School’s out

A slight technological hitch meant that yesterday’s post didn’t upload, so here it is….

This morning I attended a training session in the new database system that’s being implemented in my charity. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I reverted to my old schoolgirl ways: Sitting at the back, allowing myself to be distracted, even scrawling notes to colleagues on pieces of paper (both to get their attention and validate our mutual boredom). I’m not proud of my behaviour, but as I did manage to take in most of what was being taught I don’t feel it was too much to my personal detriment (or to the detriment of those in my immediate vicinity-trust me, at school I could be significantly more disruptive when I wanted to be).

In a sense I was just drunk on the nostalgia of it all; sitting in rows in a classroom, a bespectacled and suitably harassed teacher at the front who was desperately trying to keep everyone’s attention. The conditions were ripe for reverting to childhood type, and I’m afraid I rather predictably did just that.

There were even jammy dodgers at break time! I just didn’t stand a chance….

A roller coaster day

Today I rediscovered my inner child on a work trip to Thorpe Park. After an absence of ten years (and the rest) I wasn’t sure it would elicit quite the same thrill but I’m pleased to report it was just as good – if not better – than when I went all those years ago. It was funny experiencing it through the eyes of an adult chaperone rather than a young person though. Our group was a diverse but lovely bunch and I couldn’t help but pick out the ones that reminded me of my group of friends when I was that age (needless to say these were, generally speaking, the ones at the gobbier end of the spectrum), and observe the way in which they interacted with the quieter members of the group.

There were moments when I felt the ‘adults’ (I will never get used to referring to myself as such) were more excited about the rides than the young people, and none more so than when me and my colleague ran off to buy fast track tickets for two of the rollercoasters – Saw and Colossus – and the two boys we were with at the time just ambled off to the arcade games, completely disinterested. In the end though there was something for everyone, and I think it’s safe to say the day was enjoyed by all, whether or not they partook in the rides. It was just lovely to see all of the young people interacting and enjoying the experience together – amazing when you consider these are kids who were deemed at risk of dropping out of school and becoming disengaged before they took part in the Teens and Toddlers programme in year 9 or 10 of secondary school. It just goes to show that encouraging young people to believe in themselves and develop to their full potential really does work.

Man’s best friend

Image

When the alarm clock beeped Maurice groaned his customary groan and stretched out like a tiger waking from a snooze. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and blinked several times. Then, with a whoosh of excitement that coursed from the top of his head to the tip of his toes he remembered: Today was his eighth birthday.

He leapt out of bed and ran out of the room and all the way down the stairs into the kitchen. There he found his mother, his father and his baby brother Teddy sitting at the breakfast table waiting for him.
“Happy Birthday Maurice,” his parents said in unison. Teddy just grinned and waved his rattle. “Here,” said his mother, “sit down and I’ll make you a special breakfast before school. Eggs and bacon okay?”
Maurice beamed and nodded as he took his seat at the head of the table where, he couldn’t help but notice, there sat a large box with a ribbon on it. His father smiled and nodded so he ripped off the paper and shouted “yes!” and punched the air when he saw it was the remote controlled rally car he’d been wanting for ages. “Can I take it to school?” he asked,but his father shook his head. “I think it’s best kept safe at home for the moment,” he said.
Maurice kicked his chair under the table in silent protest, but was soon distracted by the plate of fried breakfast his mother had put in front of him. She sat down beside him, pulled her purse out of her bag and fished a shiny pound coin out of its depths. “Here you go,” she said, handing the coin to Maurice, “I know we normally say no sweets at school but as it’s your birthday why don’t you pick up a little treat from the shop at break time.”

