This is the story of how one of the worst ever students became a teacher.
On my teaching course – my PGCE in Nottingham – I felt like the odd one out. I was the kid who’d been the naughty one, always in detention. I was surrounded by trainee teachers who’d been Good. However, I believed my somewhat shady background would make me a good teacher. And it did.
From the age of seven, I used to climb onto the roof of our house and sit above the garage and look at the stars. My bedroom had an edge of roof running below it, a tiled pathway to the garage roof where there was a perfect apex I could sit on and stargaze. I was afraid of sleeping as I had nightmares but out there, under the sky, I was perfectly at home. I was also afraid of my father, so when he discovered me on the roof I was petrified about what he’d do. I’ve never understood why (my father is an enigma), but he told me to be careful and not tell my mother. I laughed and carried on climbing, night after night. At the time I had a group of imaginary friends – there was a lack of real ones – and though it was them who first tempted me to go out there, it was me who had the guts to wait until everyone was asleep and open my window for my night time adventures.
We moved from Yorkshire to Surrey three years later, and my brother and I slept up in a converted attic, with the roof a dizzying three storeys high. That didn’t stop me and though a fall this time would have meant death, I visited my private rooftop world via the bathroom window night after night. Up there, I could be anyone other than the troubled child I’d become.
I was an angry rebel for a while, and fought against authority, starting with my dad as soon as I could talk, my stepdad from the age of 15, then anyone else who crossed my path. I got into all sorts of trouble at school and spent a lot of time smoking in the school toilets, drinking, bunking off and lying about my whereabouts. I’d gained some friends by now, but we egged each other on. I had too many boyfriends from too early an age. I did exciting things too, making opportunities for myself by working a variety of jobs from the age of 12; learning to scuba dive aged 16, jumping out of a plane when I was 17. But I took all kinds of less healthy risks, probably best not mentioned here because one day, my children will read this.
I scraped enough exams to study for three A-levels but struggled to motivate myself. I was told after six months I could only continue with two subjects but I’d decided I wanted to go to university and needed three. I rebelled against my own rebellion and fought to continue, succeeding with the Head in getting a second chance and managing the grades I needed to escape, ending up at Swansea University. I never looked back.
Four years later, and equipped with a degree in English and Politics, I went to work with adults with learning difficulties – beautiful rebels, every one – whilst I worked out how I’d use my degree. I lived in a shared house owned by a guy called Yeti. His house had a rooftop terrace (accessible roofs were my main criteria for choosing a decent place to live) where I used to sit and stargaze after a particularly challenging day. I looked out into space and thought of my life stretching ahead, and how I could do anything I wanted in the world. I’d always wanted to be a writer but was savvy enough to know I needed to feed myself while I found my writing voice.
One night on the roof, a revelation: I wanted to help children who’d struggled like me. I thought of my own English teacher, Mrs Gray, one of the few who saw that under the belligerence there was potential, and realised I wanted to be that person to other children.
Even becoming a teacher involved rebellion. I applied as soon as I’d decided but it was late; I found out just days before the course began that I had a place. I owned a beige Morris Marina called Frank and it was into Frank that I packed my stuff, after waving goodbye to Yeti and my other crazy housemates, and in Frank that I slept before finding a place to stay. My tutors were horrified and told me I couldn’t continue on the course if I was sleeping in a car because I needed stability. I laughed. I’ll be fine, I said.
I discovered I’m a good teacher, especially when motivating children who were struggling. I know how it feels to sabotage yourself so I teach them not to rebel against their own potential, only the stuff that’s limiting them. I remember how it was to not want to learn, to think that being good equals being uncool, so I can get through to them. I know how it feels to be labelled the angry, shouty one so I listen. I know how it feels to hate yourself, but I know how it feels to save yourself and learn to love yourself, too. No matter what’s happened to you, you can rebel against it to do well.
I like to think rebels live fuller lives; are original; think out of the box; take risks they need to succeed. I like being one – now I’ve tamed myself a little.
I still dream about my rooftops. I dream they are bigger than they were, and have nooks and crannies I’ve yet to explore. I always wake up reminded that there are whole worlds inside each of us.
Dare to dream. Dare to climb. Dare to be a rebel.