Shattered Dreams

Valerie Marquez

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.

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  1. I really enjoyed this article. It speaks the truth about what happened to so many black students. At the same time it was very entertaining. The audience got a real feel of how you were affected by this injustice.

  2. Good article. I hope it grabs the attention of current teachers and parents.

    Interesting to get a glimpse of someone else’s experience of the mid-century schools system – which was pretty disfunctional from my point of view too. Education, it wasn’t.

    Any misfit was liable to be classified ESN. There was no colour prejudice in Cornwall as we were all white, but the children of comers-in had a hard time.

    I remember my careers guidance interview; boys who hadn’t got university places were directed to the armed forces, or the church, or teaching. Secondary modern boys were directed to the dockyard too, but that was beneath us grammar school victims.

    It’s fortunate that kids are mostly pretty resilient.

  3. Thank you for your response, I’m pleased you enjoyed the read, and recognised the injustice done.

  4. Very powerful and moving article. Thank you Valerie. I hope it helps to encourage parents to pay close attention to what is going on with their children in schools.

  5. Thank you Jean, I can only hope too, that today’s parents, regardless of colour pay attention to what is going on in school with their children. They need to speak up and be counted.

  6. This article, is profoundly clear and mirrors the experience of many black students secondary school experience. Parents put their trust into educators who evidently abused it.

    As a teacher myself, high expectations is an essential to encourage students to reach their full potential. Unfortunately the white privilege many teachers hold disadvantages those students that who have the potential to achieve and make their contribution to the world.

    In this current climate we must ensure that Black Lives Matter as much as any others.

    It is time to actively decolonise the curriculum, the minds of the policy makers and educators that deliver education to students.

    These stories and experiences are uncomfortable truths and in my experience surface as a tick box exercise in reactionary ‘one off’ racial awareness training. Instead of ongoing training that would be better served in inset days throughout the school year.

    To truly impact change and tackle these inequalities we must have measures in place to monitor, frequently review and track the aspirations and attainment in our students.

    1. Karen, you have raised some valid points…I hope that others reading your comments will/can take something from it, or at least open their eyes to what’s going on with their children.
      Until we have more BAME people on the board of governors, directors, headmasters/mistresses, there will be little or no change.
      We need more teachers like you, that are willing to put in the efforts to help those young black children to achieve their goals. Thank you for your contribution.

  7. This article reflected our experience of Careers Officers of the time. They smashed our dreams and Hope’s never giving us the advise we needed. Directing us into unskilled rolls.

    I felt Valerie’s pain in the article it made me feel emotional.

    I am currently reading ‘How the West Indian Child is made educationally sub-normal in the British school system’ by Bernard Coard. Like the article it talks about the number of Black children sent to ESN schools and assessed as educationally sub normal, the system was stacked against us.

    I am currently reading ‘How the West Indian Child is made educationally sub-normal in the British school system’ Like the article it talks about the number of Black children sent to ESN schools and assessed as educationally sub normal, the system was stacked against us.

    If it hadn’t been for the support of my parents I wouldn’t have fulfilled my ambition.

    Our children are again being failed by the system Black children are more likely to be excluded from class or school they are also more likely to be referred to a Pupil Referral Unit they may then never return to main stream education

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