What we need is a great big melting pot
Big enough, enough, enough to take
The world and all it's got
Keep it stirring for
A hundred years or more
And turn out coffee-coloured people by the score
THESE WERE the lines that began playing in my head the moment I walked into my first class this term. (All right, I cheated. The coffee-coloured people line I remembered; the rest is from Google.)
If you teach in London as I do or indeed in any big city in Britain you'll be used to the diversity implied in the late 1960s song Melting Pot given new life in the 1980s by Boy George's Culture Club. You see it in the faces of your students and colleagues every day. And this year the group of people I found waiting for me in my tutor room seemed to be even more diverse than ever.
To begin with, of course, I didn't know the details. Like all new classes they just sat there in silence, peering anxiously at one another and wondering how long it would be till break. But once I asked them to interview the person on the next chair, the room was quickly abuzz with conversation.
To help things along, I'd given them a list of seven or eight questions they might ask, but the one they all tended to home in on was about origins: where they or their parents or grandparents were originally from. And as the feedback started, it was a bit like having the map of the world spread out in front of you.
First came the Jamaicans, Barbadians, Nigerians and Ghanaians. Interestingly, there were also first or second generation arrivals from several other African countries, including Ethiopia, Somalia, Sierra Leone and South Africa. One man in his thirties declared he was a Portuguese who had been brought up in Angola. Or maybe it was the other way around we never did quite get that one straight. Then there were two young women whose parents had come from Morocco and who turned out to be related to one another.
There was a Turkish woman and a man from Turkish Cyprus. Nearby sat two Iraqis, though one quickly identified herself as only half Iraqi, the other 50 per cent being Irish. Then Irena was introduced as Polish, and Louise as Canadian.
Recent surveys have shown how many Londoners were born elsewhere (one last year claimed as many as a third came from outside Britain) and the nearest we could get to Bow Bells was Scotland. In such company I thought it safe to come out as half Welsh. "Which half?" came the quick-fire response.
As the last of these multifarious identities was declared, I began to feel a bit miffed by the exceptions. Why hadn't we got a single South American or Australasian among us? And where were the Inuits when you wanted them? Still, we had four continents and nearly a score of countries present in the classroom and there was always next year.
By now you're probably thinking, so what? All this cosy cosmopolitanism may give the tutor a nice warm glow. It may make the Daily Mail edito- rial writers have kittens. But does it have any significance beyond that?
I think it does. Because it says something about the cohesive power of education. When people come from such diverse communities, there is always the danger that they continue to live their lives almost entirely within them. In its final report, just published, the Commission for Racial Equality puts the problem in stark terms: "Segregation residentially, socially and in the workplace is growing. Extremism, both political and religious, is on the rise as people become disillusioned and disconnected from each other."
But here they all were with a common goal. In the classroom they were no longer Nigerians or Poles or Portuguese. They were students. Once they all started talking it was hard for me to stop them. They liked being in a multicultural environment. They liked one another.
And who's to say that by the end of their course they might not produce something more than the usual crop of Access certificates? Maybe even a few more of those coffee-coloured people by the score?