Tag Archives: Pakistan

The Condemnation

Condemned to Hell by a five year old: strike that one off the Bucket List, dear friends.

The playground at lunchtime is a market place. Children of varying ages compete for the attention of staff. Children, each in their own world, dragging their own personal baggage and level of need. Some hold tightly onto my arms. Others side step my gait, eager to get face to face in order to pass on the details of every injustice bestowed upon them by other children. Others want confirmation that I am, in fact human, asking questions that seem obvious but shows they cannot separate the Head Teacher from the person: “Do you have children? What are their names? Do you tell them off?”

The games I play with them are designed to include as many as possible in a short amount of time. The aim is for dozens rather than a few being able to make contact before the playground bell marks the return to classes. Even then, they trip over my size 11 Doc Martens (equally at home defying the diagnosis of the Diabetic clinic or exiting the playground) as they squeeze any remaining attention from the sponge. “How old are you? My gran is older than you.”

One little girl and one little boy are the first to approach me every afternoon. Both are five and keen to take part in the game of Monster Chase or Sticky Toffee we will play each day. The girl is quieter.

The boy is inquisitive. He is stocky and thickly built. His halting Urdu accent reflects he is second generation Pakistani British. He smiles incessantly, obviously loved and nurtured at home and safe enough in his school persona to ensure he will flourish in the next 6 years with us.

Today he danced alongside me as the children funnelled from their classrooms onto the playground. It was not my daughter’s ages or the name of our cat that he wanted answers to. “What religion are you?” he asked.

The suddenness and bluntness of his question caught me off guard. I stopped and stooped so to look him in face. I had an innate sense that this was an encounter he might remember when he was 20, 40 60 years old and I wanted to handle it correctly.

“I’m a Christian,” I said.

“You will go to Hell,” he blinked back.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because you don’t have my God,” he offered. “You are not Muslim so you will go to Hell.”

To witness someone so young indoctrinated and intolerant drew a sigh from deep inside my lungs as I said, “I think God loves everyone.”

The child, a five year old, shook his head to confirm my damnation.

By now the quiet girl had joined us. I knew her story well as I had been briefed before she had even started her first day at our school. Born in Kabul the young girl knew only war. The same was true of her parents before her and her grandparents before them. She joined us 8 months ago with no English, no writing. The Taliban had banned all girls from education so she spent her days holed up in her Kabul house playing games with her mother.

Eight months on; she speaks fluent English. She writes beautifully and frequently brings her work to my office to admire and discuss. She writes about life in London and how much better it is. She is joyful at the idea of going to school, of being free to walk down the street and feel her hair in the unseasonably cool July breeze.

She is my personal battle with the Taliban. She is one who got away from Afghanistan. She is the one we will save and teach to read and write and think freely without fear of judgement in the name of God. She is proof I will not go to Hell. 

 

Keep the Faith,

 

The Head 

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Frank Cannon

Dear readers of a certain vintage will remember Frank Cannon. Obese and heavy-breathing; he was the 1970’s TV detective who came out of the same stable as Colombo and McCloud. The programmes pretty much had inter-changeable plots with the only difference being that the detectives had varying eccentricities.

Cannon didn’t chase many criminals on foot. Bloated and red faced; he puffed and wheezed through episodes. I can’t remember if he had a side-kick but if he did, his right-hand-man would no doubt have been left holding a super-sized chocolate milkshake and family bucket of extra-crispy as Cannon slapped the cuffs on some crook and led him off to jail (stopping for a rest along the way of course).

The government informed schools last month that it was now our responsibility to find pupils lost in the system. This means that if a child is away from school for more than 10 days, we have to go to the family’s house and try to gather information on their whereabouts. I say we, but I mean I.

Our school is located in an area of severe economic and social deprivation. To venture into the neighbourhoods surrounding the school is risky. Drug abuse, muggings and general anti-social behaviour are rife. Add to this the fact that we are smack-dab-in-the-middle of what is widely known to be the most volatile fundamentalist Muslim population in the country means that I need to carefully consider which members of staff I assign to tasks such as visiting private residences. This new responsibility for the school, I decided, needed to be undertaken personally, by me, in the first few incidences.

And so I set off on foot yesterday afternoon, walking through the streets of this East London neighbourhood in search of four children who have not returned to school after the summer holidays.  Dressed in simple blue tie and a plain white shirt, my middle-aged gut bulging at the lower buttons, I thought of myself as Frank Cannon. Puffy eyed and swollen jawed;  I was in a Quinn Martin production, on the way to a stake-out.

