Mrs Bird and Mr Williams by Audley Harrison
At school, I was troublesome and ran with the wrong crowd. I ended up finishing my education in a school for rebel kids and left it without any qualifications.
I grew up in a tough neighbourhood in Harlesden, north-west London. My mum and dad divorced when I was four years old: my mum left and my dad ended up raising four boys on his own.
I gravitated towards the ladies in my life, because I didn’t have a mum. At Harlesden Primary School, it was Mrs Maureen Bird. Mrs Bird was a teacher who was also a care worker for troubled kids at the school. She was loving and tried to encourage me when I was going through my wild phase.
I used to live on the Stonebridge Estate in Harlesden and moved to another estate in Wembley, when my dad remarried, where I attended Northwood School. When my dad decided to get out of the area, we moved to Harrow, in north west London and so I started at Whitmore High School in Harrow, from the age of 12.
At Whitmore, the teacher that stood out was Mr Doug Williams, my class and PE teacher. He was encouraging and had the patience of a saint; that’s why I remember him. I got into trouble, was late for school and never listened, but Mr Williams was never a shouty teacher. His disapproval came in the way he looked at you.
He was definitely a teacher that saw the good in everyone and, because of that, he had the respect of the bad boys.
At the age of 9, I had had this epiphany that I was going to be a famous sportsperson. At school, I chased this epiphany by participating in football, running, cricket, table tennis, rugby and basketball. I played sports with Mr Williams: I remember playing basketball with him all the time. He was a good basketball player and a good all-round sportsman. I got on well with him.
But I got into a group fight on the last day of term before Easter. I was 14 at the time. A teacher told me to go to the headmaster’s office; I refused to go, and so I was suspended, then expelled. I ended up finishing my education at Atkin’s House, a pupil referral unit in Harrow. It was a small school with 12 students. I remember being concerned that we weren’t preparing for our GCSEs. I thought it was a travesty, because it meant that I was going to leave school without any qualifications.
I went from expulsion from school at 14 to Feltham Young Offenders Institution at 16. I was jailed for burglary and theft. Before I got locked up, I was homeless and sleeping in the homes of friends, on the streets or at Heathrow Airport. Sometimes I would sleep in my dad’s car, which I broke into with a lolly stick. He kicked me out of the house because I wasn’t listening to his rules.
I was grateful for prison, because it gave me a roof over my head, three meals a day and structure to my life, but when I left after 18 months, for good behaviour, I decided that I was never going back.
At 19, I went to college. Because I didn’t have any qualifications, I took one college course after another, including an access course. I got into Brunel University at 24 to study sports science and leisure management.
After winning gold for boxing at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, I was invited back to Whitmore High School, where I saw Mr Williams again. I was shocked that he was still at the school, but he had a big smile on his face and seemed proud of me.
I kept in touch with Mrs Bird after I nominated her to appear on a BBC programme celebrating great teachers. In 2005, she came to my wedding in Jamaica with her husband. At the time, she had cancer and when she returned to the UK I sent her notes in hospital to lift her spirits. Sadly, she passed away.
Audley Harrison was talking to Adeline Iziren. He has released a charity single, Never Ever Give Up, in partnership with The Samaritans. The aim of the single is to encourage people to push through their struggles
Born 26 October 1971
Education Harlesden Primary School, Northwood School, Whitmore High School, Atkin’s House (a former pupil referral unit), College of North East London and Brunel University
Career A former professional boxer, who went on to secure 31 wins and five losses.
As an amateur boxer, he won gold in the super-heavyweight division at the 2000 Olympics – the first Briton to do so.