Ken – from school failure to university success

Six-minute story

Ken – from school failure to university success

I don’t think you would have liked Ken. He wasn’t much good at anything and he was ugly looking with that scar on his top lip. No matter how you tried, you couldn’t get him to join in anything, not even taking the piss out of teachers.

I’d just started a new job when I met Ken. He was about thirty and he came in to school one morning where I found him hanging about outside my office; I was the new deputy head. What he wanted I couldn’t tell, even when I had asked him. He was friendly and polite and then my colleague, the other deputy, walked past and called out, “Hello Ken,” and disappeared into her office.

“How yer getting’ on then?” He was looking straight at me. “Settlin’ in all right?”
I wanted to ask him what it was to do with him, but he was friendly and was clearly well-known to my colleague. I told him about our move up north and the friendliness of the people I had to deal with and then he looked at his watch and said he should be going.

“See yer then,” were his final words and he was gone.

He was back about a week later and we talked about the school and how I was finding things. He was a friend now. When he had gone I asked my colleague about him.

“Oh, Ken. Yes, let me tell you about him.”

Ken first arrived at the school when he was eleven. He was nervous, and looked it. Other children bullied him because of his looks and because he was so easily bullied, so easily frightened. He was the underdog. Teachers found themselves stepping in to arguments and fights and took him under their wings. It was the only way to protect him and they took to him in the way that some people take to pets, to small dogs and kittens that have got lost or been harmed.

Things got better for Ken and then he managed to cope with school. He left without any qualifications but a happier young man and got a job in the local university as a caretaker’s assistant.

What happened then was that Ken noticed the other young people around him, away from home for the first time and feeling homesick and a bit down. Just as Ken had found himself talking to me when I was new in the area, so he found that these new university students were happy to be questioned by him.

It was not long before the students realised what Ken was doing. He might be leaning on a broom, or cleaning up some corner of the college, but while he was doing his caretaker’s work he was also counselling students, listening to their troubles and suggesting what they might do about them. Within a few years the students re-paid Ken by electing him to be a fellow of the college, someone whose importance in its life was now recognised.

The last time I saw Ken he was back in school, at a retirement party for one of the teachers who had looked after him. Ken knew about this teacher’s love of folk music. Could he sing for Mr Warren at his party?

And he did. Not an easy thing to do in front of a crowd, but Ken had been on the receiving end of a lot of kindness and this was yet another opportunity to pay it back.

The first time the writer meets Ken, it is Ken who asks him how he is settling in. What does this suggest about Ken?
What leads other children to bully Ken?
What does Ken realise about students who arrive at the university for the first time?

Why do you think Ken is so concerned to look after other people?

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