She buried her head in my chest; she was an awkward height. She sobbed as if the world was disintegrating around her. Taken by surprise, I rubbed her back, feeling how fragile and small she was in her thin cotton dress. The class teacher and my practice teacher, V, exchanged glances over our heads.

‘Um, right, well, we’re going to leave you two to have a private chat for a few minutes. You can stay in the classroom,’ said V and off he went, the class teacher following him gratefully.

I hated them both at that moment, but more than that I hated myself for blundering into this career, this placement, crashing through this little girl’s life and releasing such an avalanche of tears.

I was 34 years old, with a little girl of my own, and I was training to be a social worker so that I could earn more money to support us both. K was 9 years old and she was in foster care, and because of that V had sent me to help her with her Maths once a week. It ticked some boxes for my placement, and K was ‘struggling’ with Maths (amongst other things), although the word that really described her was ‘drowning’. I realised that now.

K told me that her foster parents didn’t like her trying to fold washing. K wasn’t supposed to be doing grown up things now she had been put in foster care, it was time for her to be a child. But K didn’t know how to be a child. The other children could see this, and sometimes I was the only person with her in the playground, as she watched them play. They didn’t ask her to join them.

I had known her half a term, and now I was moving to another team, because this was more convenient for the people who were running the placement.

‘When do you go to the other team?’ she asked, tears sliding down her face.

‘Next week.’

‘So why are you leaving me now?’

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to make this goodbye into something less traumatic, and now I worried about the cheerful message I had written in the card I gave her. I was leaving that day because V didn’t want to have to come up here next week, there was a leaving party for a colleague which he wanted to go to. I knew that V would regret this after seeing her tears. He hadn’t thought. None of us had thought about K.

The longer I carried on in social work, the harder I found it to see myself as a good person; more as a cog in a wheel which was crushing small butterflies like K.

I wondered what she did in the playground on the days I wasn’t there. I wondered what had happened in her past, and what the future held for her. I never saw K again but I thought and thought and thought about her. Still do. As if that could make up for those tears now.


5 thoughts on “Katy

  1. I volunteered at an local school full of underprivileged kids a few years ago. I had a similar experience – it was too traumatic for the student I was paired with to say goodbye to me every week and ultimately, too stressful for me. I always spent the first 30 minutes of our time trying to reconnect with her (while she talked about not liking me or climbing the fence and threatening to jump off) and then the last 30 minutes trying to say goodbye and assure her I’d be back next week. When she moved away, I quit volunteering. It’s just too heartbreaking to not be able to REALLY help make a difference in these kid’s lives.

    • Yes, that’s it exactly – it almost feels as if what you can give is no more than a drop in the ocean. It sounds as if you showed some real commitment to this student though, I’m sure she will remember that. But yes – heartbreaking.

      Thank you for reading.

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