Many of you have heard this story before (maybe a few of you were even there, in which case a big hello) but I’ve been thinking about it again over the last week.
In 2002 I started working at a school for young people with social emotional and behavioural difficulties. I was a (relatively) polite and (a bit) shy twenty something. Although I’d worked in some tough jobs before and I was excited about this new challenge, the behaviour that I encountered in the first week shocked and saddened me and I honestly wasn’t sure if I’d bitten off more than I could chew. So I did what any sensible woman would do in the circumstances…this statement is loaded with irony…I went shopping and bought myself a new skirt.
The next day I wore my new (long, red, Indian style) skirt into work to cheer myself up. The first person I met at the school gate was a 13 year old lad who was a student at the school. He looked me up and he looked me down and he said “What the fuck do you think you look like? You look like a fucking prostitute.”
After muttering some ineffectual response, I went and sat in the staff room with my head in my hands, tears in my eyes. The then Depute Head of the school came in and asked me what was wrong and I told her what had happened. Her response was unexpected. She laughed and said “It’s a compliment really. He noticed what you are wearing.”
At the time I was upset. I wanted sympathy. I had been insulted. I think I probably went to the pub and had a good moan. I definitely considered quitting the job early on and probably would have done if it wasn’t for some very supportive colleagues. But over the 4 years I worked as a youth worker and family support worker at the school I came to realise the truth and wisdom in those words. Many of the young people I worked with didn’t have the skills to communicate their message even on the rare occasions that they had the self awareness to realise what that message was.
The range of social and personal problems that I saw children and teenagers dealing with when I was working in that job, and across my community education career, was wide and deep. Easy blame for many of these problems could be (and was at times by me) placed on their families, but it is worth recalling Larkin’s famous reminder that “they were fucked up in their turn”. Nothing is simple.
Our job (myself and a colleague) was to find positive ways for the students at the school to express what they needed to express and to affect change in their own lives and in their school community. Sometimes we were successful, often we were not because we were fighting against too many barriers. Still, call me naive, but I genuinely believe that it is important to have someone in your corner trying to understand where you are coming from. I have so much respect for friends and colleagues who are still working in similar environments. There were many things and people (young people and staff) that I loved about that job. And many things that I found difficult and frustrating and saddening.
I tell that story partly because it’s been on my mind, partly to suggest that the surface explanation isn’t always the full one and partly to demonstrate that I have a tiny bit of experience of working with young people whose behaviour is shockingly different to what I consider acceptable. I could tell you many other similar and more extreme stories. It is, however, worth pointing out that while sometimes they engaged in unacceptable behaviour, at other times they were funny, shy, angry, kind, scared, excitable, worried or confused and out of their depth….’they’ are human beings after all. And acknowleging that does not make unacceptable behaviour any more acceptable.
The current situation in England has upset me. The actual riots have upset me hugely, but so have the reactions that I’ve seen in the media and on facebook. I’ve been debating with myself about whether to write about it or not, but in the end I needed to for selfish reasons. I’m a long way away from home, I’m trying to make some sense of what is going on and I need to express some anger in a controlled manner. So below are a few random observations. There is a lot more I could say but I’ve decided to limit my comments mostly to people’s knee-jerk reactions to the riots and particularly the rioters.
1. There is a difference between the futile process of making excuses and the vital process of (trying to) understand reasons. I am so fed up of people not understanding this difference. Looting is not ok and cannot be excused. Understanding why people do it is necessary if we want to change anything. Engaging in debate about reasons does not suggest that a person condones rioting or looting.
Similarly, just because I want to try to understand reasons doesn’t mean that I don’t think people should face the legal consequences of their actions.
It is possible to understand something and not like it.
2. Just because individuals don’t express a political agenda for their actions doesn’t mean the reasons behind the actions aren’t political. Are you always 100% aware of your reasons for doing the things you do? You have never directed your anger about one thing at something else? And you can always express your deepest agenda articulately? If so, I have the utmost respect and I hope you are very grateful for your life. I suspect that most of us (and most of the rioters and looters) do not fit into this exclusive group. I would like to understand why people do the things they do and are the way they are and I happen to think these reasons are almost always political. That said, my definition of political might be broader than yours.
There is better writing than anything I could do that reflects my politics and my beliefs about what the reasons might be and if you are interested you might want to check out this link (including the comments) or this link. However, I hope that some of the things I am saying make sense even if you completely disagree with my politics.
3. Calling other human beings scum is, in my humble opinion, rarely useful. Sometimes satisfying yes (I’m definitely not claiming never to have done it) and if your home or business was destroyed in the riots then completely understandable. But useful? Especially when we are talking about such large numbers of people; even if it were preferable it just wouldn’t be possible to scrape everyone involved in the riots off the surface of society and drop them into prisons.
Yes, I appreciate that many people who have difficult lives did not go out and riot. If you are one of those people I respect you and I’m interested in how you developed the ability to make that decision (which may or may not have felt like a conscious decision depending on your circumstances). But people’s lives are messy and complex and contradictory. Some people rioted, some people didn’t. Stop feeling smugly judgemental and try to really understand the differences in order to move forward.
I really appreciated Russell Brand’s appeal to us to take heed of Ghandi’s famous words and “be the change that we want to see in the world”. I believe that we have an ethical responsibility to do good stuff not only not to do bad stuff. I think we all have a responsibility in this to build the sorts of communities we want where people feel included and supported, and in turn where people include and support. There isn’t such a clear ‘them and us’ as we might like to believe.
Idealistic? Well maybe – but I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing.
4. On a personal level the sadness and anger that I’ve been feeling has sparked a bit of an existential crisis. There are social problems that need to be addressed – was it really selfish of me to leave that field of work? Or is that just egotistical of me to think I could make any difference? And I’ve wondered, in the face of this sadness and anger, if the people who say that studying happiness is meaningless are right. But one phrase keeps going round in my head. ‘Happy people don’t riot.’ Simplistic, yes. I’m sure that many of the rioters and looters thought that either the act of rioting or the loot that they acquired would make them happy. I wonder if it did? It illustrates the complexities of trying to understand what we mean by happiness, but also the importance. I want to try to understand.