Charting a course to find a new life
"I'm really looking forward to starting this course," Jeanette Walcott told me as we finished our interview. "But then I looked forward to all the others too."
In the trade, we call them "serial non-completers" - students who hop from one course to another, lasting a month here, three months there, but always lacking that extra something to get them through the long winter months and on into their personal summer of academic success.
Jeanette had already told me, with characteristic frankness, about all those previous false starts. But I had offered her a place on my year-long access to higher education course anyway. Somehow, I believed her when she said that this time it would be different. And then, isn't handing out second, third or even fourth and fifth chances what "return to learn" education is meant to be all about?
In class she was great, a real positive presence, pulling other, less certain souls along in her wake. But her first written pieces were a disappointment. The sentences were long and impenetrable, the meanings buried away beneath a mountain of verbiage. When I pointed this out to her, she took it as a compliment. "But that's what academic writing is for, isn't it?" she asked. "Showing how clever you are?"
Simplicity, I countered, has its virtues too - the principal one being that your reader might be able to understand what you are on about. Jeanette gulped, rearranged her designer beret, but listened. The essays became shorter, tighter, more comprehensible. Her own bespoke style was beginning to develop, rather than the "off the peg" version she'd thought would impress me. A month went past. Then another. Christmas was approaching, and still she showed no sign of wavering in her commitment to the course. "This is just what I've always wanted to do," she would say at intervals.
Jeanette's particular interest was international relations, but until now it had been little more than a hobby, something she might read about in a newspaper or catch on News at Ten. Now she was researching in-depth topics for herself. One week she gave a fascinating and informed presentation on the political history of Haiti; the next saw her handing in a long and detailed paper on the origins of the United Nations.
In the New Year you always expect to lose two or three adult students from any course. The conflicting demands of home and work and jobs and relationships always seem to hit hardest in those cold, dark months. Two or three duly went. But Jeanette wasn't one of them. Like many inner-city students, she was a single mum, struggling to balance her studies against the demands of her two young children. She resolved this dilemma, she told me one day, by taking "the long view":
"All right, they're getting less attention now, but in the end they're going to have a happier, more content, more fulfilled mother. And then I'll be able to earn more - and buy them more - once I've got a degree, won't I?"
It was when we came to that part of the course that allowed students to do some autobiographical writing that I learned more from Jeanette about all those earlier failures. She'd always wanted to write, and now that she'd thrown off the constraints of "complexity", she had no problem in finding her own voice.
The first piece was short but vivid, relating in matter-of-fact tones what it was like to be brought up in a crack house. The particular incident she described involved a debt, a gun and an interrogation taking place around the kitchen table. She'd been 11 years old at the time, bunking off school, sleeping late and then wandering into a scene that could have come straight from a Tarantino movie.
In the end, no one got killed, or even shot. Just roughed up a little. To the young Jeanette, it had been just another day in the topsy-turvy home life of her crack-addicted mother.
For her second account, Jeanette chose a later period of her life. Perhaps it was inevitable, given her background, that she, too, would one day go chasing the deadly allure of the crack pipe. Jeanette didn't quite see it like that, though: maybe it had simply been her own personal failing, she suggested.
Whatever the cause, it was the effect that Jeanette chose to write about.
Not the period of addiction itself, but the long and painful rehabilitation that followed. If anyone thinks rehab is a soft option for addicts, they should read Jeanette's account of life at Merton House.
When we talked over the piece later, she told me more: about the terrible temptation to backslide, and the equally terrible consequences of doing so.
Out of the 100 or so people she came across during her two years in Merton House, half were now dead, none from natural causes. "So you see," she said philosophically, "I've got more incentive than most to finish my course this time."
And finish it she did. Not with the highest mark of the year, but not far short of it. More importantly, her access certificate was her passport to the next phase of her own personal rehabilitation - to university, where she has just successfully completed her first year.
As a student, Jeanette was both typical and untypical. She was untypical in that most of our small, yearly intake of reformed addicts fail to make it to the end of the course. But she was typical, too, because, like all adult students, she had unfulfilled potential. And like all those others, she was responding to that small, insistent voice inside that must be satisfied. In the end, after much pain, sacrifice and sheer hard work, it brought her success - a triumph that was hers and hers alone.
As teachers, we watch over many such magical metamorphoses each year. We lead, guide, advise, cajole, exhort. Most of us feel privileged to be able to play a small part in it. And that - as it was for me with Jeanette - is enough.
Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a south London college