That BBC programme, the documentary, Subnormal: A British scandal brought it all back, the disparity between black and white children in the education system. It showed how the British Government systematically destroyed black children for over six decades by sending them unnecessarily to ESN (Educationally Sub-Normal) schools. After watching it I soon wished I hadn’t bothered as it brought back a rush of bad memories of school days, not just for me but for many out there.
Although I never went to any of those ESN schools, I did know someone who was sent to one. One minute they were in school and the next, as if by magic had disappeared. erased without a trace. At registration, their name was never mentioned again, deleted. I couldn’t understand why, as when we visited them on special occasions, e.g., school fetes, this person appeared to look and behave the most normal among the others who were there. They were boarded out and felt isolated and alone. Believe me, they could tell a story or two about the nuns, who were supposed to be their guardians whilst living at the convent.
Although my story was not as painful as some, it was disheartening, and being young and full of hope… Well… This is my story…
I remember I couldn’t wait to tell the careers officer of my hopes and dreams. It was a Thursday, a dismal day, and my appointment was for 2.45pm. I didn’t have an umbrella; the heavens opened mercilessly. The wind seemed to blow every raindrop my way. There was no pitter-patter; it was as though I was standing under a force fuelled power shower aimed directly at me.
What should have been a quick 10-minute walk from school to the career’s office at the town hall in the square seemed a day’s trek. I was soaked through by the time I arrived. As I entered the building, I could hear the squelching of my water-soaked black leather Clarks shoes. I did however make it on time for my appointment. I was directed to sit outside the career’s officer’s door. The hallway was in dire need of a makeover; a lick of paint might have made it look more welcoming, but I was not there to revamp that old building.
I sat down shivering and took my book with my plans out of my case and placed the ugly briefcase (what were my parents thinking? I hated that case with a passion), on the floor. I waited for just over five minutes and was called in. I stood up, fixed my now soaked skirt as best I could, grabbed my case and, holding my book with pride, I took a deep breath and walked in with a bounce in my step hopeful and full of vigour. She introduced herself, and reminded me of my days, Ms Trunchbull, for the life of me I cannot remember her name. We shook hands and she waved me to the chair to sit down.
We discussed my grades and she asked me where I saw myself in the future. It was my time to shine; I felt myself soaring to a great height. I told her of my aspirations, and that I wanted to become a cat vet; they were my favourite animals, and I really couldn’t see myself giving a rat the kiss of life. Once, qualified I wanted to open and run my own cat motel. I would name it MEOW MOTEL. It would be a boarding house for cats to stay whilst their owners were away on holiday, with pamper parlours and all.
What took me by surprise was the way she held her head down, and amid it all broke out in laughter. ‘Really?’ she said gleefully. ‘I think you would be better suited to working at the local supermarket. ’ I could hear the gavel come down and the smashing of china as my dreams were shattered into tiny pieces. It was like the piercing of a balloon as the air escaped with that hissing sound. My aspirations dissipated into thin air. I held my head down, staring under the table for the puddle I’m sure she’d have left after wetting herself with laughter. I did not know I had gone there for entertainment purposes. I left the building with tears streaming down my face and thanking the fellow upstairs for the rain that washed them away. And that, my dear, was the be-all and end-all of my less than 10 minutes with a careers officer.
I spoke to many of the black girls afterwards, to find they were more of less told the same thing. None of us boys or girls were ever encouraged to become lawyers, judges, barristers, accountants etc. Anything that required a degree or further education we were not put forward for, as they believed we would never make the grade. ‘They’d see to that…’ Everything we ever wanted to achieve, we had to work twice as hard or more for and are doing so today.
I went on to college and became a dental nurse. It was a far cry from what I had wanted. However, I enjoyed my job and interacting with people. My book with my plans I still have, and every so often I think about it.
Although the programme was disheartening in parts, it also showed how some came back from the brinks of despair and went on to get their degrees and get their PHDs. Others went on to become teachers, social workers, authors, business owners, Justices of the peace, MPs, to name but a few professions. Some still carry the shame today and wouldn’t tell a living soul about their ordeal. It was good to learn that some of them didn’t let what happened define them.
Although raking up bad memories, it’s now showing black parents that they should pay more attention to what’s happening to their children in the school system, as these things went over our parents’ heads, and they felt they didn’t have a say.
You have voices… Stand up for your children and be heard. Open your eyes to the bigger picture. Just be aware.