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In the second grade, I started in a new school that was designed as a progressive environment where students, teachers and administrators were all on a first-name basis. Radical, even in ’82, our school was forward about gender, race and class diversity. Despite this, I only had one Black teacher in my elementary school years – the amazing music teacher. As kids, we could see few other Black adults: the assistant librarian, a handful of the lunchroom ladies, as well as the Black middle- and high-school teachers we saw in the same building. This meant that the Black adult we most consistently interacted with was Miss Saundra, the janitor.
Miss Saundra appeared around corners, could surprise you out of a closet you hadn’t even noticed was there. She was always on hand should there be any major mess or spill. Best of all, our school gleamed from top to bottom, every classroom, every hallway, every bookshelf, every restroom – every desk! It felt lovely to go to school every day, the floors shined, the windows sparkled, and even the banisters were pristine. I am certain this level of hygiene must have taken a team, but I remember Miss Saundra, probably because she was friendly to me. I can still see her, unbending her back to look at us, and speak face to face.
If I ever had to come to school early to play in the gym or have breakfast, or stay late for an after-school activity, Miss Saundra would likely be there, tidying up. She always took time to greet us. She was even there for school dances, and asked nothing in return, and we knew nothing of her outside the labor she devoted to us in the background. She was our school’s magic negro.
Other than the school guard who was not armed with anything but charm, Miss Saundra, might have been the first at school, followed by the ladies making breakfast. These were our essential workers – like the air we breathed in the heart of our city. I like to think because of their personalities we felt at home in our environment and therefore enjoyed school more fully.
Kids carry on.
When I was in the third grade, our teacher – a tall, grey-haired white man of grand stature who taught me I could master math even though it wasn’t easy for me – sent all the girls ahead to music class. He held the boys back for a chat. Apparently, someone had urinated in the second-floor boys’ bathroom, and they’d worked out that only our class had taken a break between cleanings. Since teachers had separate restrooms, I thought it must have been Miss Saundra who’d discovered the mess, and so I wondered what that conversation was like with our teacher, who was now accusing us! Though he didn’t demand we rat out the culprit, he called it “nasty,” and said we could get electrocuted, because “electricity travels through water,” wagging his index finger like it was on fire. With that, he sent us off to music!
This was probably the first time that I’d been explicitly asked to identify as a gender, and it was over THIS! I knew that whoever had done it would have needed an audience. So not only did some fool piss on the wall, some other fool(s) stood around and watched! I thought, what bastard did this! Didn’t they know Miss Saundra would have to clean it? Didn’t she greet them, and ask them how they’re doing like she does me? Did they ‘see’ Miss Saundra everyday like she saw us? Why would they piss on her parade? Why give Miss Saundra the blues for your pissing contest!
I stopped by the bathroom on the way back from music class. Sure enough, Miss Saundra had been done had it squeaky, bleachy clean! I could never have imagined girls’ doing something like that.
I knew that like me, Miss Saundra was an outsider in a space where I belonged. I knew people like Miss Saundra, so she was not a stranger to me. I had no ambitions of becoming a janitor, but I certainly knew women, in my family and in my community, who did this sort of work. And those women I knew who did that sort of work encouraged people like me to do well in school, so I could take advantage of the kinds of choices they didn’t have. I had no reason to think Ms. Saundra less of me. What’s more, even though I felt strange in my own body, she treated me as human, especially. The gratitude I feel for her sounds like a tambourine in my own theme song.
What is Christmas? A date in the calendar in winter towards the end of the year to celebrate one of the main religious festivals of the Christian calendar. The Romans replaced a pagan festival with the birth of the head of the, then new, religion. Since then as time progresses, more customs and traditions are added, to make this festival more packed with meaning and importance. The gift of the 20th century’s big corporations was the addition to the date, the red Santa Claus who travels the planet on his sledge from the North Pole in a single day, offering gifts to all the well-behaved kids. The birth of Christ is miles away from the Poles but somehow the story’s embellishment continues.
