My role as a learning mentor for disenfranchised young learners that have not assimilated into mainstream education for whatever has entitled me to meet and interact with some 'interesting' young people to put it succinctly.
One such character was Mikey*.
A man before his time Mikey was a 14 year old Roma Gypsy that had been in the country for a couple of years.
Perhaps it was a combination of being in the heart of Tottenham and his Euro-Mediterranean looks and partly my initial ignorance, I had simply assumed he was Turkish.
My initial encounter with him was on my very first day, he was the very first learner I was to work with.
Like all the teens I work with their were behavioural and discipline issues with Mikey which were further exacerbated with English not being his first language.
He was sitting in the classroom in his own world, content to be listening to his music through his headphones which wouldn't have been a problem had it not been in the middle of a lesson. Up until that point he had been left to his own devices - the combination of issues that surrounded him meant that he was labelled the most dangerous and worst of a bad bunch. I asked him to take his headphones off; one didn't have to be a professional to see by the way he looked me up and down with the menace in his face that he wasn't impressed.
This was confirmed when he took his earphones out, in his own time, only to ask, “Who the f***k are you c**t?”
To then have him pull out a knife, “If all the teachers let me listen to my music and leave me the f**k alone then why should I listen to you? Go and talk to someone who is interested, I don't need your help”, he scowled at me whilst showing what looked like about a 12 - 15 inch blade.
I had to think quickly in order to retain his attention. “Oh that knife looks a bit like a smaller version of the sword collection I have at home”, I retorted in as nonchalant way as possible, hoping he couldn't read into my mind and see I was thinking. To my relief his eyes lit up, “You have a sword collection?”, he inquisitively asked, “What kind of swords?”
I was close to being found out as there was no sword let alone a collection of them at home and as such my knowledge was limited to the martial arts films I had grown up with.
“Samurai.” I quickly retorted, “But I'm not really allowed to talk to you about them because you're under-age and you need a special licence but if you listen to me and work with me then we can look them up on the Internet after.”
It seemed to do the trick and the ice was sliced with the sword lie between us.
From that point on Mikey would listen and cooperate with me although it wasn't easy as he insisted on communicating only with me and would still take every opportunity to cause disruption to the class when I wasn't there.
I could see the label of 'the Gypsy kid' affected his interaction with his peers and it was both sad and revealing when I questioned him as his trust in me grew stronger.
“See how Black people used to be called the ‘n’ word? That's how people in my country see Gypsy people.”
This young boy was forced to become a man before his time simply because of the tag 'Roma Gypsy'.
As his barriers broke down, Mikey became more open about his world. His fascination on weapons had developed from his involvement in fighting - a strong tradition in his family and a way the males would prove their worth.
Perhaps, to a point, this may be true in many communities however Mikey’s seemed extreme to say the least; his father counterfeiting documents so he could lie about his age and fight professionally in 'the cage' with grown men for money for the family; his daily 4-hour training to prepare him for it was impressive.
He would love to show me different fighting techniques and I would show interest to build his confidence and trust.
I didn't disregard him and leave him alone - he could tell me about his passion as long as we followed it up with some English and Maths thereafter. He was very capable in Maths, we have to understand money, was his reasoning.
As the year progressed his improved attendance meant the interaction with his peers improved; they came to realise he was just another one of them and his relationships and bonds grew stronger.
I learnt he was an amazing musician, capable of playing three instruments - he was part of a wedding band that would earn up to a £1000 on the weekends - at times I wondered if I was in the wrong game!
Like many new communities and perhaps more so than most, the Roma Gypsies are chastised by mainstream society, negative press and fear of 'the others' playing a massive part; this in turn leads the Roma youth to feel detached.
The Roma gypsies are just another societal group - we all come from one in someway or form, each has it's own nuances and traits.
As I grew to understand Mikey and his community, I couldn't help but think back to when I was growing up, the stories I used to hear from my parents of their experiences with their friends upon arriving to London, not knowing the language in a foreign culture, sharing a room between them because nobody wanted to house them - even squatting with illegal gas and electric supply. I thought about myself and some of my friends who are now established working 14 hour shifts to help out with the family - were we so far apart and different from the Roma Gypsies?
One of the most heartwarming moments of that year came at the end when families are invited in - I got to meet Mikey’s mum who told me they had to meet me, as they had never heard Mikey mention a teachers name let alone speak highly of him.
It is easy to sit in comfort and pass moral judgments on others when we don't have have to experience these scenarios; The socio-economic pressures on Mikey’s family and community meant that to a point they couldn't afford to allow him the privilege of flourishing as a child, so as a (young) man he was a valuable commodity. Yet when he was given the chance, he truly relished and thrived.
Surely socioeconomic responsibilities are all of our concerns as we are all interdependent on one another to move forward. As is the case with most communities and people I have always found education, for them and for us, is key.
* Names have been changed for security purposes.