Of sex and chicks

19th September 1997 at 01:00
I hated school. I went to so many - more than 10. My mum and dad were at war, and my mum moved all over the place so my father couldn't trace us. I went with her; the other kids stayed with him.

The only good teacher was a science teacher at Ward End Hall secondary in Birmingham. I can't remember her name. She was tall, white - I never saw any black teachers - and she wore short skirts. She made science fun. She said things like, "Do this, this is great!". There was a quiz one day and I said, "Give us a kiss, Miss!". And she went, "Well, if you get this right, I will". I got it right and she kissed my hand. I told everybody she fancied me.

A couple of weeks afterwards, we had sex education, with chickens. We didn't actually watch the chickens mate but we read about it. We were told that if we got notes from our parents, she would pick people to have the chicks. I forged a note and she picked me. I took the chick home - I called it Jeanie - and my cat ate it.

Ward End Hall was the most modern school I went to. It had a real gym and a basketball team. I was good at sports. One of my strongest memories is of a basketball match where it was a draw. There were 10 seconds left and I scored the winning basket. So I was like the hero!

There was one teacher who I do remember for being racist and who just seemed to have it in for me. He taught metalwork and maths, and it wasn't metalwork as in "Be artistic"; it was, "Today, you are going to make a round plate and these are the dimensions". If there was a noise at the back of the room, he would blame me. He called me the ringleader.

I got expelled from Ward End Hall for having what we called a "noddy" book. Although I was into that kind of thing - we started on Freeman's catalogues and progressed to hardcore pornography - someone else was passing this one round and it just came to me. Then I moved to Canterbury Cross (which became part of the Broadway school) in Perry Barr. And the racist teacher turned up there!

I sprayed graffiti all over the place, got drunk, pulled too many bra-straps. We were obsessed with girls and tits. The headmistress called me in one day and said, "This can't go on. We've had 15 complaints about you this week." I said, "Expel me, then!". I think I was unteachable. Everybody was saying I was only going to be a car mechanic, so I thought, "Why the fuck am I doing geography?"

When I was expelled from Canterbury Cross at 13, my mother didn't see the seriousness of it. The parents of a lot of working-class kids wanted them to hurry through education and go to work. My mum seemed to think if I wasn't at school, I could help her and get a part-time job. My mistake was that I started robbing post offices instead. I left home, lived off petty crime. Sometimes we'd nick a fast Capri and have the whole country at our fingertips. I had no regrets.

But when my sister Joyce went to grammar school, I remember my mum being proud. Joyce was brainy. I'd smash a window and Joyce would say, "Was there a particular reason for doing that?"

At 15, I ended up at an approved school near Shrewsbury. On the first day,they gave you a test. The guy who did it, who looked like a hippy and wore a kaftan, used to touch all the boys up. There was no maths, no English. We did car mechanics, a bit of painting, digging - boys' stuff. Then this teacher came to work there and - it was outrageous, really - I had an affair with her. We'd wait for the night-duty man to go, then I'd go over and have sex with her.

After approved school, I went to a detention centre, to borstal and then to prison. It was when I was a young prisoner that I decided, "I'm going to use this energy differently. I've got the talent to be a poet." I realised not all white people hated us, not all teachers were the enemy. I wanted to educate myself, be a bit more spiritual, a bit more political. I wasn't sure how to go about it, but I started to collect books on black consciousness and different religions.

After prison I went to London. A couple of friends said, "The thing to do is to make a book", so I was going around publishers with scraps of paper. I had help from a girlfriend, who I went out with just because she had a typewriter. I had lots of refusals. The standard response was, "We don't publish black poetry". Then I ended up in a little East End bookshop called Page One Books and they said, "We'll publish you, if you help us to staple the pages together". But I wanted to reach people who didn't read books, so I started performing with bands and there was a long gap before my second book.

I didn't really learn to read and write until I was in my 20s. But I was always rapping and toasting along to music. I just wish I could have had a teacher who said, "Hey, I don't think you're a waste of space; what do you really want to do?" I would have gone, "Can I do poetry?" But the people I did mention it to just laughed.

A teacher once gave me Shelley's "Song to the men of England" (now one of my favourite poems) and said, "I'll be back in 10 minutes. Tell me what it means." I couldn't, so she made me stand in the corner. It was crazy. If only somebody had taken the time to say, "Well, actually, Shelley was as angry as you."

Benjamin Zephaniah, writer and poet, had his first collection Pen Rhythm published in 1980. He was shortlisted for poetry fellowships at Cambridge University in 1987 and Oxford in 1989. Three volumes of poetry have been published recently: School's Out (AK Press), Propa Propaganda (Bloodaxe) and Funky Chickens (Puffin), and two spoken-word cassettes, Funky Turkeys (ABM) and Reggae Head (57 Productions). He has written five plays for stage, two for radio and one for television

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