In schools, kids across the world will re-enact the nativity scene, a romantic version of the birth of Jesus, minus their flight to Egypt and the slaughter of the infants. The nativity, is for many, their first attempt at theatre and most educators’ worst nightmare, as they will have to include all children regardless of talent or interest to this production. The play consists mostly of male characters (usually baby Jesus is someone’s doll) except for one. That of the mother of Jesus. The virgin Mary is located centre stage, sitting quietly, the envy of all other parent’s that their kid was not cast in such a reverent role. In recent years, charlatans tried to add more female roles by feminising the Angels and even giving the Inn keeper a daughter or even a wife. In most cases it was the need of introducing more characters in the play. Most productions now include barn animals (cats and dogs included), reindeers, trees, villagers, stars and even a moon. All castable parts not necessarily with a talking part.
The show usually feels that it lasts longer than it does. The actors become nervous, some forget their lines, others remember different lines, the music is off key and the parents jostle to get to prime position in order to record this show, that very few will ever watch. The costumes will be coming apart almost right after the show and the props are just about holding on with a lot of tape and superglue. The play will signal the end of the school season carrying the joyful message from the carpark to the people’s homes. This tradition carries on regardless of religious sentiments and affiliations. People to commemorate the birth of a man that billions of people consider the head of their faith.
Nativity is symbolic but its meaning changes with the times, leaving me wondering what our nativity will be in the 21st century. Imagine a baby Jesus floating face down on torrential Aegean waters, a virgin Mary hoping that this will be the last client for the day on the makeshift brothel maybe today is the day she gets her passport back; Joseph a broken man, laying by the side of the street on a cardboard; the angel a wingless woman living alone in emergency accommodation, living in fear, the villagers stunned in fear and everyone carrying on . Not as festive as the school production but after all, people living for year in austerity, and a lockdown and post-referendum decisions make it difficult to be festive. Regardless of the darkness that we live in, the nativity has a more fundamental message: life happens irrespective of circumstances and nothing can stop the birth of a new-born.
Merry Christmas to all from the Criminology Team
“These children are in our care; we, the state, are their parents- and what are we setting them up for…the dole, the streets, an early grave? I tell you: this shames our country and we will put it right.”
David Cameron MP, Prime Minister October 2015 at the Conservative Party Conference.
Well, I think it would be fair to say that politicians’ minds have not been exercised unduly over the fate of care leavers since David Cameron made the above promise in 2015. I worked with children in care and care leavers involved in the youth justice system for over thirty years and although his analysis of the outcomes for care leavers was simplistic and crude, tragically Cameron’s statement rings true for many of those leaving care.
With regard to the criminal justice system, Lord Laming’s independent review “In Care, Out of Trouble” http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/In%20care%20out%20of%20trouble%20summary.pdf, notes that there is no reliable data on the numbers of looked after children in custody. However, based on data from a number of sources, the review came to the conclusion that around 400 looked after children are in custody at any one time. The total number of children in custody for July 2019 is 817. So, slightly less than half of those children in custody are looked after children according to the best estimates available, drawn from different sources. http://youthjusticeboard.newsweaver.co.uk/yots2/1g2x6m3h9q315chudc9elc?email=trueYJBulletin
Moving the spotlight, a huge 40% of care leavers are not engaged in Education, Training or Employment and only 6% of care leavers gain entry to university https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/464756/SFR34_2015_Text.pdf . This at a time when around 50% of children now have access to Higher Education and the opportunities that this can provide. Also, 20% of young people who are homeless have previously been in care.
Naturally, we have to be careful to provide a level of balance to the above rather desperate and shocking figures. Lord Laming’s review found that 94% of children in care did not get in trouble with the law. However, children in care are six times more likely to be cautioned, or convicted of an offence than children in the wider population. Furthermore, children in care who come to police attention are more likely to be prosecuted and convicted than cautioned when compared to the wider child population.
