Friday, April 8, 2011

Back In School

When I was a kid I hated school.

Well, that's not entirely true...I quite liked “junior” school, when I was a really little kid. Life at junior school was easy. No home work. No cantankerous teachers. No hormones and no angst about what fucking career you were going into at the end of it.

Junior school was pretty much about one thing. Playing football in the play-ground at break time. We got three breaks a day and Monday through Friday we'd have an on-going match that continued throughout the course of the day. If on certain days, the game was evenly poised going into the final twenty minute break in the afternoon, then the classroom would be buzzing with tension. Life is junior school was simple and I liked it.

Besides football at break times, there were a couple of class activities that I really got in to. I loved hand-writing. I always had really neat hand-writing, although due to a perfectionism that existed in me in those younger years, it took an incredible amount of time for me to put anything to paper. I was eventually told by the teacher that although my hand-writing was the best in class, if it took me so long to accomplish such high levels, it wasn't worth it. I remember finding that incredibly fucked up, but I took the teacher's advice and my hand-writing went to shit. The other thing I was enthusiastic about was book hour, when we'd sit in class and the teacher would narrate a novel to us as we read along with them. I remember two books from that time, that to this day I still love and have read many times since. Danny, Champion of the World by Roald Dahl and Ludo and the Star Horse by Mary Stewart. Two fantastic books.

Yes, junior school was easy. Senior school on the other hand... now I really did hate senior school. I remember that first day, feeling tortured in that fucking school uniform (we didn't have school uniform at junior school). I'd never felt so small in my life. The people who were in the fifth and final year of school, although actually only sixteen, looked like grown adults. The girls wore make up and had big tits and the guys had facial hair and big fucking muscles! They all terrified the shit out of me. And the teacher's weren't any better. Instead of kind old Mr. Price reading Danny, Champion of the World to us, we had the hideous looking Mrs. Jupp threatening us with detention if we didn't do our Maths home-work in time. Detention for fuck sakes? Home-work? My evenings of playing football with my mates on the field behind my parents house were over. I hated senior school from day fucking one!

And then everyone hit puberty and the whole thing really went to shit! But you can't really blame the school for that I suppose...

I got through the first three years of senior school relatively on track. I played for the school football team for the first couple of years, until the fun got sucked out of it with league play and hardened discipline. I was still into the whole book thing though and the one subject I was truly inspired by was English Literature. I loved reading works like Watership Down by Richard Adams and The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. It was the only class I can truly say I enjoyed being a part of.

At the commencement of the fourth year, everything starts gearing towards the dreaded GCSE exams, which take place at the end of the fifth and final year. GCSE's were the passport to adulthood. They scared the shit out of me. Adulthood scared the shit out of me. Being thirteen years old and having “career advice” meetings seemed totally fucked up, as far as I was concerned.

I was one of the quiet kids, the kind that although I was friends with everybody, I made sure I didn't stick out, for neither better or worse... I always did just enough to get by, without caring to excel. I made it in to the top class of every subject (except Maths), but then once there just glided towards the GCSE exams on the bare minimum. To this day I have a hard time reading or studying a subject that I have no interest in. And in those days I really didn't have in interest in French, or Maths, or History or Religious Studies... I understood the importance of obtaining qualifications, I just didn't like the idea of going home after school and having my free time taken up by home-work! I hated the fact that the school day didn't end with the school bell.

The atmosphere at senior school wasn't exactly inviting either. The higher the year, the worse it seemed to get.

A great example of this was GCSE Maths class. It was the only class I hadn't made it to the “top-set” for. Now I don't know what the attitude was like in top-set, but in our class it was an absolute joke... We had this old Scottish teacher, Mrs. Martin. She was a pretty timid old lady, who sat at her desk in front of the blackboard generally looking terrified of the kids she was supposed to be teaching. The noise in her class was unbelievable! It was like a scene from one of those shitty movies about a run-down school in the estates. We didn't seem to do any work. Everyone just sat around talking to each other, chatting each other up, showing off and generally taking the piss. Nobody even noticed Mrs. Martin at the blackboard writing away. If she had stopped showing up altogether, it wouldn't have made the slightest bit of difference. The poor old thing would have had a hard time inspiring a dog to piss up a tree, never mind a class of teenagers to learn algebra! I often sat there quietly in the midst of this bedlam, wondering what the fuck must be going on behind the desperate expression on Mrs. Martin's face.

