‘I was a high-achieving pupil – and a gang member’

Teachers can't tackle gang culture – we need to talk to teenagers about influences in their lives, says Mark Gallacher

Mark Gallacher

Teachers can't fix the problem of gang culture - we need to talk to young people, says Mark Gallacher

For years, knife crime has sent chilling statistics and daunting reports across the desks of decision-makers. How do we take meaningful action on this? Is it right to demand that teachers make the difference?

As a youth entangled within Glasgow, a city once known as the “murder capital of Europe”, I voluntarily entrenched myself within gangs, drugs, crime and vulnerability. This desperate need for acceptance was an amalgamation of despair and desperation from a boy once bullied for simply wearing the wrong brand of trainers. Before this, I endured poverty, hunger and violence, but I could no longer survive isolation. As the oldest male child to a struggling single parent of five, I found myself settled on the notion that protection and stability were rooted within households, and that it was my responsibility to cement this legacy. The idea of being popular within a gang was preferable to a feeling of solitude.

I was nine years old the first time I anxiously observed a gang fight in Glasgow’s East End: a moderately brisk event with two groups of boisterous youths trading insults and pieces of stone until the authorities arrived. I have no recollection of any media reports or community outrage; people simply carried on with their day-to-day lives. I do remember lots of laughter, cheering and the odd outburst of dramatic anger and vulgar language. It was not harrowing or distressing – there were neighbours peering from windows as they fed their infants by the bottle, even including themselves in the occasional outburst of insults in support of their resident youths. A bizarre, and yet familiar, scenario of the gang culture that engulfed the city of Glasgow.

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My family have always been peculiarly unsettled; we have moved to a new house excessively, 15 times to be exact. When I was 10 (I'm in my late twenties now) our family witnessed my father wipe the blood from three stab wounds on his chest he received from confronting local youths. As a result, we detached ourselves to begin a new life (once again) in another community.

Poverty and lack of hope

However, a weary continuation of our previous lives was the harsh reality, with my avoidance of school bullies and the longing to be relevant discreetly surging. When my parents separated, my sense of a lack of fulfilment began crawling to the surface. Passing exams and attending school was simple enough, yet my desire for acceptance suddenly changed when classmates began to move aimlessly towards the comfort of street gangs. The culture at the time demanded a certain type of confidence, and I soon demanded this from myself.

This destiny began at the age of 13, with four friends, a couple of scarves to conceal our identity, and an unfortunate garden raided of stones and gingy bottles. Making your way to your first gang fight is something quite surreal. My emotions were animated. Fear of my parents finding out, happy to finally feel wanted, sad that someone may get hurt, and confident knowing I was about to change my life forever. A sluggish affair where all parties swaggered away unblemished was all that really transpired, although I remember turning in my bed that night, scared of potential repercussions. However, the coming days only brought acceptance and friendships with unfamiliar faces. This served the appetite that had been rumbling in my stomach; I soon began to crave the full buffet.

I was a high-achieving pupil and a gang member – you can’t just put young people into a neat box. My grades in class were usually good and reports on parents’ evenings passed relatively successfully, except the year I was caught bunking school every Friday for three weeks until the parents' evening (held on the fourth Friday). This was also the evening every teacher introduced themselves by declaring to my fire-breathing mother that they had not seen me for a month. After an excruciating two months of feeling like I was in solitary confinement in my bedroom, I was granted my freedom and now able to reclaim the status as a “mad dog” that I was soon building for myself.

However, my other aim was to build a reputation of myself as the exemplary pupil who enjoyed athletics and football during school. For teachers, they must have seen this new-found brilliance and commitment refreshing amid their typically chaotic days, engulfed in the heinous disobedience and arrogance of many of my fellow pupils. My school was one of the first in the entire country assigned a resident police officer, and yet they still required mounted police at the school gates to support the dispersal of gangs. I would suggest that it was beyond teachers to identify me – or any other individual – as a notable gang member beyond the school gates, and there was little they could do to challenge the culture that was consuming our society.

Teachers can't fix gang culture

For many of my friends, education stopped at the school gates, and further education, if they ended up in that sector, was little more than a charade into which they put little effort. The concept of potential employment rarely stretched beyond the few professions passed on through generations of families and communities; any ambition to exceed that was rare.

As young, secluded and naive boys, we took exception to each other because we all felt part of something bigger. We didn’t want to destroy our community, we wanted to defend it, as our fathers, uncles and cousins had before. Any insult to a member of our community was an insult to us all. We wanted to be feared, and yet, loved by those around us. Do you honestly believe a teacher would be able to unravel this matrix of why people become a gang member? Gang culture is not something teachers can fix themselves.

Perhaps, instead of burdening teachers with this huge responsibility, decision-makers should consider young people and consult with them about the influences in their lives; talk to them about education, austerity and food banks. Maybe we also need to consider things like "no ball games" signs that make children feel like criminals on their own doorstep for playing a game of kirby (or kerby or cribby).

Relationships are built on trust: if we stop herding or even criminalising young people, who are already labelled and stigmatised, we may just earn their respect and enable them to find the respect in themselves. You never quite know when a conversation with a young person might just change their life forever.

Mark Gallacher is co-founder of the Beacon Warriors community project and a children’s worker at Royston Youth Action, in Glasgow. He tweets @mark_gallacher1

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