For the first time, I am actually writing this blog from my school office. It is very late in the afternoon and the children have all departed. Several of the staff are still pottering about, putting the finishing touches to the day’s work. I still have an evening meeting to attend at a neighbouring school so I am consoling myself that my day is at least 75% finished.
My current school stands at the end of a crowded side street in the poorest area of London. You will be hard pressed to find to find three neighbouring buildings that pre-date World War II. The Blitz left this neighbourhood, and the next one to the south, and the next one, all the way down to the London docks: completely obliterated. It was the days before smart bombs and the WWII vintage explosives fell indiscriminately, destroying one side of the street but not the other; the neighbour’s house but not your own. Rows of Victorian houses; two rooms downstairs, two rooms up, suddenly halt and yield to a vast empty space. These are the places where one can deduce a Nazi bomb fell 70 years ago.
The bomb sites remained for decades. When the debris was finally cleared for the great social housing projects of the 1960s and 70s, strings of cramped, poorly constructed houses sprung up between here and the River Thames two miles away. The housing was meant to have been temporary, a quick fix solution. Yet they continue to provide shelter for immigrant London; despite the rotting window frames and crumbling brickwork. The sound of Cockney English within replaced down the years by Bengali, Urdu, Bosnian, Lithuanian, Pashto.
The school itself resembles a medical centre. In fact I have nicknamed it The Dentists’ Office. It is not uncommon for local folk, new to the neighbourhood to turn up at our door requesting to register with the doctor. The few remaining older souls remember this site as the local coal yard and talk of the stream that ran through what is now our Sports Hall.
Drug abuse is rife. Each morning I walk the alleyways around the site, the rat-runs that serve as the children’s path to school; collecting discarded syringes in a big medical box. Side-stepping dog mess, beer cans, abandoned mattresses and cigarette ends.
My office is a glass box; horrendous for privacy but it affords me a great view of the main gates and acts as a deterrent for any colleagues wishing to sneak off early. The gates are a frontier. They are our border with the rest of the world. Inside them are order and ambition, safety and the promise of a better life through education. Outside, education means little. Outside the individual is judged by who has the most tint on their car windows, who has the most bling, whose trousers ride the lowest.
I tell the children and parents that the city streets stop at the school gates. Inside the gates our rules apply. Our aim is to create a refuge, a haven. We try to bring order to the lives of children who in some cases have swapped the killing fields of Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan for a pseudo-gangsta culture of the East End.
On the whole, it works from Monday to Friday. The gates electronically close once the children are in and the school day begins with its familiar timetabling, dependable meals on the table, reliable adults to nurture young minds. These children thrive on the regimentation.
But the weekends are different. With the site abandoned, the gates are breached. Faceless intruders storm this castle, climbing onto the roof, kicking in windows, destroying playground equipment. Like the jungle reclaiming ancient ruins, the nightmarish Blitz reappears to stake its claim to this plot.
I am one who looks for messages in everyday things. I look for the poetry that the world tries to communicate to us. Outside my office window, my entire left field of vision is filled with a giant rose bush. Its thorns stab at my window, tapping out warnings. Yet, atop each gnarled branch grows a large and fragrant flower, its deep red colours in contrast to the gates’ industrial green. If I hold my head at certain angle I can view the entire world through the leaves and buds. I can imagine that my jungle is reclaiming the streets outside the gates.
Keep the Faith,