We asked Mr Baines (Head Teacher from Holystone Primary and a good friend) if he would talk about AJ in one of the slots during the funeral. Below are the words Mr Baines used so beautifully.
“Claire and Mike have asked me to say a few words about AJ today which I consider to be the highest of honours.
As you can imagine, being AJs head-teacher for 8 years there have been many occasions where I have stood up and spoken in front of AJ and his friends, if I’m being honest, and I’m sure you will all appreciate, this is the one talk that I hoped I would never have to do.
I hope that for AJ and for Claire and Mike and everyone here today who knew AJ, I hope in a small way I will be able to do a remarkable young man the justice he deserves.
I couldn’t start without reflecting on AJs remarkable courage and bravery. I know the hashtag Warrior has been used a lot in the last few weeks and I think this one word really does capture AJs enduring spirit when faced with adversity, and bless him for one so young he faced far too much adversity.
AJs courage and bravery has touched us all, I think we will have all at some point in the last few days have reflected on some of the things in our lives that cause us a challenge…and then we will have thought about AJ and his courage in the face of his challenges. I believe one of AJs lasting legacies will be to help us all have a strong dose of perspective when we face situations that we think to be tough, but which in the cold light of day will pale into insignificance when we consider what AJ (and his family) had to face up to.
AJ was a warrior – this is true, he never let his situation get to him, he was incredibly brave and courageous, but on a daily basis I know he never considered himself to be brave. I read a quote the other day that most truly courageous people would rather not be truly courageous, they really would far rather be just ‘normal’ and that often their remarkable courage is the result of there being no other alternative. In school, I know AJ was desperate to be just seen as ‘normal’, one of the boys alongside his mates and that the courage that shone out of him was not something he really consider, to him he was still just AJ.
There were times when AJ understandably got a little feed up with people asking how he was – the stock response to this inevitable question from everyone he met was ‘fine’ usually along with a little shrug. I think this response was the true Warrior in AJ shining through, the answer ‘fine’ actually meant ‘don’t make a fuss over me, let me get to my class to be with my friends, I won’t let this illness get in the way of living a normal life’.
When we remember AJ today we will rightly associate the words Brave and Warrior but it would be wrong of me not to remind us these were words that were associated with AJ’s battle with illness and that there was a time when he wasn’t facing such challenges. And looking back with Mike the other day at some early photos in school, it reminded us just what a bright eyed, bright minded and inquisitive little boy turned up in our Nursery all those years ago. This was the little boy who when asked in Reception what he wanted to do when he grow up quite nonchantly suggested he might try his hand at being an engineer. This was the bright eyed little boy who ran around with his classmates playing football and just enjoying his time in school. AJ loved school, and I know in his later years when he was struggling, all he wanted to do was be in school….the same however, might not be said of his time in Year 1 when the puppies arrived at home and he clearly wanted to stay at home with them!!!
AJ was a very bright young man, school work was something he devoured, he loved learning facts, in fact I think every fact he ever learned stuck…including some rather obscure ones, particularly about World War 2 Japanese Battleships!
Inside, and indeed outside of school when he wasn’t engaging in Nerf gun wars, computers and gaming were a huge part of AJ (and his friends’) life. This became a way for them all to keep in touch when he wasn’t able to be in school something that I know brought a degree of escapism for AJ. AJ was a genius on a computer, particularly when coding, I remember Mike and AJ excitedly telling me about a bit of code he had written in Minecraft that could remotely monitor door entry systems…if I’m being honest I had very little understanding of the actual coding aspects of this so I just nodded in response. Minecraft, as we can see today was hugely important to AJ. He even managed to persuade me of its merits in order to set up a Minecraft club in school, and I have to say I think those afternoon sessions where he was able to interact with his friends and classmates are some of my personal happiest memories of AJ in school. Other staff will have other memories, origami swans, paper aeroplanes…interestingly we have all tried to cast our mind back to try to recall a time when AJ might have been in trouble in school, you will not be surprised to hear we can genuinely think of no example.
Even when he was poorly, AJ continued to want to be treated the same as everyone else…I insisted on parents being close at hand at various points of his illness, poor Claire would spend hours in the staffroom or Mike would push an empty wheelchair around Beamish, because yes, you’ve guessed AJ wasn’t in it, he was off ahead with his mates just enjoying his childhood.
There are so many happy memories of a very bright boy in school, and even as time went on and AJ started to face increasing difficulties, he never lost his positive attitude or witty sense of humour.
I want to end with a final memory, a very personal one and one that I hope sums up AJs attitude, courage and his refusal to let his illness define him. I think it also shows just what a clever young man Claire and Mike brought into this world:
Most Y6 pupils have a healthy fear of their SATs tests, if they could find a way out of them they would. Not AJ, he didn’t let the minor inconvenience of a severe rejection of his new lungs get in the way. He was determined to be normal, to do his SATs and to start day one of Year 7 at George Stephenson. Unfortunately, AJ was in the Freeman on Reading SAT day, he wasn’t feeling great, he’d missed a lot of school in the build-up and his hospital teacher really wasn’t sure, but guess what- when asked AJ said he was “fine” he wanted to do it. I have to declare it is one of my more unusual days sitting gowned and gloved up invigilating a SATs year in an isolation room in the Freeman Hospital – but I did it because AJ wanted to do it, the steely look his eye that day, his desire to do his tests like his mates were doing in school that day was remarkable.
AJ wasn’t well enough to sit any other tests that week but on results day we found out, despite everything, he didn’t just pass his Reading test, he smashed it with a ridiculously high score. Good on you AJ, you did it and you then you walked in to George in your smart new uniform and you made us all feel so proud.
I hope I have given you a little insight into AJs time at school, I hope you can pick up on the incredible sense of pride and affection all of the Holystone staff feel for him. A quick word for Claire and Mike, you have been fantastic throughout AJ’s time with us – you never worried or complained when we were as a school were anxious, you helped us find ways around problems and together I think we all did our best to ensure AJ was as “fine” as he could be in school. Also a tribute to his classmates, some of who are here today and all of whom are sharing in the sense of loss we all feel. You guys were great to, you guys really helped ensure AJ’s time in school was as “normal” as it could be.
I’m going to finish with a quote which I think sums AJ – it’s a quote from Christopher Robin’s who is speaking to his best friend Winnie the Pooh – “promise me you will always remember, you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think”.