Philippa and Bahir took time out in lunch breaks to talk...

10th September 2004 at 01:00
Philippa and Bahir took time out in lunch breaks to talk and ask you what was going on. They made it more like a family than a school

I got chucked out of Haverstock secondary school for being naughty and disruptive. At the time, my dad had cancer and my sister had just had a baby and had kidney failure. It was all happening when I started at Haverstock and I did not know how to deal with it. Even though I've got eight brothers and sisters, I didn't have anyone to talk to and no one seemed to care. I ended up going off the rails. My mum had so much to deal with, what with me playing up too.

I left Haverstock after two years. In lessons, I'd finish the work before most people and then I'd disturb the rest of the class. Sometimes I didn't bother to go to school at all. I was sent to the Winchester Project in Swiss Cottage, which is a special unit for kids with behavioural problems.

Philippa Haines and Bahir Laatoe were my best teachers. It was very informal, first names only. They took the time to speak to me and made me feel special. They communicated one to one and were willing to listen. If you had something going on in your life, they would talk to you about it.

They weren't typical teachers, just responsible for a particular subject, but they took time out in lunch breaks to talk and ask you what was going on. They were understanding and caring, and they made it more like a family than a school. There were only about 10 kids at Winchester; we were all about the same age and sat together in lessons. We did all the subjects like a normal school.

Bahir was a sweet little guy from South Africa. He was one of us and he took part in all the games. We loved the trampoline. Bahir would get on it and roll up into a little ball and we used to play a game with him called "crack the egg". It was funny.

Pippa was good fun, too. She was tall with long hair and taught arts subjects. I set up a little school magazine - a sort of newsletter - and I got people to write for it. Pippa helped me and I wrote poems on the computer. I just wanted something else to do.

In my head I can't be still; I need to be busy all the time. I also wanted something more challenging to do. Writing poetry is how I get things off my chest. When you talk, people can comment back, but when you write it's completely what you feel. You can write whatever you want. It's how I write my songs.

At Winchester, all the teachers and kids got me to write poetry for their friends. I've always written about what I feel. When I was about six I used to visit the city farm at Kentish Town every day after school, at weekends and in the holidays. The farm was going to close at one point, so I wrote a little protest song and organised us kids to sing at the fete. I'm glad to say it's still open.

I continued being naughty for a while when I started at Winchester, but I opened up and towards the end I settled down. By the time I left I was so grateful for everything Pippa and Bahir had done for me. I benefited so much because in my last year I did really well and I passed all my exams: six GCSEsb A and B grades, and I got 100 per cent in science City and Guilds. Not bad considering a couple of years before I wasn't even going to school.

Once I was ill with anaemia and was in hospital. Pippa, Bahir and the kids from school visited me and brought special personal things such as corned beef for the iron content.

I wouldn't change anything I've been through. I've got my brothers and sisters, and mum and dad; he's still alive. Of course I wouldn't want my dad and sister to be ill, but it has taught me a lot about people and that you can't take anything for granted. Those things have made me the person I am today. When I left school I did temping and secretarial work, but I lost my job in a solicitors' office because of a violent boyfriend. That gave me the ammunition to work on songwriting 100 per cent.

Singersongwriter Gemma Fox was talking to


1979 Born in London

1985 Attends Rhyl Street primary school, London borough of Camden

1991 Haverstock secondary school

1994 Moves to the Winchester Project behaviour unit in Swiss Cottage

2001 Spotted performing at the BBC's Clothes Show Live event in Birmingham

2004 Signs to Polydor Records and releases first album, Messy. Two singles, Girlfriend's Story and Gone, released

September 2004 Launches Chocolate Rappas! competition for the fair-trade chocolate company, Dubble. Best poem song on the subject of fair trade will be turned into a professional recording with Gemma Fox on vocals. Details from

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