As his mother had suggested, Maurice went to the shop around the corner from school during his lunch hour. When he arrived there was a little dog tethered outside. Maurice didn’t know much about dogs but he thought this was what his father would call a Scottie dog-a Scottish Terrier with charcoal grey fur, a long body, short little legs and ears that looked too big for its head.
As Maurice bent down to pat the dog the shop door opened and an old lady came out. She was wearing a thick wool coat even though it was warm outside and she had a scarf wrapped around her head like a turban. The skin on her face was baggy, like it was too big for the bones and sinew underneath, and she had drawn thick black lines around her eyes.
Maurice stood up and the old lady smiled. “Oh don’t mind me dear,” she said, “Colin loves the attention.” Maurice knew it was rude to stare but he couldn’t take his eyes off the old lady. “Colin?” he repeated? “Yes,” the lady said, “it’s a silly name for a dog I know but it was my husband’s name, you see.”
The old lady stopped to cough, and Maurice noted with alarm that when she pulled her tissue away from her face there were spots of what looked like blood on it. “Are you alright?” he asked. The old lady straightened herself up as best she could and forced her withered lips into a thin smile. “Yes,” she said, “I’m fine, thank you,” though Maurice was far from convinced. “What brings you here, anyway?” She asked. “Shouldn’t you be in school?”
Maurice grinned and pulled the coin from his pocket. “It’s my birthday,” he said proudly. “I’m eight years old today and so my mum gave me this to buy sweets.” The old lady coughed again and winced in pain. “That’s nice,” she said. Her breath was shallower now and Maurice was scared. What should he do? Call the shop owner? Call an ambulance?
As he was thinking trough his options the old lady pulled a small black coin purse from her pocket and began to root around in it. “Drat,” she said, coughing again. “I’m a pound short.” “For what?” Maurice asked. “For a taxi to…it doesn’t matter.” Maurice looked at the pound coin in his hand, hesitated, then held it out on his palm.
The old woman smiled through her obvious pain and took the coin. “That’s very kind of you little boy,” she said, “what’s your name?” Maurice, who had been told never to tell strangers his name, replied without hesitation, “Maurice Brown.” “And you go to the school next door?” He nodded. “Well Maurice,” the old lady said, “I promise to repay you for your kindness today. Though it may be in a different way to that which you might expect.”
Before Maurice could ask what she meant she had flagged down an approaching taxi and climbed unsteadily into it, coughing and wheezing all the while. Colin jumped in after her and she shut the door and drove off. Maurice returned to school empty handed.
That evening, after his birthday dinner there was a knock on the front door. When Maurice’s father came back into the room he was carrying a large box. “Another present?” Maurice asked. “From who?”
His father put the box down onto the table with great care and handed Maurice an envelope with MAURICE BROWN written on the front in thick marker pen. Inside there was a piece of paper, upon which was written:
Dear Maurice, if you’re reading this it means I’ve gone to a better place, so please don’t be sad for me. When we met today I could tell you were a special little boy. In return for your kindness I would like to offer you first refusal on this gift. I hope you will love and care for it as I have, and that it will bring you great happiness. God bless you, Annie (the old lady outside the shop).
Maurice put the note down and stared at the box, and as he did a scratching noise from inside made him jump. Suddenly he knew what was inside, and began tearing at the wrapping. He opened the box and, sure enough, inside it sat Colin the Scottie dog. When he saw Maurice he jumped up and licked his face, making everyone laugh.
“Can we keep him Dad?” Maurice asked. His dad looked at his mum, and his mum looked back to him. “How could we say no?” she said with a smile. “We’re so proud of what you did today Maurice.” Maurice beamed back at her. “This is the best birthday ever,” he said, and Colin barked his agreement.

Drifting apart

When we were eight everyone said we were “thick as thieves,” though we didn’t really know what that meant. Even though you were a tomboy for my ninth birthday you bought me a Forever Friends locket with your pocket money and kept half of it to wear around your own neck. Everyone was jealous of our friendship, it was such a precious thing – like gold.

But when we started secondary school things began to change. You stopped wearing the necklace, saying it was embarrassing and childish. I told you I’d stopped wearing mine too but I hadn’t-I just hid it beneath my shirt because I couldn’t bear to take it off.

You started hanging around with what my mum called “a bad crowd.” You got your tongue pierced, cut your shoulder length brown hair short and dyed it blue. You were unrecognisable to me as Sarah, let alone as my best friend. When I called you said you were busy, eventually you just stopped picking up the phone.

Because I wasn’t sporty or pretty or funny I found it hard to make friends. I wasn’t like you, with the “gift of the gab” as Auntie Lou used to call it. I ate my lunches alone. Sometimes I would catch you looking over at me with an expression that looked something like regret or sadness – perhaps guilt? – on your face, but no sooner had it appeared than it was gone again, hidden behind the tough girl mask which emotion could not crack.

I wasn’t bullied, at least. Why would the bullies be interested in me if nobody else was? I just existed in a perpetual state of nothing. And that hasn’t ever changed, perhaps unsurprisingly. When your life is a blank canvas what is there to excite you? I did the ‘normal’ things, of course, went to university, got a degree, moved to London, got a job. I even had some boyfriends though I wasn’t really interested in boys.

I often wonder this: If you’d known the path my life would take after you turned your back on me, would you still have done it? If you hadn’t taken off that locket, if you’d only loved me back in the way that I loved you, we could have been happy, you and I. But you did turn your back on me, and now I’m finally finding the strength to turn my back on you.

