Racist agitation was growing. Communities in the Black Country were divided. Large numbers of black and Asian families had come to post-war Britain. But there was no integration policy, which led to problems in all walks of life. Landlords would not let their houses to migrants who had come to work. People lived in overcrowded conditions in small bedsits. Churches closed their doors to families so as not to upset white congregations…
I grew up in these tensions. Below is a brief account of my early school days.
I would walk the long way to the junior school in Handsworth, Birmingham, to avoid certain streets. My mother did not accompany me as she was left to look after my baby brother while father worked fourteen-hour-long night shifts at the local steel foundry. My sister was six years older than me and was allocated a place in a nearby secondary school.
The streets were as hostile as the school playground. I tried not to linger too long anywhere. Gangs of local children roamed play areas looking for prey to bully and harass. This was an acceptable norm in the then community. Their words were unkind and unfriendly. I would cower, and lower my head and quicken my pace. They spoke English and I spoke Punjabi. Communication was a barrier as was the food we ate and the clothes we wore. I lived in quiet fear and did not share my troubles with anyone.
I learnt very little and teaching was hardly provided. I feared the teachers, in particular Mrs Jones, I believe she was called. I recall one of many classroom incidences.
She pushes her face close to mine. She is repeatedly saying something I do not understand. Her tone is harsh. She is making me feel uncomfortable and upset. My throat feels tight. I look at her with tear-filled eyes. Her eyes look hard and I can see her pupils. I feel scared. She is shoving a paper into my face and I sense her anger and displeasure. She grabs my arm roughly to make me stand up. The wooden stool I was sitting on falls to the floor. The echo shatters the silence in the classroom.
From 1966 to 1970, I remained in the same class with the same group of children who were from predominantly black and Asian background. Only the teachers changed. I left primary school with a few nursery rhymes I had learnt and a failed 11 plus test. What followed me to the secondary school was a recommendation to be statemented as I was deemed to be delayed in comprehension. However the statementing process was abandoned in 1972 as I started to speak and understand the English language.
The impact this had on my confidence and self-worth remained with me throughout many decades of my life.
Santosh is a member of the Punjabi Women’s Writing Group and attends a creative writing course run by Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) in Wolverhampton. She read her stories at the Wolverhampton Literature Festival earlier this year which was received with great interest. Santosh has also read her work at Diwali and Vaisakhi with other Punjabi Women. The WEA is publishing her Journey poem which was developed on World Poetry day during a workshop in March 2019 as part of an Anthology.
She took early retirement from social work with the local council office to spend time with her family.