Lessons Learned

Anya Cook, Higher Education Mentor, Newcastle College, UCU Branch Secretary, National Executive

*some names have been changed

Working with young people is challenging and tiring but it can also be rewarding; there is always something more that can be learned and I learn as much from them as I would hope they do from me.  The biggest rewards and sometimes the most important lessons come in the least obvious ways.

A lot of what we do in education is stretch comfort zones in order to learn.  Anything we might expect a student to do we should be prepared to do ourselves.   A couple of summers ago I was working with one of our high needs learners.  Alex* had no use of his limbs, had never been to the bathroom alone, could not feed or perform any basic function without assistance.  He had a sharp wit and skilled procrastination and he made me laugh, out loud, every day.  I was telling him about an event I had organised at which I had voluntarily put myself in a position far out of my comfort zone.  I don’t do classroom delivery, I cannot speak to a group without a script.  I was going to be hosting management, staff, community groups and council managers, presenting to them on ‘change’.  Alex said “I don’t know why you’re worrying Anya … on a scale of crapness … you’re not that crap”.

In that comment Alex gave me my opener; my audience laughed and I relaxed.  Speaking to a group isn’t where I feel most comfortable; I would much rather wield a fountain pen.  Each time I do it, I remember this young man, caught in the limits of his own body, and I push myself to do it – and I try not to worry that I am not good enough.  Like Alex said, there is worse and I am not the worst.

There was James*, hugely tall, highly intelligent, with a diagnosis of autism who spoke with a plum in his mouth.  James had a penchant for pornography, rectal routine and farm machinery.  Now here was a challenge in managing outburst and (often hilarious) comment to control the temperature in class.  It is simply not true that people with autism don’t have a sense of humour.  James was taken to the very heart of his peer group and he was incredibly and usually deliberately, funny.

When my middle-aged eyes required a prescription for reading glasses, James was the first to comment.  I asked if he thought they made me look more intelligent.  “Ah.  Well, Anya.”  Pinter Pause…  “It’s a good start.”  A lesson in never taking oneself too seriously.

Yosef* was an ultra-orthodox Jew with a diagnosis of autism and was the only person in his family to engage in an organisation outside of his community, which he did in order to access an education accessible to his complex needs.

Enrolled on a Level 1 vocational programme, Yosef was the only student in his class not from Newcastle’s West End.  He interpreted the world around him literally, he was deeply religious and thrived in the routine of his faith; the daily, weekly cycle of prayer and the annual calendar of festivals.

One lunchtime, during the Jewish festival of Sukkot, Yosef had disappeared and I found him collecting long branches to place over the top of the composting skips; his intention being to create his own tabernacle in which to eat his lunch and pray.  There was the time when having taken his own measurements for a plot he blurted them out in class for the teacher’s example on the board “6 metres and 66 centimetres” and couldn’t understand why the entire class was howling with laughter – not at him, never at him.   Yosef had never heard of the ‘mark of the beast’, for which I had to explain this tale from the New Testament, and he needed much reassurance that he hadn’t done anything wrong.  I loved working with Yosef and every day was a lesson in interpreting the ‘everyday’, for inclusion was a patient and daily obstacle race over unseen and unknown norms and values.

Danya I met on an ERASMUS training in Czechia.  She was 19, a hijab-wearing Muslim who had never left Palestine before.  In our pair we were tasked with describing an occasion when we had turned down a challenge.  I was too busy thinking of my example to listen to Danya’s.  What does that, in itself, say about me?   How could I tell her my example?  What would she know, she’s young, she hasn’t lived?  And then I did tell her.  I told her how this thing that had been asked of me I couldn’t do, I refused to do and how that decision had kept me awake at night worrying, that I was scared of the consequences for me and my then baby son, that I had cried about it, that I had been riddled with guilt for some time for not having reached out to someone in real need.  “You shouldn’t feel guilty.  But look what’s happened.  Look at how you help so many people now.  That happened because you reflected and grew from that unanswered call.”  Her perception took my breath away.  But what really got me was my unconscious bias; I had made judgement based on Danya’s race, age, religion.  That wasn’t me.  And that certainly was not the person I wanted to be.   Confronting my own prejudices was a wake-up call.

