What keeps me awake at night - Tension between two cultures

7th September 2012 at 01:00

I'm struggling with one of the Traveller children in my school. Well, not so much with her as with the polarised attitudes she engenders in staff. Between "Come on, let's be honest, they leave litter and they thieve and we all know it" and "We have to understand that their culture condones sexism and to change that is to devalue their heritage", I'm at a loss on how to see Danni as a young person instead of a representative of some serious social issues.

The reality is that she does present us with some very real problems. My staff present me with very real problems, too. The difference is I can talk to her a bit more easily.

Danni is bright, feisty, talented, opinionated and loud. She is proud of her culture and exploits her differences shamelessly when it suits her. She is popular in her year, mostly treated as slightly exotic but valued, and sometimes hideously bullied. She provokes controversy, meets problems head-on, uses sexist and racist language with impunity and objects with fists to the compliment being returned.

She rides roughshod over every prejudice in this small rural school where strangers are not always much welcomed by students and where differences are resented. So she is a normal, confrontational, angry pre-teen - if a little more visible than most. Lately, though, she is causing me to stay awake at night.

She is the first of her Traveller family to attend secondary school, and I think she loves it. She is also fiercely loyal to her roots. But school and family have now come into conflict. She wants to travel and to go on the school trip to Africa, to go to college, to run her own business; her family wants her to marry, have children and travel, but as part of their community, certainly not as part of ours.

I watch her on a daily basis seek to resolve that paradox; listen as she tells me how much she hated the cheap parody of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding but how much she too wants the frock, the attention, the sense of belonging. She is starting to realise the constraints she is under from a culture she loves and subscribes to proudly, starting to recognise the tensions she cannot resolve.

I hear my staff tell me that we have not helped, that she would have been better off out of school, and they say it out of genuine compassion for her. And I cannot reconcile things for her, because although she now moves between two cultures I have the limitation of vision brought about by belonging to only one, and I have no easy answers.

To suggest to Danni's mum that she could, perhaps, live between two worlds would, I know, see her removed from our school. So Danni, at 12, has to work out for herself where she fits in, has to resolve for herself a tension we as adults have so spectacularly failed to resolve for her.

The writer is a head from the East of England. To tell us what keeps you awake at night, email david.marley@tes.co.uk.

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