The liberating rollercoaster

I do not expect this blog to be read by others necessarily. It serves as a tool for me to unpick the sadness I feel at a difficult time in the early years sector, but also how this is situated within the university sector. If you are interested in my slightly mad meanderings read on…

In 2003 I embarked on a course that was to change all aspects of my life for ever. I had applied for a place on the first ever Foundation Degree (FDA) Early Years Care and Education at a university in the south of England, and been accepted. I was excited and scared in equal measures. Surely at 41 I was too old to be starting university, surely I wasn’t worthy or capable enough?

Family circumstances had scuppered my later school life in the late 1970’s, and I messed up my A’ levels big time. I had never seen myself as university material. I was one of the only black kids in a predominantly white school and although I was encouraged by many of my teachers, and my parents wanted me to succeed in my education, my self-belief was rock-bottom. For many years I did not understand the reasons for my lack of self-belief but this is written with that wonderful reflective tool of ‘hindsight’.

I can’t say we were poor: we always had food, a home, and clean clothes (often provided by the use of catalogues and clubs which put off the payments) – but we were working class, and definitely different with a very white dad, and a very black mum in a very small rural village. The only blacks in the village…

I had attended a Primary school where there were 3 black kids: me, my sister and a girl from the local children’s home. My overriding memory of my first day is of me, my pigtails, downcast eyes and wet legs, standing in a puddle of my own making, with a teacher standing over me saying just one word: “typical”. That same teacher was mean to the other kids too – and a ruler on the back of the hand was her first port of call when we did anything to displease her – however I took it personally, as a nod to my difference and confirmation of the names I was called by some of my peers, and significantly that I wasn’t worthy.

It is a hard hard thing to be in the minority, to walk into a new situation and stand out from the crowd because of the colour of your skin; to look around the sea of white faces to think ‘friend or foe?’, ‘advocate or judge?’ I was a joker and laugher, a big-faced smiler, and the forward-thinking comprehensive school staff provided me with opportunities to be a singer and actor. When I stood on the stage I could be someone else, it gave me the skills to put on the mask and pretend that I actually was someone – underneath this veneer still crouched the only black kid on the stage and one who didn’t think she was worthy. Following my final performance in the school musical a quite famous actor approached one of my teachers offering to put me forward for a place at an acting school. I laughed at it (the joker emerging) and declined – I was far too scared and felt too vulnerable to take the risk of the mask being stripped and being branded again as the unworthy one.

Roll on to 2003. I was a wife and mother. Following a short stint in an office and the birth of my daughter in 1987 I had drifted into working in Pre-school settings for convenience initially, and later into the most rewarding job of my life as a support worker in a service for children with special educational needs and their families. Convenience shifted quickly to enjoyment. I had found my passion and my gift. I was fascinated by young children and their learning and development. I loved to interact with them and held a deep respect for their cleverness. I had a commented-upon talent for being a play partner. I found the innocent questions “why is your skin brown?” or the rubbing of their little fingers on my brown ones to see the effect, cathartic. My love for them, and theirs for me was a healthy tangible nail in the coffin of difference and division. But I digress…perhaps food for a different blog…

I had taken professional courses to provide me with the necessary qualifications to do my job, and many, many day courses for professional development, but by 2003 I had questions that remained unanswered and a thirst for further knowledge. I had read about new early years Foundation Degrees in ‘Nursery World’ and without thinking too much applied to a university. As a pilot course it was free, what was there to lose?

On the interview day the mask went on, and as usual the joker and laugher persona was paraded. The interviewers were amazing…they began the job of prising off the mask and looking beyond the fool. It didn’t matter to them the colour of my skin, or my age, or the fact that I’d flunked my A levels. They wanted to know about my experience and current knowledge of working with young children; did I have that ‘spark’ and a quest for understanding and new learning. Their acceptance of me onto the course was enough to begin that peeling back; they believed in me, and that was enough to start.

Part time, work-based learning is a roller-coaster. I cannot say it was an easy ride. The balancing of family life, work life and academic life becomes an all-consuming super-hero type mission. There are times when I wanted to stop; when family and work tragedy hit and an assignment was due or when the grade I’d expected or the perceived negative feedback I’d received forced the mask to go on and the joker to be reapplied… “I am not worthy, I am not worthy”. There were times when the laughing and joking self-sabotaged my learning. However, those wonderful tutors grabbed a hold of my hand, and pulled me back onto the roller-coaster ride with reassurances that I was capable and I could be successful. They had the knowledge and skill of making tricky concepts and theories real, by applying them to real work experiences. They stripped away the inaccessible language of academia, to reveal the accessible underneath and in doing so made higher education the inclusive, liberating experience it should truly be. 

I emerged at the end of the 2.5 years clutching a FDA certificate with metaphorical sick-bag in hand because of that dizzying ride. My work-based practice had been enhanced most notably because of the skills of true reflection that l had learned. Those wonderful tutors had not quite stripped the mask completely – I did not attend my graduation event. The little voices (“you are not worthy”) and that picture of the little girl standing in the puddle (“typical”) remained. In my head it was ‘only’ a FDA despite the hard work and achievement. I was pleased, but not proud. This time the tutors stood behind and pushed, convincing me that I should apply for the short-track top-up for a full honours degree because I was definitely worthy. It was extremely tough, but truly liberating. I found my voice (however small), and a confidence that not only could I walk the walk, but I could actually, unbelievably, talk the talk. I could put theory to practice. I could answer some of the ‘whys’ I had when I started in higher education and I was armed with tools that gave me the means to provide possible answers to the questions I knew I would have in the future. 

I tickled that little girl in the puddle, and gave her a hug. She wasn’t gone and never will be – but at last I acknowledged she was there. I had spent my life trying to be strong and resilient with a smile on my face whilst being made to feel negative about the fact that I was different because of my colour. I had been told by family, by neighbours, by school, by media that if I voiced this ‘negativity’ that I was using it as an excuse, I was crying racism when it wasn’t there. Thus I had developed a habit of self-deprecation and an ostrich-like mentality to pretend there was nothing wrong. University education helped me recognise unconscious bias and the toxic effects of this on those who are atypical. It gave me a life-affirming, professional-affirming, self-affirming lift that would not have been available had it not been for a free part-time work-based course. Widening-participation is only possible when people are invested in; making the inaccessible, accessible. When that is provided it opens the door to social justice.

I attended my BA graduation for that little girl in the puddle of her own making, but also for those other non-traditional students like me who are trying to still the voices “I am not worthy”. I attended as a nod to those wonderful tutors who gave me an opportunity that changed my life…

Tutors whose shoulders I stand on today, in the same university position that they inhabited, in my small attempt to give a hug to those little children, now adults, who have been made to feel “I am not worthy”. We are in danger of that being lost, and I feel bereft and culpable. 

In danger of this post already being far too long, another blog post awaits and the meanderings continue…

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