So, what has happened since 2015 when David Cameron declared his intention to “put it right”? In truth, there have been some steps forward and these need to be celebrated and built upon. The Care Leaver Covenant, a promise made by private, public or voluntary organisations to provide support for care leavers aged 16-25 has meant the availability of employment opportunities for young care leavers in the Civil Service, local authorities and a range of private sector organisations. Closer to home, here at the University of Northampton, we have launched a new package of support for care leavers who want to study with us. The package offers the possibility, from 2020, of a fully funded place in our Halls of Residence for the first academic year, a contract which extends their accommodation lease to include the summer vacation. A block for many care leavers entering Higher Education is the very real issue of where to live at the end of the academic year, so this tries to address this issue. Another block experienced is financial hardship; the offer provides a non-means tested financial award of up to £1,500 per year to help with course and living costs, and this alongside the local authority’s statutory responsibility to support access to higher education may also help. We also have a designated member of support staff to provide advice and guidance. All these demonstrate our commitment to widening participation and encouraging ambition.
Of course, this is only part of the picture. Arguably, our engagement with young people in care needs to start shortly after their transition to secondary school. The wider social structures which perpetuate disadvantage and poverty will continue to challenge those who are children in care and leaving care. The “adverse childhood experiences” – a rather unedifying term for physical, sexual, and emotional abuse perpetrated by carers or parents-will still have an impact for this group and potentially impair their ability or commitment to study.
If however, I learnt anything from my years working with children in care and children leaving care, it is that you should not underestimate their ability to overcome the obstacles placed in their way. With the right support and a child centred approach, education can provide the right framework for opportunities. Victor Hugo famously said that if you open a school door, you close a prison. Let’s kick open the door of Higher Education a little wider and increase the life chances of these children in OUR care.
As a footnote, I should say that my mum was in care from the age of four until she was fifteen when she was adopted. I would therefore be happy to acknowledge that this has some influence on my perspective and my interest in this group of young people.
Dave Palmer Lecturer in Criminal Justice Services
A few years ago, probably about three or four, I found myself appointed as some form of school liaison person for criminology. I’m still trying to conjure up a title for my office worthy of consideration as grand poohbah. As I understood my role, the university marketing department would arrange for schools to visit the university or for me to visit schools to promote the university and talk about criminology.
In the beginning, I stumbled around the talks, trying to find my feet and a formula of presentation that worked. As with most things, it’s trial and error and in those earlier days some of it felt like a trial, and there were certainly a few errors (nothing major, just stuff that didn’t work). The presentations became workshops, the ideas morphed from standing up and talking and asking a few questions, with very limited replies, to asking students to think about ideas and concepts and then discussing them, introducing theoretical concepts along the way. These days we try to disentangle scenarios and try to make sense of them, exploring the ideas around definitions of crime, victims and offenders.
There is nothing special about what I do but the response seems magical, there is real engagement and enthusiasm. I can see students thinking, I can see the eyes light up when I touch on topics and question society’s ideas and values. Criminology is a fascinating subject and I want everyone to know that, but most importantly I want young minds to think for themselves and to question the accepted norms. To that extent, criminology is a bit of a side show, the main gig is the notion that university is about stretching minds, seeking and acquiring knowledge and never being satisfied with what is supposedly known. I suppose criminology is the vehicle, but the driver decides how far they go and how fast.
As well as changing my style of presentation, I have also become a little more discerning in choosing what I do. I do not want to turn up to a school simply to tell pupils this is what the course looks like, these are the modules and here are a few examples of the sorts of things we teach at the university. That does nothing to build enthusiasm, it says nothing about our teaching and quite frankly, its boring, both for me and the audience.
Whilst I will turn up to a school to take a session for pupils who have been told that they have a class taken by a visitor, I much prefer those sessions where the pupils have volunteered to attend. Non-compulsory classes such as after school events are filled with students who are there because they have an interest and the enthusiasm shines through.
Whilst recognising marketing have a place in arranging school visits, particularly new ones, I have found that more of my time is taken up revisiting schools at their request. My visits have extended outside of the county into neighbouring counties and even as far as Norfolk. Students can go to university anywhere so why not spread the word about criminology anywhere. And just to prove that students are never too young to learn, primary school visits for a bit of practical fingerprinting have been carried out for a second time. Science day is great fun, although I’m not sure parents or carers are that keen on trying to clean little inky hands (I keep telling them its only supposed to be the fingers), I really must remember not to use indelible ink!