I will not send this letter, but rather burn it right before I cast my half of the locket off the bridge. And when I climb over the rail and follow it into the murky abyss, Sarah, I will take my leave of this world, of you. And I will be free.

Change

The following fictional post was inspired by the certificate ceremony I attended today with work at a youth centre in Islington, where teenagers from four of the schools my charity works with were commended for their participation in the Teens and Toddlers programme:

Change

I never thought I’d amount to much. Why would I? My parents told me every day that I was useless. Then even my teachers started giving up on me. It’s like a downward spiral, see. You start acting up to get attention, but all too late you realise it’s not the right kind of attention you’re getting. You wanted to be popular, not the class clown – the one the other kids laugh at and the teachers label as a troublemaker.

Things at home weren’t great. Dad’s drinking was getting worse and Mum, well, she was so doped up on depression pills she hardly knew what day it was. I pretty much did everything; cooking, cleaning, looking after my baby brother. If I hadn’t been there I don’t know what would have happened to him. He’d probably have been taken into care. Sometimes I wondered if that would’ve been best for the both of us.

When my teachers told me about this mentoring programme that paired teenagers with toddlers in a nursery I wasn’t interested at all; I had enough experience of looking after children with my baby brother, why would I want more? I only agreed to do it ’cause it got me out of school one afternoon a week, and gave me something to do apart from hanging around the recreation ground and causing trouble with my mates because I was bored.

But when I started the programme things started to change. My toddler was a challenge, mainly because he was like me; hyperactive and angry. We even looked alike, with wild hair, dark skin and brown eyes. He didn’t trust me at first, but after a few weeks he started coming up to me when I walked in and holding my hand. It made me feel special, and in those moments the big ball of anger I carried around inside me would get a bit smaller.

I’ve learned a lot about myself through the programme. I realise now the consequences of my actions on others, and I’m not so hell bent on trying to hurt people, mentally and physically. I feel more responsible, more in control. I want to achieve in life. I want to be a success. But above all else I want people to look at me and, instead of seeing the clown, the troublemaker or the joker, I want them to see the responsible man I can and will become.

The beautiful sunset on the last night of my recent trip to Italy.

Midsummer dreaming

With a name like Hamlet I was always going to stick out from the crowd. Dad claims he chose the name because it was a dark and stormy night when I was born, and because he knew I’d be a leader. Mum says she went along with it because she’d always liked studying Shakespeare at school and had a fondness for Ophelia (which I think is frankly ridiculous). So anyway, for various stupid reasons I was lumbered with this name, and it’s haunted me ever since. Didn’t they realise schools would still be teaching Shakespeare when they had children of their own? Honestly.

Still, I shouldn’t complain. At least I’m better off than my poor brother. At three years old he’s too young to realise what he has in store for him, but something tells me it’s not going to be pretty. What on earth would possess someone to name their son Puck? Not only does it rhyme with a rude word that means the act of coitus (or copulation – we’re doing sex education at the moment and it’s funny as), it’s also the name of the Fairy King. Mum says it’s romantic, but I can’t see it being romantic when my brother’s friends are old enough to realise the joke.

Parents can be so stupid sometimes.

Why we should be proud of our young people

This afternoon I accompanied two senior members of my charity’s youth-led consultancy board (a group of Teens and Toddlers graduates who now help other young people to continue their personal and professional development, as well as themselves being helped by the charity on an ongoing basis through initiatives like corporate mentoring, work placements and signposting to relevant opportunities) to the Hackney University Technical College in order to do some filming for an exciting new youth initiative (which we’re not yet at liberty to discuss in the public arena). [As an aside, one of the two people I went with also now happens to be my colleague, which goes to show what a great job the charity does in helping young people to develop!]

The filming was coordinated entirely by year 10 students, and it was so incredibly inspirational to see how professional and focused they were, from the cameraman to the interviewer and everyone in between. What I personally found particularly uplifting was watching our young people talking to the students about how the charity had helped them, and seeing how enthusiastic they all were about this project and the prospect of working together in the future.

There will always be the odd down day in any job, but if ever I needed a reminder why I do this job it was this afternoon’s experience. This kind of frontline interaction is exactly what I’ve felt was missing in my previous jobs, and it’s both a privilege and an honour to be able to work closely with such fantastic young people on a regular basis.

Anyone with doubts about the future of today’s youth need only look to our YLCB and the Hackney UTC students to see there’s still so much to be hopeful about. Far from being a lost cause, on the basis of what I witnessed today we have every reason to be proud of the younger generation. Many of them are the leaders of tomorrow, and I have high hopes they’ll achieve great things.