Friday, 14 June 2013

How to make the world a better place...


I'm 70 years old now...

As I child I was badly bullied, and still remember the names of the two worst ones (one in primary and one in secondary school).

Post university, I fell into secondary school teaching by accident:  I needed a part-time job to fund the fourth year of an overlong Ph.D. and found a school that needed a part-time teacher academically qualified to teach ‘A’ level English (you didn’t need a PGCE in those days). 
I arrived for my interview during morning break, when the playground was full of children.  The sight of them stopped me in my tracks.  Tears came pouring from a well so deep I found I could hardly breathe...

I sobbed my way all round the block before I could pull myself together enough to get beyond the school gate.  Had the children still been out there, I might not have managed it even then.

That was 1967 - 45 years ago: my “Road-to-Damascus” moment.  The Ph.D. on Chaucer’s poetic uses of his native vocabulary was never finished.  By 1979 I was Head of Clissold Park School in that part of Hackney in East London labelled the most stressful social services area in the U.K.  On my second day the male head of the Design and Technology Department arrived at my office holding a rebellious child by the arm.  “I’ve come for the punishment book,” he said.  “I’m going to cane this boy...”

I told the child to sit outside, invited the fuming teacher into my office and shut the door.  “No, you’re not...” I said quietly, and we went from there...

My assemblies regularly reminded everyone that school should be a place where noone was ever afraid: no teacher, and no child.  It was my job to ensure that was as true as I could make it.  I offered everyone protection from any kind of bullying: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, anywhere in the world.

“We’re all here to teach and learn from each other,” I said, “...and we can’t do that properly if we’re scared.  So if ever you feel afraid of anyone or anything for any reason, all you have to do is to tell me and then it won’t be your problem anymore: because I will sort it.  Do me one big favour: TRUST ME - then you’ll know.”

And as far as I know, for the most part they did: for the next 14 years, many nervous, quirky, odd, bright, borderline autistic, overweight or anorexic (and increasingly “middle-class”) children told me how grateful they were to feel safe and happy in school.  It was a rainbow community of different cultures and religions: 56% on free school meals, 27 languages spoken as mother tongues...

In 1982, Clissold Park was amalgamated with Woodberry Down to become Stoke Newington School.  I was its first head, and came more profoundly to understand the concept of letting yourself be crucified for the sins of a situation:  2,000 children and 2 traumatised, amalgamating staffs in 2 buildings 1 mile and several cultures wide apart...

Shortly after my appointment, I was walking the corridors of the Woodberry Down building.  It was five minutes after the start of the afternoon session, and I came across a group of assorted, hard-faced lads with “boyz in da hood” written all over them.  “Good afternoon, Gentlemen,” I said, “...shouldn’t you be in a lesson?”

They looked me up and down.  “You fink you run this place, don’tcha,” their self-elected spokesperson replied.  “You don’t run it.  WE fuckin’ run it...” (I’d heard the rumours: protection rackets, indecent assaults on girls, pupil riots occasionally spilling out into the surrounding estate, ineffective senior management strategies for dealing with it all – beyond the operation they called “flushing out”: when coordinated teams of staff efficiently drove all children out of the building, whatever the weather)

“I’ll tell you what,” I said to them, “let’s all stick around for the next few weeks, and we’ll find out who fucking runs it.”  I said it with a smile, and I think they thought that was fair enough.  One year and thirteen unavoidable expulsions later, there was no longer any doubt who ran it:  I took it back, and a thousand children were safer because of it.

Of course this is a single person’s point of view, and others may well have seen things differently; but I’ve told it this way because it’s how it was for me, and it focuses on my lifelong detestation of bullying in all its forms. 

Three years ago – having at last the strength and will and cause and means – I began a very long story in the Harry Potter genre about a group of children with special powers charged with an awesome responsibility: to make the world a better place.  I hope that anyone who has ever been bullied will want to follow it as it unfolds.  You won’t be surprised to learn that my heroes and heroines are very good at counteracting cruelty.  "The quality of mercy is not strained..."

The first five books are in the Amazon Kindle Store at 99p each.  Please visit to find out more.  There’s a link to a video on the homepage, which tells you what you can do if you’d like to help: because this is only where the story starts.  There’s also a Contact Me button: I’m always interested in what you have to say.

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