A Peckham tale

It is an honour to work with the leaders of tomorrow’s Britain
August 24, 2011

I first met Leroy seven years ago, on a rainy, winter’s evening in Peckham. On being asked if he liked books, his response was: “Nah man, reading’s a long ting!”

Back then, in that group mentoring session in a dilapidated community centre, Leroy’s entrance was memorable. He bopped in as if he had dislocated his pelvis, adorned with all the teenage accoutrements of recalcitrant, faux-macho braggadocio. Visibly in thrall to the pernicious bling culture, he was, for all outward appearances, part of the truculent “You get me, blood?” generation: that tranche of ostensibly marginalised inner-city youth, baseball cap perched at an angle. In conversation, he couldn’t look me in the face (“doing a Stevie Wonder”) and littered his speech with obfuscating double negatives, basicallys and likes. His answers were terse and surly.

Seven years later, was Leroy one of those feral hoodlums looting Peckham High Street? No—he was too busy studying. He‘s now in the second year of a politics degree at Sussex University, and recently won a highly-coveted summer internship at a City bank. He wants to become a barrister.

Am I surprised by such a metamorphosis? No, because I have seen what a strong, protracted dose of tough love, encouragement, support and a laying down of clearly defined parameters can do for young people.

At the mentoring scheme where I volunteer, we try to emancipate the raw talent contained (or trapped?) beneath the hoodie, the puffy jacket and the baseball cap. Leroy and his peers are clearly symptomatic of a wider cultural and generational malaise, one that must be tackled head on if we do not wish to witness more of the chilling, dystopian events that occurred in early August.

Our scheme challenges young people to “confound, not conform to stereotypes,” by helping them raise their academic achievement, expand their cultural horizons, develop their moral compasses and not, like many other inner-city youth schemes, their rapping, basketball or DJing prowess.

I am no fan of cultural or moral relativism, and do not shy away from imparting rigid concepts of right and wrong. Leroy, like many, needed to be told in no uncertain terms why saying “batty man” was unacceptable, and why tolerance and humanity are the key to good citizenship. Our aim is to get young people to take themselves seriously, and thus to be taken seriously by others, particularly in that all-important college, university or job interview.

Taking participants to see a Shakespeare play on the South Bank or giving them financial literacy sessions are all part of the programme—as are making them read aloud and write critiques, essays or theatre reviews. Each week in our vocabulary slot we teach five new words, so that they can articulate their thoughts better. They are taught that words and the mind are the best weapons they can have at their disposal in the struggle of life.

Be it “ubiquitous,” “judicious” or “sardonic,” we teach words that can assist them both in GCSE English essays and in everyday conversation. But the first five words I always offer are far easier to spell, yet far harder to grasp: love, compassion, humanity, desire and determination—five of the most important in our language. All terribly quaint, old fashioned and hideously un-PC but, in my experience, unquestionably effective.

Tola joined the scheme four years ago, after seeing how her elder sister had benefited. Painfully bright, she was already eloquent and had an ardent desire to make something of herself. After years of nurturing her talents and one-on-one sessions, Tola received a letter last December with an SW1 postmark. She had won a full scholarship to the sixth form at Westminster School.

But not everything runs smoothly. I have two main regrets. First, that we don’t have the resources to help more people. We have about ten to 15 young people at any one time. Second, not being able to reach Denzel. For me, he’s the “one who got away.” From Jamaica, with no dad in the mix, Denzel lived on the notorious Aylesbury Estate with his grandmother. After establishing a connection of trust, and seeing his potential, I met up with him on Sundays for extra guidance for over a year, in addition to our weekly group sessions at the scheme. He wanted to become an airline pilot. We went to the RAF careers office and researched universities and courses for his UCAS form. He even gave me an old mobile phone with a T-mobile sim card, so that he could call me for free. Then something went wrong. To this day I’m not quite sure what. Either I was too heavy handed, or his desire to succeed and better himself evanesced. He stopped coming on Thursdays and then didn’t return my calls. Today

I hear he is working in JD Sports. I don’t know whether he still plans to go to university and become a pilot. I can only hope so.

What explains the disgraceful, atavistic behaviour witnessed on the streets this August? In part, a widespread sense of ennui, and a wholly unwarranted cynicism. Immured within a shallow “I’m bored, so I did it for a laugh” mindset, many looted for a thrill. Arguably the largest contributory factor to this attitude is the damaging creed of instant gratification so readily espoused nowadays—not only by the young, or by hoodies, but across society: by bankers, footballers and so on. A glaring lack of a hard-work ethos extends across many different parts of our culture.

There is also a chronic lack of respect for adults and those in positions of authority. We’re not in the army, so I don’t expect the kids to salute, but at the scheme I do expect them to give me a firm handshake, look me in the eye and act in a deferential and polite manner. Teenage transgressions need to be censured and corrected, not indulged, legitimised and excused.

Undoubtedly, the widespread abdication of parental responsibility is a major part of the problem. Every year we hold a special ceremony to celebrate achievement, when each of the participants gets up and makes a three-minute presentation. We invite a (quasi) famous guest speaker and a local dignitary to hand out certificates. It is held locally after work, and parents are given at least two months’ notice. On the day, David, 17, was immaculately attired in a brand new suit, pastel pink tie, brimming with pride. You could tell that he felt special. I am still haunted by the look on his face as he stood up to speak, about to relish his moment in the spotlight, as his eyes surreptitiously scanned the rows of chairs to see if his mum (dad—you’d be lucky!) had come to watch. All too predictably, the light in his eyes dimmed when he saw that she wasn’t there.

Yet while Peckham was burning, while other teenagers co-ordinated with friends on the BlackBerry mobile network to take part in the looting, and while thugs were making off with trainers by the box load, Leroy, Tola, David and—as far as I know—all my other kids were at home, or keeping out of trouble. The tales of these young Peckhamites, and countless others like them, are the stories of personal responsibility, dignity, and unyielding determination. These are the young people I am genuinely humbled to work with and who, I am proud to say, will be the true and deserving leaders of tomorrow’s Britain.