When a gang of thugs savagely beat up black teacher Alison Moore (right), their aim was to spread hatred and intolerance. They failed. Despite the trauma and continuing threats, Alison tells Nadene Ghouri that she believes even more strongly in the 'goodness' of people, and insists she will be returning to the classroom.
Alison Moore sits in her new home, surrounded by good luck and get well cards. She just wishes she had only her choice of wallpaper and faulty plumbing to worry about.
Something about the way she jumps when there's a knock at the door and constantly glances out of the window, searching the darkness, tells you all is not well. For Alison's new home is a secret address - a safe house where she and her six-year-old daughter have been placed under police protection. The nightmare that began three months ago, when Alison was beaten up by a racist gang outside the south London primary school where she teaches, is far from over.
It began on a dark night in February as she left Sandhurst Road Junior School in Catford, having tidied the classroom and caught up on some marking. A group of teenagers was loitering outside. "I challenged them about what they were doing," she says, "I had no idea what would happen next."
What happened was an attack so brutal and vicious that Alison was rushed to hospital with internal bleeding, cracked ribs and severe bruising. She doesn't know how long the barrage of kicks and blows lasted but she does vividly remember the laughter, and the screams of "black bitch". She was unconscious by the time they ran away, leaving her lying under a hedge.
She came round in excruciating pain, unable to move her legs. Dazed, she managed to use her mobile phone to call Sandhurst headteacher Brenda Hamblin who raised the alarm.
The nightmare continued. A few days after a six-day spell in hospital, Alison heard her letterbox open: "I thought it was a circular,but when I went to look at it I realised it was a death threat, warning me not to go back to school. I was really frightened. I didn't know if the attackers had been waiting for me, knowing I was the only black teacher in school, or had read about the attack in the local newspaper and were making mischief."
As she lives alone with her daughter, sympathetic police tried to make Alison as secure as possible. They fitted the house with new locks and a panic button. Then on March 13, unable to sleep, Alison went downstairs to get a glass of water. She was confronted by a man wearing a balaclava: "He just stood there trying to intimidate me. He was trying to instil fear in me."
By the time the police and tracker dogs arrived, the man was long gone. But the swastikas and national front slogans he and his accomplice painted on the walls remained.
Two weeks later a local newspaper received an anonymous call from a man who claimed he knew Alison was "going to be done in" that night. She was packed within hours.
The police have assured her that no one can trace her new address and the London borough of Lewisham has offered a pound;1,000 reward for information leading to a conviction. But still the thugs won't give up. On the day this interview took place yet another handwritten threat addressed to Alison was delivered to nearby Crofton School. She says: "I was quietly beginning to settle down - now I'm a wreck again. This latest letter has really got to me. The police are sure it's just a crank. But I'm bothered all the same."
Alison can't remember the last time she felt relaxed or had a good night's sleep: "I'm so dreadfully tired. I just can't get to sleep. I know it's a psychological problem. I've got to get over it."
She's also determined to get over her physical injuries - she still walks with a limp, suffers constant back pain and recently discovered that there is still some damage to her kidneys. Hospital tests and a long wait for results are beginning to get to her, but she jokes: "I've lost a stone-and-a-half, so it's not all bad!" Priority number one, she insists, is getting back to the classroom. "I've got to get back to school as quickly as possible. My class is on to their second supply teacher already. I refuse to let their education suffer because of an ignorant, stupid, foolish minority.
"I feel the same about teaching and kids as I did when I started. Really, this thing has nothing to do with teaching, other than its devastating affect on the children."
Alison is so concerned that her nine- and 10-year-old pupils aren't scarred by what's happened that she has been going in on occasional days to counsel them individually. "Some of the white children thought I wouldn't like them anymore. I knocked that idea right out of their heads.
"I'm hoping that going in will build up my stamina and maybe tire me out so much I'll actually get some sleep."
That certainly didn't work the first time she went into school after the attack. The night before, she vomited all night: "I was nauseous with fear, but then when I walked into the back of assembly and all the children turned round, waving and smiling, I knew I'd made the right decision.
"My class were allowed to stay back with me. Quite a few of them just burst into tears. They were scared to hug me because I was so badly bruised. It was really heart rending."
But there are lessons to be learned everywhere we look, says Alison, and this is no exception. "One has to look for the positive. What happened means I'm able to say to the children 'so now can you see why you shouldn't bully people or call them names? Now do you understand why you should think about other people's feelings? What happened to me is just one step further from bullying.' I can see the understanding dawn like a light on their faces."
Sandhurst, a 300-pupil school, has always prided itself on an ethos of tolerance. Brenda Hamblin says: "We were praised in our last Ofsted for the way in which we celebrate diversity and culture. We've never had problems with racism here, never, that's why this has hit us all so hard. We're not just a professional team, we're friends."
Indeed, Alison doubts she'd have made it through the darkest moments if it weren't for the support of Brenda and her colleagues. "They've formed this big protective shield around me. From ringing constantly to coming down to the new house armed with mops and buckets, they've all been here - all the time."
Alison has been warned that continuing publicity surrounding her case - she appeared on the nine O'clock news after receiving a standing ovation at the NUT's Easter conference - may give rise to more threats. But she refuses to shut up. "You've got to stand up and be counted. Racism isn't a black problem - it's everybody's problem. If we don't all stand together for what's right, the ignorant minority will continue to thrive.
"It's no use seeing bad news stories and thinking 'Oh, how dreadful.' You have to do something. Hundreds of people from all over the country have written me letters of support. A simple thing - but something."
It may surprise some people to hear, considering what she's been through, that Alison has "gained, not lost" faith in human nature.
"I've really had my eyes opened to how much goodness there is. This foolish, stupid, ignorant minority have done nothing but prove that's what they are. It is frightening. But making me lose my faith in people is precisely what these thugs are trying to achieve. They want to create divisions. I will not stoop to their level."
Alison's daughter has been traumatised by the attack. She fixes strangers with a suspicious glare, not wanting to leave her mother's side. "She's terribly clingy because she's fearful for me. That's a terrible thing to feel at the age of six. One of the hardest things was when she asked me if she should still play with the white kids in her class. I thought 'Just look at what these people have done to her.' But I told her: 'You look at your friends by looking at what's inside them - not what colour they are.' "I'm a person who thinks kids are born a blank sheet. Racism is not inherent - it's taught. Children don't see differences. They learn them from us. Morals and values cannot just be taught in school, but if our work isn't supported or is undermined at home we don't really stand a chance."
Alison says her determination is a product of her own upbringing. Teaching is a family tradition - her mother and aunts were teachers and her father, a Guyanese lawyer, has also taught his subject in Britain. She says it's all she ever really wanted to do. However, she came to it late, after stints living abroad and singing in bands (she also plays the violin and piano).
In 1992, as a single parent with an eight-month-old baby, Alison took an access course, followed by a five-year BEd at Kingston University in Surrey, majoring in music. Sandhurst, which she joined last September, was her first full-time job.
"It was a long, hard struggle, financially and physically. I worked bloody hard to get my qualification and I'm damned if some racists are going to stop me using it. See, that's how I control my anger - by being calm and moving forward. You ask the kids in my class about my being calm. When I get calm, they get frightened. I may speak softly and quietly, but boy, that means I'm mad."