For the last year I have been setting up a university bridging module which offers the chance for those affected by homelessness and, often, addiction, to access higher education.
It has been a path fraught with challenges and barriers
It has been a mountain that has sometimes seemed almost impossible to climb.
It has been a journey full of anxiety and worry.
But most of all it has taught me to understand the strength of the human spirit, the power of determination to beat the odds, it has reminded me of the innate kindness of the human heart.
I still remember the first day, the sense of trepidation with which I stood in front of a group of strangers who had experienced more in their lives than I could begin to fathom.
They walked together through the door of the University, And I could see it in their eyes, the uncertainty of the welcome they would receive.
This group of people used to being judged and ostracised, misfits expecting to be labelled and rejected
I tried to imagine the courage it must have taken to walk through that door, the demons they had to battle to take that first step.
We all of us struggle with imposter syndrome, the belief that any minute now someone is going to find us out and realise we are not who we say we are, but for those guys on that evening I can only imagine how alien the world of academia must have seemed.
But from the moment they sat in the lecture room, they were transformed. They became hungrier for learning and thirstier for knowledge than any students I have ever taught.
And as the year progressed, they became more confident and with each week, I became more humble.
I was and still am, overawed by their ability to link the theories that we talked about to the lives they had lived.
I was, and still am, blown away by their intelligences and quick -wittedness.
And I was, and still am, overwhelmed by their generosity of spirit, by their kind heartedness. From those who have been out in the cold, I have received more warmth than from many who have never known loneliness.
From those who have nothing, I have learnt the value of a kind word and a smile.
From those who are used to being invisible, I have learnt the difference that treating people with respect and having just one person who truly cares can make.
And so, on that first evening, we began a journey that profoundly changed us all. There were times when we cried together, times when we almost gave up.
If you have no identity, no documents to show who you are, then it is hard to prove you are someone.
If your default reaction to stress is to reach for a bottle or a needle, then writing academic essays when you have never really been to school, becomes more than just an annoying challenge.
But there were times when the room was warmed by laughter, when the sense of achievement was almost tangible.
Some did not complete the course but what I have learnt, is that the sum of what we are trying to do is greater than its parts. It is not about completing a course but about offering hope, about understanding your own potential, about maybe, just maybe, making the impossible seem possible. And even when the dream doesn’t quite come true, honesty and self-awareness grow.
“Sorry, but I struggled with the essay…every time I worked on it, I really had a bad craving for a drink …I almost relapsed,” wrote one student ” My sobriety is more important than a uni degree…but thanks for making me realise I had a brain.”
They learnt how to reference, how to write critically. They read academic journals and spent hours in the library, leafing through books. Guest lecturers kept asking me if they could come back, library staff told me enthusiastically how hard they were all working. Almost without any of us noticing, they became absorbed into the fabric of he University as hard-working, dedicated students.
“Can you think of a time when you have been labelled?” I asked them. And of course I expected everyone to tell me stories of how they were perceived as “the homeless,” or “addicts,” ….but that is not the story they told me. One by one, sometimes whispered, sometimes angrily, they spoke of a time when they were children and a parent or teacher called them “thick.” or “stupid,” or “useless.”
Education is transfomative but being described as uneducable is one of the most destructive things that can ever happen .
It destroys self-belief and self-worth.
It destroys trust and love.
It shatters everything you were beginning to believe about yourself.
It leaves nothing but a sense of self-loathing, worthlessness and emptiness. And the best way to fill that is often with drugs or alcohol.
As parents and educators we need to take some responsibility for that. We hold the future of every child and student in our hands. We cannot protect them from danger or injustice, but we can fill them with a hope that tomorrow might be better than today.
We can give them the tools to make better decisions.
We can wrap them in the belief that they can be someone.
Because if I have learnt anything on this journey, it is that homelessness cannot simply be solved by cheaper housing ( although that will help) and addiction is not something that ever leaves us.
” I will always be an addict,” says someone from the course, ” But I can choose whether to be a drunk addict or a sober one. ”
It is easy to walk past figures slumped in a doorway, to cross the street to avoid the Big Issue sellers. We only need to turn our heads away from what we choose not to see. We all of us have a pre-conceived idea of homelessness. Drunks and tramps and self-chosen outcasts. But as I talk with the ex-deputy headmaster who is currently trying to fight his way out of addiction or with the ex-head of a department in an internationally renowned firm, victim of an abusive relationship that destroyed her, I am struck by the precariousness of life, by the knowledge that it could happen to any of us, by the awareness that next time it might be me.
I am climbing the stairs in the education department, on my way to a meeting when my phone rings. I glance at the name, one of the students from the bridging module.
” Hi,” he says.
“Are you alright,” I ask immediately.
For a second he hesitates.
“That’s why I’m ringing,” he says, ” We are always ringing you because we are not alright, because we need something, But today I’m ringing to ask how you are. I know your mum hasn’t been well and so I’m just checking that you’re ok. You have done so much for all of us and we want you to know that we are all here for you.”
And for a moment I can’t move, paralysed by the depth of emotion that such genuine kindness evokes in me. That’s who they are these unwanted dwellers on the edge of society, some of the kindest, most generous people it has ever been my privilege to meet.
And at the beginning of September the first 4 students started at University. They shrugged off their past and stepped into their future and so far… they are blossoming. Every time I see them, sitting in the cafe, wandering around campus or chatting with other students, I feel my heart skip. I watch as slowly, very slowly, some of the weight they have carried for so long on their shoulders, lifts. I watch as they make their way to lectures, just another student, stressed out about essay deadlines..
And for a moment I feel as though I can almost reach out and touch hope.
And on the same day that they started, the next group of uncertain bridging module students stepped through the university door and holding their heads as high as they dared, started their journey.
And I know however long it takes, each small step will make our lives, theirs and mine, more meaningful.
And every time I walk past someone bundled in a doorway I catch their eye and smile.
Because sometimes all it takes is a smile to make people believe that they exist.
Sometimes a smile is the very first step.