It’s a miserable afternoon. Classic English seaside weather, and not so much as an ice cream van to redeem it. We’ve eaten a Bengali picnic in the middle of a shopping precinct. I can barely move for all the food that’s been pressed upon me. Now we’re back on the coach and headed along the Sussex coast to Rye. The back seat’s packed with teenage girls, still passing food back and forth. At every glimpse of the sea they rush to the windows, chattering like the murmurations of starlings that curl and weave over the passing marshland. Rye’s the last stop before home. The staid older students head off in search of antiques and fish-and-chips. The girls beg me to stay with them. They want photos at every opportunity. They’ve not seen a place like this before.
The rain holds off just a couple of hours. It’s starting again as the coach pulls out of the car park. The girls are singing Bollywood classics by the time we join the motorway. They know every note. Every word. Samaya dances in the aisle to the swish of the windscreen wipers. I think the older students are wishing the coach floor would open and swallow her. What none of us knows is that this is her last taste of freedom. The pressures of marriage and parenthood are about to close in on these girls. Samaya, I’m never going to see again.
I worked in the language school for four years. Hope, it was called and I like to think that was what it brought, at least sometimes. I loved my job with passion hard to describe. When I first fetched up there it was nothing short of a miracle I could teach at all. Charlie’s grip was absolute then. I could barely string a sentence in real life, and I learned to switch my phone off when I taught, just to stem the tide of abusive texts. As soon as I stood in front of a class, I came alive. I loved connecting people. The priceless moment when a beginners’ group first grasped the words ‘coffee break’, or the smile of delight when two students discovered they could speak to each other at last. Women from across the globe bonded over custard creams and childbirth stories. A Bengali lad adopted a French nun as his substitute mum. Naz brought chai masala and boiled it in the kettle, so everyone’s coffee was slightly spicy for the rest of the week. Lifelong friendships were forged. We shared international meals, circumcision celebrations and afternoon teas. We organised a fund raiser after the earthquake in Haiti, and sipped Turkish tea while eating English cupcakes. It broke my heart when the EDL held their first rally in Luton. They shut down the town centre one Saturday. I spent an entire week explaining, and apologising for the idiocy of English extremists. And we went on that wonderful coach trip to the seaside.
Of course the idyll had its dark side too. There was the Afghan schoolboy who talked of nothing but guns. The Bengali teenager who was bussed two hundred miles a night to slave in a restaurant kitchen. He fell asleep on the desk most days. I met mail-order brides. May, from China, was deeply miserable. She disappeared as soon as her English got good enough for her to complain. Cynthia, on the other hand, gave her purchaser a run for his money. He definitely bit off more than he was expecting to chew when he handed over the fee. She used to tell me about Thai friends who hadn’t been so lucky, or so feisty. Her best friend worked all hours in her owner’s sandwich bar. He wouldn’t let her learn English in case she ran away.
Halima still worries me now. Her husband brought her to the initial interview, and I just knew. When you’ve been where I have you develop a sixth sense. She was quiet and shy. Highly intelligent. She’d been a teacher somewhere in north Africa. She broke down in the classroom one Wednesday afternoon. Why did he beat her still, now she was six months pregnant? He’d taken her passport. He’d told her he’d have her deported and keep her baby if she breathed a word. What can you say about a man like that? I tried to put her in touch with people who could help, but she was far too scared. My boss came in with a cuppa when she’d gone.
You think you’re just teaching them English, don’t you?
That’s what I’m here for.
You’re not, you’re mothering them too.
I know, I know. But that’s who I am. It’s why I was never going to be a millionaire, and just why I’m spitting nails this morning. Managers. CEOs. Chancellors of the Exchequer. Prime Ministers even. They think in strategies, grand plans and long-term goals. They don’t see the effect of their behaviour for individual lives. People like me? We work the front line, battling to clean up the mess they trail in their wake, each of us playing our little King Canute to the rolling tide of destruction.
Aside from my age, the main reason I struggled to find work when I moved to Bristol was the ongoing reduction in government funding for ESOL classes. Hope had been a church-based school. I’d taken a pay cut even there because money was tight, but at least the premises were comfortable and rent-free, and as I may have said before I’m not high-maintenance. In 2012 teachers were losing their jobs or having their hours cut all over the country. Last year all public funding for ESOL classes was removed. I’d love nothing better than to resurrect Hope Language School here in Bristol, but the very people who need the classes are those who can’t afford to pay, and even low-maintenance needs to eat once in a while.
David Cameron seized and devoured a whole packet of custard creams yesterday. His pronouncements on the imperative for Muslim women to learn English were at best ill-conceived. Lazy and sloppy, in the words of Baroness Warsi, who’s not a woman I’d normally have truck with, they seemed designed to appeal to all those stereotypes that reinforce the worst kinds of prejudice. I’ve worked in a community with a large Muslim population. I’m well aware there are controlling husbands and families out there. Halima’s husband’s a Muslim. Rabina came to just six classes when she arrived from Pakistan, all under the close supervision of her sister-in-law who spoke perfect English. But May’s married to a white Brit, and Cynthia’s friend’s owned by one. What are we going to do for them? Oh yes, nothing. Helping them won’t win the UKIP vote.
If I’m honest, the whole thing puts me slightly in mind of something I wrote when George Osborne demonstrated his munificence by ploughing £15m of tampon tax into domestic abuse services he’d recently de-funded. Quietly cut a vital service, then make a song-and-dance about giving back far less than you took away. Hope no-one notices it was you who messed up in the first place. Job done. The icing on the biscuits was that Dear Dave managed to shift the blame onto Muslim women themselves, for not using a service that didn’t exist. My own experience suggests that the vast majority of people arriving in the UK are only too happy to learn English, irrespective of gender or religion. English is the most useful language anyone can speak. And why would you choose not to speak the language of the country you live in? The biggest barrier to learning is funding and facilities, not a lack of enthusiastic students or teachers.
The most worrying aspect of this salvo is the way the Prime Minister’s tapped visceral fears by implying a connection between inadequate English and radical extremism. Admittedly it’s a very real connection if you look at hardcore British right-wing pages on Facebook, but I don’t think that’s quite what Dave means. Today’s news suggests he wants to dress his policies as empowerment for oppressed Muslim women. Much though I hate to agree with Baroness Warsi, she’s not wrong when she says that to threaten deportation if women fail to learn English is a very unusual way of empowering and emboldening them. Seriously Dave, if you can’t do better than this, I think you’d do well to admit you’ve no idea what goes on in the real world. It pains me to have to quote yet another Tory woman, but you really are a posh boy who doesn’t know the price of milk, and I’m not the only one out here who’s heartily sick of mopping up the mess.