Then there was Sarah* who having been raped and abused by those closest to her, sat in front of me screaming hysterically.  The mother in me wanted to reach out, hold her tight, tell her she was cared for and everything would be ok.  Not only is that completely inappropriate and not allowed, it would only have served to make me feel better and would not have enabled her to be better.  I realised the most important thing I could do for her was to hold a space in which she was safe and in which she could start to heal.  I learned that caring through action is more powerful than a simple statement of care.

Inadvertently, Jamie the youth officer in my local constituency enabled me to overcome a block I created some 10 and a half years ago:

I had never wanted to go to Poland and I certainly never wanted to go to Auschwitz and thought it was a strangely macabre thing to want to go and see a place of such atrocity.

I read Schindler’s Ark.  It’s a grittier, less heroic read than the film.  I was drawn in by the descriptions of Krakow, this city described as beautiful and cultured – and I wanted to visit.  Some 15 years later I did.

I try very hard not to be a hypocrite.  But sometimes I am.  I just am.

At first I wasn’t going to go.  Auschwitz wasn’t on my 4-week, mapped out,  itinerary. But then I did.  I don’t even really know why.  It’s what you do in Krakow – the salt mines and the death camps.

It was quite something to walk through those gates – work sets you free – but from then on it was quite underwhelming.  It was clean and dry.  The Russians had burned a lot of it to the ground, of course, at the end of the war.  The children’s hair, the plaits of little girls, the piles of suitcases and spectacles caught me, those images I had seen in books and documentaries were real.  But I didn’t have that ‘moment’ that people who have visited have talked about.  I was horrified by the American couple kissing in the remains of the gas chamber and appalled by the man doing pull-ups from the gallows – didn’t he know, didn’t he know?  That level of disregard and disrespect I find no words for.

Auschwitz 2, Birkenau was different.  The sheer scale of it.  The iconic train tracks where so many alighted for the last time.  The perimeter fence is far beyond the horizon.  This was death on an industrial scale and I could not get past the idea that human beings could not be killed and disposed of fast enough.  Here the gas chambers had been destroyed beyond evidence.  The latrines were clean; no dysentery or typhoid here.  The sun was shining, the grass was dewy fresh and green and there were butterflies.  I still hadn’t had my ‘moment’.  To me the greatest obscenity was the raft of burger vans outside the gate, ready to feed the tourists in a place where thousands had been starved.

Then two weeks later I was in Lublin in the east of Poland.  Majdenek – the camp – is in the middle of a suburban area, over-looked by apartment buildings and houses.  There was supposed to be an important museum here which is why I had wanted to go.  Having travelled overnight from the mountains, I arrived first thing in the morning.  The grounds opened first and I fell in behind a coachload of German tourists.  I followed them unwittingly and before I knew it I was in the crematoria – 6 maybe 7 ovens in such perfect condition they could be lit today, and the room with the concrete bench where bodies were stripped of artificial limbs and dentures were ripped out.  I felt sick to the core.  I couldn’t breathe.  I had to get out and I couldn’t leave the site fast enough.  I didn’t go to the museum.  I went straight to the bus station and left the city before the shops had even opened.

I did not want to know any more.  I guess that was my moment.

Then in November last year, at our constituency Labour Party meeting, Jamie who is 17 and still at school, stood up and spoke about his role as an ambassador for the Holocaust Education Trust and his time spent in Israel last summer.  He spoke with a passion and a commitment to values that so impressed me.  He finished by saying he’d really like to do ‘something’ for Holocaust Memorial Day, he just didn’t know ‘what’ and sat down next to me.  I said I would do something with him.   Then the ideas came.  Later that night I texted Jamie – we’d run an event in College – he could present on the work of young people in HET, I could do something on challenging hate crime through education and we’d ask Catherine McKinnell our MP to say something to link it all.  Oh and we’d have a shared lunch – what better than breaking bread to bond the community?  Sorted.  Once agreed, it hit me.  In supporting Jamie to share his message of inclusion and  hope I had unthinkingly put myself in a position where I was going to have to force my head out of the sand after more than a decade, and challenge head on, the evil of intolerance.