One day, when she decided to try and force some authority on the class, things got out of hand. It was almost painful watching her trying to shout over the chaos. You could see her lips moving, but you couldn't hear a word she was saying. And then she screamed. It was a spine-tingling, desperate scream. The class went silent. She then almost apologetically told us that we were all going to be in detention. For a split second she had our respect and attention. And then Steven Murie told her to fuck off and the whole class burst out laughing. Her eyes welled up with tears and she ran from the room. I hated myself at that point. I felt so sorry for her, and yet I said nothing. I just sat there, waiting for the shit to really hit the fan.

Five minutes later the Headmaster, Mr. Rumbelow, came storming into the class with a face like thunder. He went fucking crazy! Rightly so, of course. Mrs. Martin stood behind him, looking shaken, as he screamed at us for the best part of ten minutes. We were all forced to write a personal letter of apology to Mrs. Martin. I realised then that my chances of passing GCSE Maths were pretty much fucked.

There were rumours that in third-set Maths, a student and a teacher had come to blows, so I guess Mrs. Martin should have been happy to have us lot...

By the time senior school and the excruciation of GCSE exams were over, I'd done just about enough to make it to A-levels. Of course, I didn't have much choice in what to study, but then I was still only really interested in one subject. English Literature. And although I did enjoy being out of school uniform and into the sixth form, where the relationship between student and teacher was of a far maturer nature, it was still Lodge Park School. It was still the same grey, miserable building that I'd always hated. I left after the first of two years. I just wanted out. All I wanted to really do at this point was play music with my band at the time, Sect. We had a decent following in the local area and we'd even played a gig in London, I was sure we were going places.

It turned out not to be. I left Lodge Park, the bass player in Sect went to university and the band split up.

I was still only sixteen though and I knew it was too early to go into full time employment, and so out of panic, I enrolled at the technical college in the town centre. I thought the change of venue would make the world of difference. I could not have been more wrong. I literally signed up for the first course I stayed my eyes on in the college catalogue. Computer Science. What a fucking joke that turned out to be! I'm sure the teacher was onto me from the very first day. He was a guy that obviously spent his days at senior school being bullied by the tough kids and now he was ruling over his very own binary kingdom, and he fucking loved it! I guess it was pretty obvious that I wasn't bubbling with enthusiasm, and the smarmy bastard gave me a hard time from the get-go. I didn't help myself though. For the most part I spent my days writing out set-lists and imaginary tour dates for my new band, Soul Cellar. I didn't know what I was doing there. I only knew that I was miserable. And after a while I just stopped showing up.

I'd make it all the way to the front doors of college, and then I'd turn away and carry on along the street. I spent my days walking aimlessly around Corby, listening to my walkman. I'd been gone for a full day, so as not to arouse suspicion with my parents. It was the most miserable time of my entire life. I think that period is the closest I've ever came to being “depressed”. The only good memories I have of those days is the music I was listening to at the time, Steady Diet of Nothing by Fugazi in particular. I loved that record. I still do.

One day I walked into class after an absence of about four weeks. The teacher didn't even call my name out whilst reading the attendance register. I went up to his desk and asked him why my name wasn't called. He told me he didn't even realise I was in class any longer, I told him that I guessed I wasn't and I left. The smarmy cunt just smirked, as if he'd achieved some sort of victory.

When I walked out of that computer science class at eighteen years old, I was certain that I'd never set foot in a school classroom again. All that changed a few years later when I had moved to Sweden.

I had been in Stockholm for a while and had made some friends and I found myself increasingly frustrated by the fact I couldn't speak the language. It wasn't easy. For a start, everyone I knew spoke English brilliantly, but on top of that, I was constantly travelling away on tour with Speedhorn. I knew I wanted to stay in Stockholm though and I figured that one day I would just get around to learning the language.

Half way through recording the second Speedhorn album, things went to shit with our record label and we became embattled in a case to part ways with them. As shit as that was, the six month delay in the recording of that album gave me the window of opportunity to finally learn Swedish. Six years after walking out of college, I was going back to school. And this time I felt good about it.

