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The Stare. Chapter 2

2002; I left University after one year, I wasn’t happy with my course, or the running group at Loughborough. I went home to London and got a job as a Teaching Assistant in a Primary School. A perfect job for me, at 21 years old. Short hours and long holidays, so I had plenty of time to focus on training.

Invicta School was small, only 300 kids, in inner-city London. A lovely Victorian building, hemmed in by menacing social housing estates, towering up on all sides. The area was under-privileged, with many poor families, not enough space, no green areas, and certainly no gardens. Drugs and crime were rife in the estates, with concrete mazes straight out of Blade Runner. I would walk around discarded needles on the way to school.

The Stare. Chapter 2 2

These housing estates are all long gone now, torn down to make way for luxury apartments, communities broken apart and families shipped away. Invicta school still survives.

70% of the pupils at the school came from Ethnic minorities, nearly all had free school meals. It was a rough area, it was not a rough school. The staff were experienced, the school did amazingly well with the resources available. The children with the biggest problems got the support they needed. The school used its budget wisely, and the kids were happy there. They went on trips, had excellent classes in swimming, dance, music and art.

I noticed early on, that there was not a big emphasis on sport. Sport is what got me through school. Also, for lots of these children, school was the only time they got to play outside safely. I asked if it would be ok for me to do running with the kids at break time. The Headmaster was happy for me to do it and so starting Monday, every morning for half an hour, I would take one class, of up to 30 kids, for running games.

We had a perfect space, about 60 meters long, a thin playground in between the school building and the main playground. I was perhaps two months into my job, I had been on a training course, I was feeling confident in the classroom, fortunate to work under very competent teachers, who made controlling the class look so easy. I love running, kids love running. This is going to be great.

I had no idea what I had let myself in for. Those kids tore me apart. It was an absolute disaster. I remember the first class quite clearly. I had been working the weekend before, researching and preparing races and games. As we stood in a circle doing warm ups, the kids soon got bored and realised the windmills they were doing with their arms could be used to whack those standing nearest. Fights broke out almost instantly. I scrapped the warm up and moved on quickly.

I gave everyone in the circle a number, and would call out two numbers at random, those two runners would have to run around the outside of the circle, and the first one back to their spot was the winner. A girl was running around, a boy stuck out his leg, tripped her up, she fell onto another boy, Tyler, bringing them both crashing to the ground. The cheering stopped, everyone looked silently at Tyler as he sat there dusting himself off. I was still learning who was who around Invicta School, but I knew enough to know that this was the wrong kid to fall down upon. With four older brothers, either in street gangs or in prison gangs, Tyler was quick to lose his temper. He told the girl, through gritted teeth, she had one week to buy him a new jumper. I counted myself lucky.

This was Year 5. Year 6 came along the next day. One of the boys (also with dangerous older brothers) decided he was bored with running. He picked up my cones, and, with some style, nonchalantly tossed them over the school wall. I had to leave the class in the playground, run up the stairs to the top of the school, find the Headmaster, and ask him to please come down and deal with the mess (I ran up those stairs a lot that first year).

I was very ready to quit. I wasn’t getting paid for these classes, I had given it a go, it wasn’t to be, no problem. But then Year 3 came along. They had an excellent teacher, were very well behaved, and young enough to be malleable. I had learnt quickly over the week, what was working and what wasn’t. We had a brilliant time.

Over the weeks and months, Years 5 and 6 mostly stopped coming. The nicer kids would go to play in the main playground. They realised I clearly had no idea what I was doing. It was only the trouble-makers that remained, it amused them having me chase them round trying to get my cones back. My playground sat directly underneath the staff room. The entire staff could hear me failing every day; shouting, begging, threatening, breaking up fights (breaking down in general). I wished a teacher would come down and help me. I wished, more strongly, that they wouldn’t. If the sessions were particularly bad, the teachers would avoid eye contact in the corridors. My confidence was at an all-time low, it was shameful and sourly embarrassing. I wanted to quit so many times. But then I had Year 3. The whole class would turn up, every week. 30 kids, wide eyed and ready to run. They had no idea how terribly I was doing with the other classes and they didn’t care. It got better and better with them, they loved it, I loved it.

After 6 months of this, I found a partner in crime. Philippa was a teacher in the school, also big into sport and believed our school could do more of it. But she needed help in taking kids to after-school tournaments so asked if I would come along. I was up for it. We started with Tag Rugby. It was great. I didn’t know anything about rugby, but seeing these inner-city kids running around enjoying themselves in a field somewhere was a wonderful experience. I was very competitive and poured my energy into the Tag Rugby tournaments. I started to do after-school training with them. I scoured the internet for skills and drills and taught them to the kids. It became slightly easier to discipline the class. They loved being on the team, and getting to run around for an afternoon was infinitely better than going back to the estates. If they misbehaved, they were off the team, I had leverage.

We got good at Tag Rugby. But my running sessions were not going well. By the end of the year, I used to dread going to school on Monday morning, Years 4 & 5 running rings around me, Year 6 even worse. But then, Year 3, 30 kids, every week.

I was called into the Deputy Head’s office before we broke for Summer holidays. I was fully expecting her to put us all out of our misery, to say; thanks for the effort with your little “running games”, I think we’ve all had enough now. Instead, she was incredibly supportive and complimentary, no one had expected me to stick it out this long. They were so impressed with my dedication that they would like to pay me for my classes. I was thrilled, but also a bit apprehensive. I had half hoped to be let off the hook.

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Russell Bentley
Russell Bentley
Track runner. Trained in Kenya, Won the Snowdonia Marathon 2018, PB Berlin Marathon 2:20:20

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