to be trusted. He never spoke for three days. Neither did I. Instead, I left some ‘boy’ material in view, car magazines, football results, computer games, anything that would break down the ‘silent protest’. It was from behind the photographic pages of ‘Amazing Creatures,’ a Times Supplement, that he announced he liked fishing. Thereafter he drip-fed me snippets of his reality: some days less guarded, other days closed and defensive.
That November morning he ran out of the school, I found him, crouched behind a clump of laurel trees. Hunkering down, my high heels pinned me to the frosty earth. Ironically, Danny Macken was no stranger to taking refuge in dark shady places. Many a night he had occupied a garden shed with his brothers and sister to avoid the late night rows between his parents. The next morning he would check in on his da too intoxicated to feel a blanket being placed about his shoulders, before he would let himself out quietly so not to disturb his Mum in an upstairs bedroom, too broken to get up, her mind rancid with depression. Peering through the branches I just about made out Danny’s bunched up shadow. He was still clutching a stone. I looked at it. “I collect stones,” he offered. I dared to reach for it. A perfectly shaped form, plum-coloured and patinated, its denseness contrasting sharply to the volatility of its troubled keeper. While I examined the stone, Danny examined his conscience.
“I had them in my jacket pocket. I was holding one ’cause I liked the feel of it,” he said. To get a grip on things, I surmised. “Mrs Farley wouldn’t listen,” he hissed. “She didn’t care why I was late. Not that I would have told her anyway. If she had just shut up I wouldn’t have lost it”… The voice grew faint and wobbly with only a few straggling branches to comfort him.
A sciatic nerve shot up my leg penetrating the muscle tissue of my left hip. I winced silently, placing the stone into Danny’s hand again, like some kind of tribal ritual, offering strength and resonance for him to re-emerge, bruised but intact. Easing the cramp, my high heels sunk deeper into the crusted clay. I attempted a smile, to soften the wildness in his eyes. His lips quivered and we squatted in the November mist waiting – he, for his temper to mellow and accept the consequences; I, for my uncertainties and self doubt to crawl into the underbrush and leave me with my belief, that all the world can change.
© Aileen McGee
This story was first published in The Belfast Telegraph and broadcast on BBC Radio Ulster as part of a non-fiction writing project 2005.