Going to school as an adult with a genuine interest in the subject you are studying makes things a lot fucking easier. At thirteen I hated French class, at twenty-four I genuinely enjoyed sitting in the library after class working my way through Swedish exercise books. I went to class two times a week, four hours a day for six months, and by time I was done I could speak everyday conversational Swedish. It was a world away from Lodge Park Senior School and I loved every minute of it. I passed the course with flying colours.

What was really amazing about being back in school was the people I shared class with. The course was titled Swedish For Immigrants and therefore was attended by people from all over the world. Some were people from cultures that I had no idea about, some were from cultures that I thought I knew about but soon realised I didn't have a fucking clue.

I made friends with people from countries such as Rwanda, Moldova, Ukraine, Iraq and Bulgaria. They all had such different backgrounds to mine and finding out about their lives was fascinating. A group of us would go for coffee after class and we'd share stories from home over a few mugs of the black stuff. Sometimes we'd sit around for a couple of hours, just chatting away. I learnt as much about life from those conversations as I did Swedish from the lectures in school. It was an amazing time.

Unfortunately, not all of the stories I heard in those coffee shops were happy ones and I heard some things that shocked me. I suddenly felt incredibly ignorant...

I was sitting at a coffee shop in the old town with a guy from class that I'd become friendly with. His name was Solomon and although he was raised in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, he was of Eritrean heritage and held an Eritrean passport. Now for a start, I wasn't even sure that Eritrea was it's own country. I knew there had been a conflict of independence between Eritrea and Ethiopia, but I didn't really know what the state of affairs was back then. We sat around drinking coffee and I asked Solomon what Addis Ababa was like as a city, and what life in Ethiopia was like in general. The only impression I'd ever had of Ethiopia was of those famous pictures of the famine, with the Cars song Drive playing over the horrifying images.

He told me that Addis Ababa was like any western city. Sky scrapers downtown, Starbucks, McDonalds, 7 Eleven... He told me that all those images I'd seen were of the millions of starving people outside of the cities in the slums, in the decimated farm lands. Of course it is an awful thing, but he told me that like myself, he'd only ever seen those images on tv, and probably not as much as I had, since the government there didn't exactly advertise what was going on in the countryside. Solomon himself had a good job in the city and led a quite normal life working 9-5 and socialising at restaurants and bars, just like anyone in a western city would have done. I have to admit that I was quite surprised by this. It wasn't exactly the image of Ethiopia I'd grown up with. I conveyed this to Solomon, who simply replied, “It's like anywhere else in the so called Third World, the rich are rich, the middle class lead relatively comfortable lives and the poor who are dying in the wastelands are ignored. He thought it was a horrible state of affairs, but what should he, or could he do about it? What should any of us do about it? We all agree that it's awful, but nothing actually gets done.

I sat there contemplating this, and I had to admit to myself, he had a fucking point. How many times had I sat in front of the tv watching the news, and seen some heart-wrenching story, thought about the fact that we should really do something to help, and then the news moves onto sports or an advertisement for some new car and it's forgotten? My thoughts switched back to Solomon. I asked him why he and his wife had left Ethiopia. What he told me next left me stunned...

Solomon told me that he sat eating dinner at a restaurant in downtown Addis Ababa with his wife and a group of friends. It was a completely ordinary Friday night and the atmosphere in the restaurant was relaxed. The topic of conversation amongst the group, as it almost inevitably would, shifted towards the troubles that were going on between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The two countries had had a border dispute ever since Eritrea had fought for independence some years before. Although Solomon was Eritrean, he'd spent practically his whole life in Addis Ababa. He'd been raised in the city, educated at the university and later found a relatively well paid job. He'd married his Ethiopian wife there and together they'd made a home for themselves, doing their best to get on with their lives as best they could. Although the foreboding shadow of famine and civil war hung constantly in the air and was never far away from the top of the agenda during conversation.

As dinner was eaten and coffee was ordered Solomon noticed a nervous look in the eye of one of his friends. He followed the friends gaze towards the window that looked out at the busy street outside and his balls jumped up into his throat. Outside the restaurant was a police van, and pouring out of the back doors were around ten cops, all armed with machine guns, and they were heading in to the restaurant. Solomon had an idea what was coming...

