I must not laugh at my students. I must not laugh at my students.

It’s very important, as a tutor, to remain straight-faced and encouraging no matter how hilarious your student’s efforts may be.

Recently having become a student myself, I am particularly aware of this. As I fail over and over again to play the most basic riffs and chords on my guitar, I am both mortified by and grateful for my tutor’s patient, encouraging expression – when you know perfectly well he’s thinking, underneath the smile, “how many times do I have to listen to this mess, I know 10-year-olds who could get this faster!”.

And so I smile my friendly, you-can-do-it smile at my students, even when they ask me questions I can’t believe they seriously have to ask, or say something that sounds, in my humble opinion, borderline insane.

Today, I was helping my young protégés to choose subjects for their independent projects, and showing them how to split up the work into sections under various sub-headings. Some were very creative, choosing their own topics, which ranged from Martin Luther King to the motives of serial killers. Others opted to just pick a title from my list of suggestions – which was what one student, let’s call him Jake, chose to do when he wrote “The Solar System” at the top of his page.

Great, that’ll be interesting to research! I said in my Hails the Encourager voice. He stared blankly at me. Jake’s expression never changes. He stares blankly, whether he’s bored, telling a joke, or shouting at someone. Blank stare. It’s quite unsettling.

Anyway, he seemed to be struggling with sub-headings, as there were only two on his page, so I leaned over to look at them and offer a few suggestions.

How it works, I read over his shoulder. Hmm…. well, yes, I would maybe change that to something more like “What is it?”, but that’s a good start. Great! Well done! So encouraging, you see.

Jake stared blankly, and I hastily craned my neck to see the second heading.

How much it costs, I read out. I paused, slightly confused. How much it… costs. Um…

Jake stared blankly.

Sometimes I can see where they’ve gone wrong, and gently point out their error in a way that seems like I’m praising their efforts while nudging them in the right direction.

At other times, though, I’m honestly at a complete loss.

Desperately searching Jake’s impassive face for some clue as to what he was trying to say, I wrinkled my brow and said “ummm” a few more times. Jake stared blankly.

I’m not really sure what you mean, “how much it costs”, I admitted eventually, when it became clear that no further information was forthcoming. Do you mean, um, to run? To… buy?

I mean, I hoped against hope that the boy didn’t think , at 17 years old, that it was possible to buy the entire solar system, but one can never be too sure in my job.

To buy and run, he said as if I was being purposely obtuse.

I stared blankly at Jake. Jake stared blankly at me. He couldn’t understand what my problem was; I couldn’t understand what the feck he meant.

What the f**k do you mean, Jake? piped up Karl, sitting next to him and slightly less tactful than me. How is money even involved with the solar system? It’s just, like… there, man.

Jake stared blankly. You have to install it and set it up and all that, he said, as if speaking to a couple of absolute simpletons.

I just continued to stare blankly at him. I think it’s contagious. Karl, however, gave a sudden laugh. He’s not thinking of the solar system, he’s thinking of solar panel energy.

This was obviously the moment I meant when I started this story. The don’t-laugh-don’t-laugh-don’t-laugh moment. With a miraculously straight face and the facial expression of someone who doesn’t find this amusing in the slightest, I gently told Jake to just change his title to “Solar Energy”. No big deal!

Jake stared blankly. What’s the Solar System, then?

Oh, f**k me! said Karl with deep feeling, putting his head down on the desk.

It’s all the planets and shit, like, piped up Sam.

Why’s it called the Solar System, then, if it’s not about solar panels? asked Jake, staring blankly.

‘Cause it all revolves around the sun, man.

What’s the sun got to do with it?

Karl looked up, almost pleadingly. F**kin’ hell, miss, can we go for break yet?

Yes, I said faintly. Yes. let’s go for break.

Whatever happened to “Never again”?

1938. Britain. Immigrants are flooding into the country in their thousands. The media, and therefore the public, are outraged, and ugly pictures are painted of the refugees, depicting them not as desperate, frightened families fleeing from certain death, but as corrupt, money-hungry, soulless foreigners who want to take over our country, steal our jobs, and send our crime rate sky high. They should go back to where they came from. They belong there. 

“The way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming an outrage. I intend to enforce the law to its fullest.”

– Herbert Metcalfe, British magistrate, 1938.

Photo: Wikipedia


2015. Britain. Immigrants are – wait… just read that first paragraph again. It serves the same purpose.

Whatever happened to “Never again”? How come the world is so horrified to hear of Jews being refused entry to ‘safe’ countries, yet unwilling to help the Syrians today? Why do we treat as heroes the people who risked their lives and/or broke the law to help Jews escape, but criticise those who want to take in refugees for being “left-wing liberal idealists” or “un-British”?

We create museums and memorials in honour of the Holocaust victims. We award medals to those who tried to help them. We read survivor accounts, we visit concentration camps, we shake our heads sadly, and we agree that something should have been done sooner. Someone should have helped. Such atrocities should never, ever happen again.

And yet dead children are washing up on holiday resort beaches, drowned with their families in their desperation to escape their devastated homeland. The response should be “How can we stop this? What can we do?”.

It isn’t.

It’s: “I don’t want to see photos of dead children on my newsfeed.”

And: “It wouldn’t have happened if they’d stayed where they belonged.”

When it’s a matter of life or death, nothing else matters. Save human lives first, figure out how to deal with the consequences later. Wouldn’t you like to think that if you’d lost everything and were desperately fleeing for your life, someone would take you in and give you safety and support? That you wouldn’t have to plead to be allowed a chance to live? That people wouldn’t look away, pretending they didn’t see you, and assume someone else would help you?

No, it’s not nice to see photos of suffering and death. But if you can look at such images and simply shrug your shoulders and say “well, that’s their problem”, then something has gone badly, badly wrong with the human race. Even more so in light of the lessons we’re supposed to have learned from history. We said “Never again” – we say it over and over. Is it just a meaningless sentiment we trot out when confronted with images of inhumanity from the past, if we’re so eager to distance ourselves from all the places in the world  where atrocities occur today?

And we can ignore them, if we want.

Or we can look at those pictures.

Photos: AP

We can let them burn into that part of the brain that won’t let them be erased. We can feel sick, sad, disgusted, horrified, outraged… guilty. And we can say “Hey, you know what? I can’t sit here in my safe little world, letting this happen to other innocent people. Not again. Never again.”

Iceland has set a wonderful example to the rest of Europe, and the world, with thousands of ordinary citizens offering to open their homes to refugees in response to the government trying to cap the number of immigrants. Germany has increased the number of immigrants it will allow entry to. And thousands and thousands of people are still stranded, blocked in at borders, refused freedom to seek asylum because EU laws won’t let them.

When a life – even just one life – is at stake, borders are unimportant. Immigration laws are redundant. Economic concerns are irrelevant. Saving that life is all that matters. Everything else can wait.

Can we do something, please?

Sign a petition to the government of your country. Here’s Britain’s.

Make a donation to one of the many, many groups and charities providing immediate relief in the form of food, water, clothes and so on for stranded people caught between a country they can’t get into and a country they can’t go back to.

Lobby your local council, share stories and pictures on social media, start your own relief group, organise/attend a demonstration, volunteer to help people who do manage to reach your country… do something, anything.

But don’t ignore fellow human beings who are suffering more than we can imagine. Don’t pull up the drawbridge and refuse to help them. Don’t let future generations look back at us and condemn our lack of empathy, ask why something wasn’t done, shake their heads at the needless waste of human life, and say sadly “Never again.”.