Pakistani men sat in shop doorways slurping sweet tea through thick moustaches. They stared at the site of a portly white man, dressed like an accountant, passing them by. It was unusual in this part of town.  More than a few mumbled something in Urdu as I eclipsed the autumn sun from their tables and chairs.

Frank Cannon would have slammed a few against the wall, no doubt. He would have leaned in close, almost whispering in the ear of a jubba-clad tea drinker as he twisted the poor man’s arm high up his back. “I’m looking for four kids that haven’t turned up for school,” he’d splutter, “Word on the street is you might have seen them, my moustachio-ed friend.”

As it was, I walked past sweating and panting. The Urdu murmurings most likely were men telling each other that my physical state is what happens when you don’t eat halal. “See, Ibrahim, eat the pig and you end up looking like Frank Cannon.”

Half an hour later, I was truly tired. My feet hurt and my size 11 Doc Martens (remember dear readers- equally at home on the football pitch or looking for lost children dressed as a 1970’s detective) were heavy. I found the street on which the children were last known to have resided. To my dismay, I realised that the house numbers were very low at this end of the street but the address on the piece of paper in my hand was the upper 200’s. It would mean a further walk up the hump-back hill of avenue.

Coffee. I needed a coffee. Detectives on a stake-out always had a cup of coffee in a white foam cup in their hands. Actually detectives on a stake-out are always sat in a car while the side kick is in the shop buying a tray of food. The heroes will take one bite of the food before they spot the “perp” and will immediately throw the entire purchase out of the car window.

Frank Cannon doesn’t throw food out the window. Frank Cannon would scarf his cannoli and ask, “Are you going to finish that?”Frank Cannon would chase down the hoodlum with a Smith and Wesson in his left hand, licking the cream off the fingers of the right. Frank Cannon would finish his coffee and slurp the steamed milk from the inside of the plastic lid.

With the index finger of my Smith and Wesson hand I rang the bell at the children’s last known address. The button clicked with a spongy motion with no distant and inner signal coming from within the house. I pulled on the heavy flap of the letter box and banged it down several times to rouse the attention of anyone indoors. The place was quiet.

Frank Cannon would have though it too quiet. He would have gone around the back, to see if the occupants were attempting to leg it through a rear window. But I had a coffee to finish. I stood on the pavement outside the address and scrutinised the pages of the Intervention Guidelines for Locating Pupils Lost to the System. I turned to the HOME VISIT section and read silently, “If families fail to answer at home, agents of the school should check with neighbours and if possible friends to gain knowledge of the children’s’ whereabouts.”

Londoners are deeply suspicious of authority figures as a rule of thumb. An authority figure dressed like me, in a 99% Pakistani/Bengali neighbourhood was likely to raise double suspicions. People were NOT going to tell me anything, even if they did know any news about the family. Rather than knock on the door down the road I tried the letter box one more time. To my surprise , this time a young man in a jubba answered the door.

Frank Cannon would have asked him where the kids were. When the jubba-wearing youth didn’t answer, Cannon would have snapped a $20 bills in his powdered-sugar-covered fingers and say, “Perhaps Mr Jackson might jog your memory.” I felt inside my pocket: two £1 coins. Somehow I knew that jingling the coins in my hand and spluttering, “perhaps Queen Elizabeth will jog you memory” didn’t translate well.

But the youth needed no coercion. He answered my query as to whether he had seen the children with a question of his own, “Are you Old Bill?”  (Police for our American readers). “No, I just look like Frank Cannon,” I replied. Again, this was lost in translation.

Dismissing my quip as incomprehensible with the shake of his head, he tentatively offered, “They have gone away, Bruv. They have been away for some time. I think they went to Pakistan but didn’t say anything before they left.”

In the same instant he noticed my ID badge around my neck which confirmed I was not, in fact, Old Bill. His demeanour changed and his face brightened as he realised I was genuinely searching for the neighbour’s children. “I’ll tell them the school was looking for them, if I see them.”

As so I made the reverse trip through the tea houses, halal butchers and cheap international phone call centres of the neighbourhood and made my way back to school. ‘Another case for the files’ I said to myself as my afternoon as a fat American detective came to an end. I lit a cigarette as I walked. My memory tells me that Frank Cannon didn’t smoke and I needed to put distance between me and the mental image.

As I approached the school gates I looked down to adjust my plain neck tie. A small and singular spot of steamed milk had made an attempt at bringing pattern to the bland blue background. I lifted it to my lips and licked it clean. Frank would have liked it, it was his style. I spoke aloud in a deep, dramatic voice, “Tonight’s episode: The Absent Children.”

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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