This gang of angry looking Ethiopian police barge their way into the restaurant and a heated exchange between the restaurant owner and the main cop ensues. After a couple of minutes, the owner of the establishment reluctantly shakes his head and the Head Pig starts barking orders at the patrons, who are now sat in stunned silence, wondering what the fuck is going on. Head Pig grunts an order to the men in the restaurant, telling them to line up outside in the street against the wall. There is a gasp of panic amongst the public, as one by one, the men in the room get up and leave to go outside. Solomon assures his wife everything will be ok, that it's most likely some random bullshit. Once outside, Solomon joins the already formed line and waits for whatever is coming next. Once the evacuation is complete, Head Pig starts checking everyone's identification. They're checked one by one as he walks down the line. As the passports are checked, some are given back and others are kept by the Pig. Those who's passports are obtained are then bundled into the back of the van at gunpoint. When it's Solomon's turn to show his Eritrean passport, he already knows that he'll be going in the back of that van.

Along with around eight others, Solomon is taken away by the police, all the while under the watch of a machine gun. No reason is given. In fact, not a word is said by anyone. He assumes that he'll be taken in to the police station for some bullshit questioning. He's surprised therefore when the van pulls to a stop, and still without any explanation offered, he's marched into a cell and the door is locked behind him. It's a dark, fifthly room with just a blood stained bed and a stinking toilet. Nothing else. He sits down on the bed, terrified, and awaits the next move.

One month later, a policeman opens the door of his cell and leads him back down the corridor he'd came upon arrival. The policeman marches him to the station's reception, in much the same manner as when he arrived, under the watch of that scary as shit machine gun. The door is opened and he's kicked out into the street. And that was that. Not once was he even spoken to by any of the police, never mind interrogated about who could only imagine what. He was given a paltry couple of meals a day and that was that. No visits, no telephone calls, no nothing. Now I've sat in a police cell in Spain with the Speedhorn boys for a couple of days, knowing fine well what we were guilty of, and when I'd awoken hungover after that first night in the cells, I was fucking terrified. But not once did I fear for my life, I knew that we'd be able to pay our way out. I can't even imagine the torment Solomon went through! And for what? Because he had an Eritrean passport? When he's done telling me this story over a cup of coffee, in some café in the beautiful surroundings of Stockholm’s old town, I just sit there staring at his happy, jovial face. I'm lost for words. After a few moments I finally inquire when this had taken place, expecting him to tell me it was many years ago. He told me that it actually happened in 2001, just a couple of years ago...I could barely believe it. It's hard to comprehend that stuff goes on like that, completely ignored, as the rest of is in the western world go about our lives.

I understand why Solomon left his country and moved to Sweden. I felt like a right ignorant cunt when he asked me why I'd left my home town, asked me what was so bad about it, and all I could say was that it was boring. I made a mental note to never moan about Corby again. What made this tragedy even worse in my eyes, was that as bright and intelligent as Solomon was, he was struggling to even get a job working in a bar here in Stockholm. As the conversation moved on he enthusiastically asked me about my band, and I tried to explain to him what my band was about, what the whole punk rock thing was, but after what he'd told me, the whole band thing just felt trivial. Solomon was fascinated by it though.

I met a few people like Solomon whilst I was at school, and in doing so learnt as much about the world we're living in as I did about the Swedish language. It was a wonderful bonus meeting people like Solomon from Ethiopia and many others, like my friend Stella from Moldova and Paco from Bulgaria, each with completely different lives to that of my own. Going to SFI turned out to be one of the best choices I ever made. Unfortunately, as life goes on and people go separate ways, you lose touch. I don't know what Solomon is doing now, but I hope he's still as happy as he always appeared to be, despite the shite he'd gone through in his life.

It's been six years since I finished that course. Although I wanted to learn Swedish, it was done more out of necessity than anything else. Last week I went back to school again. This time, not only to learn Swedish, but to take up some studies I thought I'd left long behind. It's only been a couple of weeks, but already it feels a world away from Lodge Park Senior School. Maybe things have changed. More than likely I've changed. I guess I've grown up. Not so strange, I think you probably do a lot of growing up between the ages of eighteen and thirty-two. My life now is pretty much non-stop. My weekly schedule is planned out to the minute, what with studying a couple of courses at school, running the bar full-time and playing in Victims amongst others, whilst sustaining a happy married life and looking after our dog, Bonzo.  I couldn't be happier.

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