Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Zephaniah and Me

I have to tell you this story.

I had just a minute or two to chat to Benjamin Zephaniah before the Central Market gig and managed to ask him the question that had been burning inside me ever since I read that he came from Handsworth in Birmingham. Did he know the school I'd taught at?

Know it? Why he had been a student there. (Though a few years before I got there.)

And I had been a teacher in my first year of teaching, terrified out of my wits at being thrown into this inner-city multi-cultural environment.

I was, of course, white, middle-class and had scarcely any friends that didn't fit the same mould. I hadn't seen much of the world. Hadn't travelled overseas. I came into teaching with a B.Ed degree in my hand, a lot of idealism and very little practical knowledge of how to manage a classroom.

The kids at Broadway were difficult to say the least. One of the classes I was given was an underachieving class of 16 year olds who made my life hell. The whiteness of my skin made me the enemy as soon as I walked into the classroom. Most of the kids were of Jamaican descent, were Rastafarians (though dreadlocks were of course not allowed in school) and insisted on speaking patois among themselves. I had serious discipline problems, caused as much as anything by my total inexperience. (None of my teaching practices, which had all been in Worcestershire schools, had prepared me for inner-city Birmingham.)

The kids learned ... absolutely nothing with me. I was just trying to survive from lesson to lesson. On one occasion a chair was thrown at me. One student threatened to knife me after school. In the depth of Winter I got bombarded with dozens of snowballs walking to the classroom, some of which contained stones.

Another time I was late for a class because the school was on three campuses and we had to take a minibus between them and it was often late. I found that the kids had broken into the stockroom and set fire to the English books. Fortunately teachers saw the smoke on fire and rushed to put it out. On another occasion before I reached the classroom one kid stabbed the one and only white student in the stomach with a roll of newspapers, bruising her ribs, and the parents decided to take legal action against me. (The case was later dropped.)

The teachers were a mixed-bunch. Some very concerned about the kids and able to reach them. Others horribly racist: they would talk about the West Indian girls in the staffroom for example as "jungle-bunnies". Some ruled their classrooms by force, and at times this particular campus felt more like a borstal than a school.

My head-of-department decided one day to come and show me how to restore order, picked the main trouble maker up by the scruff of the collar and slammed him against the wall, issuing threats against him if he stepped out of line. The whole group were as quiet as lambs for the next forty minutes ... but not in subsequent lessons.

Truancy was through the roof. After school riots were common with gang fights between kids of neighbouring schools, and the police were always called in before the damage to property got too bad.

I wish I could tell you that I turned my class around. Like in a Hollywood movie.

I didn't.

I failed miserably and was miserable. I felt the kids didn't give me a chance. I felt the school didn't help me. I felt my B.Ed degree didn't prepare me.

I lay awake at night terrified about the next day. I got depressed. Called in sick too often. My boyfriend of nine years decided to leave me - partly because this daily fight left me with nothing left over for myself or for him, and his own star was rising in the rock-star firmament.

I wanted out of teaching completely.

But this story has several happy endings.

I know the kind of environment Zephaniah (a self-confessed bad boy, a gang member who carried a gun ... and didn't even learn to read and write until he was 21!) comes from. I can see how far he's travelled, what he's had to overcome ... and I'm incredibly proud of him, the way he's taken all that anger and directed it to says things that should be said.

I hope the kids I tried to teach and failed all those years ago made something good of their lives.

I'm grateful now for all that they taught me about myself (how narrow and parochial I was!) and about what teaching needs to be.

I left the school but spent some months doing "supply teaching" which meant spending time in many different city schools. I think that observing a wide range of schools and teachers gave me a solid framework on which to build my own teaching.

I went to Nigeria as a volunteer teacher, and had such great kids there that I realised that teaching was, after all, what I really wanted to do.

I spent a spell in another inner-city Birmingham school after Nigeria, and found teaching there a real pleasure. I had grown and changed in the time I'd been away. These kids respected me, and I could, at last, begin to teach.


Sharanya Manivannan said...

Great anecdote! :)

sympozium said...

ANECDOTE????? I disagree - It's more than an anecdote! There's the basis of a good novel there!!! Get it written!

Tunku Halim said...

Wow Sharon, sounds like hell to me. Hats off to you just for surviving it.

Janet said...

Agree with Sympozium there. I was very touched reading it. You should write about this, Sharon!

Subashini said...

indeed. in the middle of a lethargic work day this made me feel inspired, somehow. and not in a michelle-pfeiffer-dangerous-minds way, either.

it does sound like a memoir/book screaming to be written. ok, maybe not screaming, but yelling... or at least loudly asserting itself. :-)

Kenny Mah said...

Well, Sharon? When's the book coming out? Heh heh heh. Seriously though, add mine to the sea of voices. We want to read some more. Please?

bibliobibuli said...

*blush* thank you guys for kind words. it was odd being back in that time and place again, looking back at myself. yeah, might use it for fiction, but i've forgotten so much i would have to invent a whole lot.

sympozium said...

I have a title for you: not To Sir With Love, but rather, given the anger and rage, To Hell With Sir!

Anonymous said...

Junglebunny. I like that :D

Yeah you hsould write a book :D

Adam said...


I work 13 hrs a day and most of the time when I sit in front of my PC at the end of the day, checking my RSS reader, I usually doze off. But I was really engrossed when I read your post. Your story 'Zepheniah and Me' makes my heart sank. I remember how rebellious I was when I was in school and wrote a hate letter to my teacher. Many years later, I realised I had done a terrible mistake, so one day I went back to my school to say say sorry to her. That I meant no harm and regretted my mistake. Unfortunately, she passed away three years after I left school. Time takes away everything. I went to the library, sat on my favourite spot and cried.

bibliobibuli said...

adam - such a sad story. i had a student who had given me a very hard time when i was a teacher at mckk come up to me years later in central market and apologise and tell me how stupid he knew he'd been. that was good.

teachers have to make allowances and not take rejection too personally.

Antares said...

Engaging story, Sharon. Definitely worth fleshing out. Just goes to show: in every Adam you'll find the seed of a Zephaniah!
However, I'm also reminded that Singapore actually banned one of Pink Floyd's biggest hits, "Another Brick In The Wall." Perhaps the real problem is SCHOOLS... and the mass indoctrination programme they serve. ("The kids are all right!" - The Who)

bibliobibuli said...

anatares - as a teacher of many years experience ... to a large extent i agree with you!

i used to have a housemate called scouse ('cos he ws from liverpool) who sang 'another brick in the wall' at me every time i saw him! didn't exactly boost my confidence as a much-beleaguered novice teacher!

Anonymous said...

Makes you wonder whether Enid Blyton's England really did exist at one time, doesn't it ?

bibliobibuli said...

it was never my england, anon, though i lived in hope of finding it.

Gabriela Sellart said...

Sharon, I live in Buenos Aires, Argentina and I teach English as a foreign language. I discovered you blog while looking for real people talking about B Zephaniah's performances.
I loved your story, appealing and honest narrative. It could have taken place in many schools here in my country. The same lack of support from authorities, the same lack of prospects for the students, the same lack of understanding from some of the teachers. Where kids direct their anger to is the question.
I've read your blog on poetry as well, and found you posted Mending Wall, one of my favourite poems by one of my favourite poets. I will be reading puisi-poesy, too