Yesterday, I left Park View, the school in Tottenham where I’ve worked for the past 14.5 years. At the end of each term, once the students have gone home, the staff gather to eat a farewell meal together and to say goodbye to colleagues that are leaving. I was lucky enough to have four of my former students come to say goodbye, and was the recipient of some beautiful farewell speeches on my behalf. Some of my friends have asked to see the speech I gave at the end of the event, so here it is…
Thank you Elsa, Peter and Paul. Thank you Anna, Thai and Jumayn for your kind words, and to Daniel for coming in today to help me say goodbye. To staff who don’t know these former students, a few introductions: Anna’s a Park View legend who played the lead in our 2009 production of Romeo & Juliet before going to Cambridge University. Thai was Park View’s first ever A* Drama student; she used to live on the road next to mine in Dalston, and we used to ride the bus in together; you may not know this, Thai, but those early morning bus conversations eased me out of many a hangover, so thank you. Daniel provided the musical and emotional centre of our Edinburgh Festival production of Lost Boy; and Jumayn is now a successful professional actor who’s worked with Michael Fassbaender, Jude Law and Dame Maggie Smith, to name but a few. I came to Park View to teach, but I leave here having learnt more from you and all my wonderful students than I could possibly have imagined.
I’m feeling a rollercoaster of emotions right now, but whatever comes out of my mouth over the next few minutes, I’ve got nothing but love in my heart for each and every person in this room. Whether we worked together closely or were just ships in the night, whether we’ve been friends, enemies, or a bit of both, it’s all been part of the wonderful tapestry of my time here at Park View. Thank you all.
I want to talk a little bit about what things were like when I came here. It was July 7th 2001. We had a Labour government, so they paid Newly Qualified Teachers over the summer. Hear’Say were number one with The Way to Your Love. Brian Dowling was about to win Big Brother 2. My mobile phone was the size of a brick and could only hold ten text messages. It wasn’t even advanced enough to play Snake.
I’d chosen Park View because I wanted to work in a challenging school for a couple of years while I was still young. It’s testament to the magic of this place that I’m only leaving now. The GCSE A*-C percentage was in the low teens. I’ll never forget my first day, seeing a girl smashing a boy’s head repeatedly against what was then a brick wall where the Hall is. The street running through the school looked completely different. There was no roof, and no proper floor; it was a muddy mess. There was no on-call, no Terry Rowe and no security.
People would just roam in off the street and there was nothing you could do about it. I remember one time, I was teaching a Year 8 class, when two young men entered the cloakroom outside the classroom and began going through the pockets of the coats hanging there, taking the lunch money they found. Understandably, the students in my class were upset so I went outside to see what I could do.
“Excuse me, sir”, I said. “The students in there are a little nervous about you being here in the cloakroom. Would you mind moving on?”
The young man towered over me. He took his hand out of the coat he was rifling through and a took a drag on his spliff, blowing the smoke in my face. “You’re a teacher, aren’t you?” he said. It was not a question.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Then do your fucking job, man, and teach,” he yelled. There was nothing I could do but go back to the classroom and try to console the robbed students. These were the conditions we worked in.
There was serious racial tension between the black students and the Turkish/ Kurdish students, so much so that at times it felt like it couldn’t be overcome. Next time you’re having a tough day, just take a moment to remind yourself of how far this school has already come. This school may face challenges, but I firmly believe that if you engage positively with our students and the community, they can be conquered.
In spite of, or perhaps because of all this, it was a wonderful place to work. It really was. I say that, because, with so much being wrong it was so easy to see results when you put things right. Progress could be as simple as a smile from a student who’d enjoyed part of your lesson. My Newly Qualified Teachers in Park View right now, hold tight. I was an NQT here and it gets better after Christmas. In this place, it’s all about relationships.
I firmly believe that the Drama department in those early days was instrumental in helping turn this school around, along with the basketball team; more of that later. We helped the students develop self esteem; they found something they were good at beyond being the toughest kids on the block. I remember launching our production of West Side Story by saying “With West Side we’re gonna bring the West End to West Green.” We chose that show because it was so close to the bone; we used it to explore the issues of racial tension and start a dialogue. It was an amazing production and a foundation stone for the community here to build on. Proof that at Park View we could work together.
I’m going to take a moment now to talk about Joe White. Joe had a big impact on me, though I’m not sure if he knew it. Joe was the basketball coach at Park View when I started. Drama was part of the Arts, Sport and Leisure faculty with Music and PE, so I saw a lot of Joe. He was a giant of a man with an even bigger smile; the original Coach Carter. Joe took some of the most behaviourally challenging, emotionally damaged young people in the school and taught them the values of discipline, structure and team work. His whole ethos was that if he got these kids in for training at 7 in the morning, and kept them training after school till 9 or 10 at night, they’d be too tired to get caught up in the gang lifestyle. He transformed them, he inspired me, and he showed me that teaching can be a vocation. Sadly, Joe got very sick and he wasn’t able to be in school for a number of months.
One day, I was in school and this person I didn’t recognise was beaming at me and walking towards me. I looked behind me, thinking he must be looking at someone else, and then suddenly I knew who it was. Joe. His illness and made him coat-hanger thin; his clothes just hung off him; in spite of all the pain he must have been going through he didn’t speak about that for a moment; he just wanted to tell me how proud he was of how I’d grown as a teacher in the time he’d been away. Joe died shortly after. He was the same age I am now.
Joe’s death had an incredible impact on those he left behind. Ben Smart took over coaching the girls’ and boys’ basketball teams, and they kept Joe’s spirit alive. Before every match they would get in a huddle, do the team talk, and then they’d put their hands in the middle, make eye contact with each other and say “Joe White”. It’s little wonder they became national champions and we even had players representing the national team. Thank you, Joe, for all you did to transform this school.
Over the years there have been so many highs; great productions of Macbeth, Guys & Dolls and Oliver! Most recently I’m unbelievably proud of our students for their beautiful handling of Shakespearean verse in The Merchant of Venice. And of course there was our Edinburgh production of Lost Boy.
Lost Boy told the story of Tunde Jaji, a former Park View student who’d been a trafficked child, and who had overcome terrible obstacles to pursue his dream of becoming an animator. We took a small cast up to the Edinburgh Festival and they stayed in a university Hall of Residence, performing the show in the evenings and exploring the city by day. It was a life changing experience. One member of that cast was Bryony Bonekyn, who sadly died this summer.
Bryony’s passing upset me deeply. She was a wonderful student, a dream in the classroom, but even in dying I have to thank her. Because Bryony’s death woke my head up to what my heart had been saying for some time- which was- you’ve given enough to Park View- it’s time to give something to yourself. Life is short, and we need to seize the opportunity to get every last drop out of it. So that’s what I intend to do.
I leave here not to go to another school, but to take some time out to rest, travel and explore other passions. I’m currently involved in a piece of community theatre which will be performed at the Arcola Theatre in February. I’m also going to take time out to work on my writing; this year my blog was nominated for blog of the year at The Running Awards, and I’m working on a play and a children’s story. I’m going to run the Berlin Marathon in September, and in the spring I’m going to follow Bryony’s example and explore Japan. From there, let the winds take me where they will.
Look after the school in my absence. This is such a wonderful place. I’m very lucky to have worked here. And, although sometimes, it might not seem that way, so are all of you.
To quote Gratiano from The Merchant of Venice, “I wish you all the joy that you can wish”. And so, I take my leave.