Hannah was always the type of student we would remember for a while: diligent, hardworking and determined, she consistently wanted to do the very best she could for as long as she had attended secondary school.
By sixth form (Years 12 & 13), she had chosen the three specific subjects she wanted to study for A levels: English Literature, Psychology and Sociology. As her teachers, we were proud of her for achieving great GCSE grades and pursuing these options in sixth form. It should have all been about the academic study and angst; Hannah puts constant pressure on herself to achieve the best grades (even now she is studying at university) so, with the challenges that any A level course brings, there should have been a focus on assessments, essay writing, exam content and developing her knowledge and understanding. However, by the end of Year 12, it became clear to many of us that there was another issue preoccupying her.
Hannah has often tried to use schoolwork as an escape – a distraction from the struggles that life throws our way and an opportunity to become the best she could be as an adult. Her desire to be an English teacher has been present for quite a long time, so this was a huge motivation for her – and perhaps a reason why she felt more comfortable in the company of adults, talking to her teachers about issues she faced. Towards the end of Year 12, Hannah started talking to some of us about visiting the doctor as she hadn’t started her periods. For teachers, the need to keep calm and impartial is inherent; Hannah was probably mostly told that everything would be ok. Very few teachers that Hannah spoke to had any idea that MRKH was a condition that existed let alone trying to support a student with such a life-altering diagnosis.
Around this time, Hannah began to confide in one particular member of staff who did not have a usual teaching timetable – this made it easier for her to ‘drop in’ when she needed a chat; but there were obviously times when this simply wasn’t convenient for either that member of staff or Hannah, herself; there was then opportunity for her to come and speak to a wealth of teachers who did their best to talk her through the thoughts and feelings bubbling in her very confused, frightened and angry teenage mind. At times it seemed that Hannah wanted someone who could solve the problem and make it better – this led her to seek adult company whenever she could, discussing an issue with a number of people in order to vocalise it…to make sense of the confusion.
At first she didn’t know what body parts she had; she didn’t know what was missing; she didn’t know what her future would hold. She did know, at the tender age of 17, that she was highly unlikely to ever become pregnant, carry a child or give birth herself. This is something that, at the time of writing, I still struggle to fathom as a revelation for a teenage girl to have to deal with and, on reflection, I have huge admiration for how Hannah handled herself.
The times before her medical appointments were probably the hardest; the hours that she was waiting to be told the next thing her body could not or would not do: the explanations of why her body was that way. She would have come to school to go about her lessons as normal – again, as a (probably much needed) distraction – knowing that she was going to see a specialist consultant who may give her incredibly devastating news. It’s no wonder that she found the adult company of her teachers somewhat more comforting.
One-to-one, Hannah was very honest about her diagnosis. She could – and can still – articulate clearly what has happened and will happen to her body. For adult women, most of whom are mothers themselves, this was so hard to hear from such a young girl. I think it is only our ‘teacher ways’ which allowed us to listen impartially – and I guess that Hannah must have benefited from that professional detachment. The emotional reactions were coming from family at home and her friends, so school offered Hannah a more matter-of-fact approach.
On reflection, the limitations that teachers have in being able to support students with issues such as this were really apparent. Hannah and I ‘joke’ now about how often I ‘reported’ her when she came to speak to me – often as she had already spoken to two or three others, or went straight to another teacher after speaking to me for more support. My’ teacher-alert’ went off as I felt she was desperately seeking reassurance and resolution which she just was not getting from anyone she spoke to. We tried to ‘manage her’ by having one point of contact; but this only really made Hannah feel more isolated and that we did not have time or inclination to speak to her – I guess, in a way, we did not always have time as we are controlled by our timetables, as teachers; we often needed to let thirty Year 7s in after having an in-depth chat with Hannah about the trials of her diagnosis. This could be really emotionally draining for Hannah and her teachers so there needed to be some kind of balance. These limitations meant that her choice of adult to specifically go to was not always honoured and there were times when she felt the ‘allocated adult’ did not have time or interest in her case (I realise, even now, how sterile terms such as ‘case’ are, but this is in our natures as teachers – not because we do not care but because we simply cannot take on the emotional support of every child, for our own sanity).
The idea of being ‘reported’ whenever Hannah spoke to someone else has been a significant focus of our discussion about her time in sixth form. As teachers, we are under huge safeguarding scrutiny – and, quite rightly – to not keep secrets with students and to report and record any disclosure or concerns for a student’s well-being; with the weight and uniqueness of Hannah’ case, we simply could not keep what she told us to herself and, in many ways, for her own safety, we needed that one person to ‘collate’ the support Hannah was seeking to ensure we were all doing and saying what was best for her.
It makes this type of situation a real challenge for schools: Hannah was not technically a ‘safeguarding’ issue but the after-effects of realising you are living with such a condition could easily have led to further concerns for Hannah’ well-being and it needs to be something which schools take into consideration. The accountability for the teacher (or teachers) involved needs to be managed carefully, without the student feeling they are being ostracised, ignored or trivialised. Personally, I think this can only be trial and error – I’m not sure there will ever be a definitive way to manage an MRKH student or student with similar or comparable diagnosis.
Ultimately, within the school and university setting, the biggest challenge that Hannah has faced with her studies is the content brought up by the topics and assessments. As an English teacher, I know that many writers, particularly poets, broach issues of fertility, pregnancy, birth, childhood and motherhood. We would have to pre-warn Hannah of content and address an issue if it came up without prior thought or realisation. This has been something that has, thankfully, been carried over to Hannah’ university studies and she is fortunate to have lecturers who pre-warn her of the content of texts and discussion. I still receive the odd message telling me what is coming up in the next few weeks and we discuss what her concerns might be regarding this literature. Her resilience in approaching these texts has been commendable – she never shies away from the challenge of the content and always tries to approach a text with an open-mind, aiming to apply her own empathy and passion where she needs to.
I think Hannah has really benefited from being a student of English. It has allowed her to view a much wider world and then apply understanding of her own struggles within that context. She is still determined to teach and influence the students she has the privilege to come across, which I think she will do thoughtfully and considerately. But her condition has also allowed her to become much more self-aware and to express that in her own writing, whether it is poetry or blogs. She has certainly turned something life-changing into something that has changed her into a more confident, even more determined, and increasingly empathetic adult.
From a Teacher and MRKH Supporter