We’ve voted for Britain to leave the EU. It’s happened, whatever we think about it. But, if there’s any way to stop it, please don’t use our Maja as a bargaining chip
It is Thursday, period five, and I’m teaching RE to 7.5. We’re a diverse bunch of low reading ages, SEN, EAL and the emotionally vulnerable. We’re working on a set of questions in silence. After 10 minutes everyone stops and looks at me.
“Let’s see what we’ve remembered.”
The usual hands go up. Taylor waves his frantically, pointing at himself with the other at the same time. Peter sits bolt upright, his arm a perfectly straight line, his finger to the ceiling. I look past them and am about to choose shy Leticia, who always knows the answer but won’t contribute unless she’s asked.
Then I sense a change in our group dynamic. Something stirs. Something is different.
It’s no-English Maja, a tall, well-turned-out, silent Polish girl who never says anything in lessons. Maja of the neat book filled with carefully and laboriously copied work. Maja of the quiet and mysterious tears on corridors. Maja who looks out at the world through a dark waterfall of hair she uses as armour. But something is different today. She is resting her chin on her right hand, elbow on the desk and I see her index finger is raised.
I look at Maja, not daring to even think of saying her name unless I’m sure that what I think might be about to happen is really about to happen. She looks right back. I smile. She, very hesitantly smiles back, her nod almost imperceptible.
Her eyes fixate on mine and, quite suddenly, we’re the only two people in the room. Some children notice, others don’t. Taylor’s hand continues to wave but it slows then drops as Samantha, who sits next to him, shoots him a death stare.
“Maja?” I say.
The classroom clocks stops ticking. Maja takes a deep breath and the whole room teeters on the anticipatory edge of an everyday miracle. Then she breathes out and, although doubt creeps in, her eyes don’t move from mine. I smile again, sending every positive thought I can at her. Taylor’s hand begins to creep up again and this time, Samantha punches him in the arm. “Shut up!” She hisses. Maja takes another breath, sits up and sweeps her hair from her eyes.
“Christians.” She announces. “Worship. In. A. Church. Their. Sign. Is. A. Cross.”
“That’s right,” I say, “Maja, that’s right! They do. And it is!”
“She’s never said anything before.” Taylor whispers. “It’s her first time.”
And then, from the other side of the room, Ali begins to clap. And Samantha joins in. And so does Taylor, and Safaya, and Peter. And then suddenly everyone is clapping and Maja is beaming. She’s looking around at everyone clapping and she’s beaming, and I’m clapping and we’re all clapping together and, for a couple of seconds, there is nowhere else in the world, nowhere, I’d rather be.
We stop clapping (although Maja doesn’t stop beaming for the next hour) and I ask the next question. Johnny, who sits behind Maja, leans forward and jabs her shoulder with his pen. She turns and Johnny, with a big smile, gives her a double thumbs-up. He shouldn’t be bothering other students when he’s got his own work to do. I should intervene but I’m struggling to speak. I need just a couple of seconds to collect myself because I genuinely think I might joyfully cry in front of this wonderful, special, rewarding, life-affirming group of young people and that would freak them out.
We’ve voted for Britain to leave the EU. It’s happened, whatever we think about it. But, if there’s any way to stop it, any way at all, please don’t use our Maja as a bargaining chip, please don’t take her away. We’re only just getting to know her. Please don’t stop other Majas coming. We need them. They make our lives richer, wider and wilder. It’s through them we see the indisputable reality of the infinite world beyond our council estate. A place we could go to. A place we share.
Ben is an ex-VSO, former deputy headmaster of an International School in Ethiopia, head of humanities and, most importantly, teacher of history.