Joseph to the tills, please - can you tell us where our OHP went?

22nd July 2005 at 01:00
You can learn a lot at college. I've been learning about life on the rough side from X. She always comes in late, having dropped off "Babe" at the creche. She is a straw-pale, stick-thin young woman, with huge dark shadows around her eyes, and I can't help wondering if Babe is the only reason she can't get going in the morning. But I'm not going to make a fuss because X is trying to pull her life out of free fall, and I admire her for it.

Once, I asked X about her family. She counted five full siblings, and went on to her fingers to track the half-brothers and half-sisters. X herself left home at 15 and ended up in a hostel. "How did you support yourself" I asked? "I done bad fings" came the reply, cheerfully delivered but with a "don't ask" sub-text. I didn't, but I must help her sort out those verb tenses.

There was more to come on anti-social behaviour in the Communications class when the discussion got round to shop-lifting. I was worried about how the girls got to know as much as they do, until it transpired that some of them have weekend jobs at stores on the retail park, where they are trained in the art of following, observing and raising the alarm. One girl was puzzled by a frequent call over the Tannoy for "Joseph to the tills. please", as she had never met anyone working in the store called Joseph. It was months before she discovered it was the coded alert for a shop-lifter on the premises. Apparently shop-lifting is very common and nothing to do with boys wearing hoods. People in big coats are much more suspicious, as is anyone lingering by a shelf with a large bag, a pair of scissors and a litter of security tags under their feet. I wonder if the girls could help us find out where our overhead projector went?

Later, I meet a colleague by the photocopier. "Do you fancy some work in the prison?" he asks. "What kind of work?" I reply cautiously. There are some young women there, he tells me, who are most anxious to take English GCSEs - all foreigners of course." "Why do you say, 'Foreigners of course'?" I ask, realising I have missed something. "Drug carriers", he says, as if I'm daft. On top of all this, I've got to give out letters announcing the imminent arrival of the narcotics sniffer dogs in college.

If you are carrying drugs, the dog is trained to come and sit next to you.

I guess the women inmates didn't find themselves cheerfully patting some nice German shepherd dog, who bounded up wagging his tail. There will be no need to teach them the English colloquialism "nice doggie".

It's a relief to get out to a family learning project where the children are young and innocent. I sit with some parents to watch a teacher give a demonstration maths lesson with six-year-olds. She holds up a piece of paper and asks the children what they think it is. One little lad, keen with new knowledge, crows: "Ooh, I know. It's a wet tangle." Cute huh? But please get that hooded top off him before he's old enough to enrol for a college course.

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