This was the week for writing about leaving teaching but events have pushed such individual concerns into the background. Does my personal response matter, in a world of violence, war, hatred, prejudice: all the man-made disasters we add to the natural ones, as if floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes and storms weren’t enough?
Yes it does. It matters because a personal response is what makes us human beings. What happened in Nice last night was horrific. What has been happening in Syria is appalling. And in Afghanistan, China, the US – almost every country in the world hosts something to be ashamed of in terms of one group suppressing the freedoms and happiness of another.
This week I watched the extraordinary BBC 2 series, “Exodus“, which followed the journey of individuals and families from Syria and Afghanistan to the UK, Finland and Germany. The minutiae were revealing – you can actually increase your risk of drowning if you buy the fake life jackets for sale in the markets of Izmir, along with the waterproof covers for phones that mean a message may at least get to your family. I was humbled by the courage of refugees stuck on the side of the road, putting on acrobatic displays to entertain each other and rigging up extra tarpaulins to protect a disabled child. Just consider their touching, often unfounded faith in the eventual goodwill of Europeans, despite having been bombed and betrayed and abandoned and moved on.
I’ve known similar stories all my life, but with the luck to live alongside rather than inside them. Almost none of the children in my Finchley primary school class had grandparents. Their mothers and fathers had come over in the Kindertransport. My class also had a few middle class Indian and African origin children, whose parents were doctors or chemists, and some Irish children, whose families had emigrated to find work. My own grandfather was Scottish. He was, ironically, an immigrant to Dover from the north, after failing to get a job on the Titanic. There were Greek Cypriots, and Turkish children and a boy from Italy and one or two who were then known as West Indians. I wouldn’t say it was perfect. The black children seemed to be in trouble more than anyone else; the Jewish children (about half the school) had a separate assembly; we shunned and were shunned by those who we thought were Travellers (I don’t know if they were, but we called them Gypsies). We played English vs Germans in the playground. But we muddled along. As a child I was not (didn’t have to be) aware of racial tensions and with my parents’ blessing, I enjoyed the exposure to different languages and backgrounds. Whether everyone had it so easy, I don’t know.
I studied in France and taught, mainly white classes in much more segregated areas. I made friends, and also had inklings of xenophobia at times. It didn’t feel pleasant, but it was hardly threatening if you were white skinned and middle class. I enjoyed it, but wanted to make a more politically engaged contribution, and went to Sheffield to train as a teacher of what was then called “ESL” (English as a Second Language).
My first teaching post was in Elephant and Castle, South London. I’m not sure we knew the word regeneration, and it wasn’t a smart postcode at all. 80% of the pupils were from Bengali families, mostly recent arrivals. There was a dark, cramped and gardenless estate in the same road and the density was high so very few pupils lived anywhere else. We had some Vietnamese children, (remember the “boat people”?) and a Chinese boy was inseparable from his Turkish friend. Neither spoke any English for months. I attempted Bengali and the deputy head taunted the middle class staff by bringing jellied eels to the staff parties. Those pupils must have grown up children themselves now, graduates and taxpayers and artists and engineers and health workers, some still at the Elephant and others moved away.
But at the time, the families were poor. We took small groups of them to the West End, only three miles away, to see the Christmas lights. Transfixed by Hamleys window display, they marvelled even more when a little boy with a posh voice standing next to us said: “Grandpa, may we go in now, and would you buy me a toy?”
I returned to Sheffield in the year of the miners’ strike, with the steelworkers’ strike still stinging in local memory. My pupils now were mostly from Pakistan, again recently arrived. Their dads drove the corporation buses, and when we did home visits we sat on bus seats in their living rooms, drinking sweet tea with condensed milk while the girls whipped out shalwar kameez and demonstrated how to iron them on the floor. I learned the names of Imran Khan’s excellent cricket side, which helped me build a rapport with the boys. The first Somali children began to arrive. Those pupils too will be well into middle age by now, living different lives in many different places.
Back in outer London, I taught a longer established community, the children of Ugandan Asians expelled by Idi Amin. High achievers, serious workers, with ambitions to be lawyers and doctors. I learned about the Punjab and experienced Sikh hospitality.
I had children, and when they were little I went to work in the infant school I’m now retiring from, three miles from the one they attended. At both schools there are usually at least twenty languages spoken, with some recent arrivals and some families who have been established here for generations. My children, now grown up, take it all for granted, and are a bit disconcerted if they find themselves in a community that seems monocultural or monolingual. Their experiences will differ from mine but probably feel even more natural.
At this school I’ve discovered the delicious cake that Lithuanians make for celebrations, and become quite adept at reeling off long Tamil names. I’ve feasted on spicy samosas and pistachio sweets for Eid and Diwali. I’ve been taught to make mehndi patterns on my hands and had presents from trips back home to Turkey and Thailand. I’ve had an Indian head massage when I seemed stressed and I’ve translated from French and Spanish and I’ve attempted Chinese and Arabic calligraphy which must look truly terrible to my tactful child teachers.
These are my neighbours, my friends, and my colleagues. They drive every bus I travel on, they take my blood when I donate it or it needs testing, they check my teeth, they serve me in Sainsbury’s, they did the conveyancing when I sold my house, and in a very welcome first, this year my garden was landscaped by Moldovans. From the safety of my white skin and mother tongue English, I fear the reactions they may suffer following the Brexit vote and the latest atrocities in Nice, which have shocked them as much as everybody else. I am glad and proud and fascinated to have worked and lived among them all my life so far, for they have given me more than I ever gave them. And if this post is less edited than the previous ones, please bear with me: despite the call for peace, raw anger doesn’t sit well with polished prose.
© Jessica Norrie 2016