SCMP Saturday, January 13, 2001

'I want to give kids what was missing in my education'


I went to school all over the place in Britain. I had a very violent father. He worked for the General Post Office which meant he had no trouble tracing my mother. We spent a lot of my childhood running away from him. Many years were just a haze as we moved from one city to another. One school I went to for just one day. When I got home my mum said to me: 'He's found us, we have to move.'
I remember my first day at a new school in Birmingham when I was five. I was with my twin sister and she cried all day. We really stood out because we were the only black kids in the school. They took her to the far end of the school and had a teacher try to calm her down but you could still hear her.
Other kids asked if she was my sister and I said: 'I've never seen her before in my life.'
It was a crazy school. If you didn't concentrate they made you stand in the corner with your hands on your head. Sometimes you'd walk into a classroom and there would be a kid in every corner with their hands on their heads. It was a very old-fashioned school and pompous with talk of the English Empire. The women teachers looked like matrons and the male teachers were like soldiers. 'Attention when you're looking at me, boy.'
One day the headmaster announced at assembly that we would have a cricket team. He said: 'Here is the captain of our cricket team', and he pointed at me. But I couldn't stand cricket and afterwards I went up to him and said: 'Sir, I can't play cricket.' He said: 'Of course you can, you're a natural-born cricketer, you'll be a great spin bowler.' What he meant was you're black, you'll be good at cricket.
I wanted to be an intellectual, but I struggled with reading at school. It wasn't until years after I had left school that I realised I was dyslexic. The teachers did the classic racist thing, assuming I wouldn't be good at reading but good at sport. I was taken out of reading classes to go to play football. I was captain of the football team, captain of the athletics team and of the gymnastics team.
I remember one teacher kissed me on the forehead once. I got very interested in science after that, hoping that she would do it again, but she never did. She told me I was good at science. I used to question what she said and she wouldn't tell me off. She would say: 'At least you're questioning things.'
The teacher might say so-and-so came along and discovered Victoria Falls. I would say no, they found Victoria Falls and before that it had a name from the black people who lived there already. That kind of thing would get me into trouble. I was expelled from school when I was 13.
This may come as a surprise, but I didn't really learn to read and write properly until I was about 21, but my first poetry performance was at the age of 11. I have always loved rhyme and rhythm and playing with words. My mum said as a baby I loved the sound of words.
When I was 21, I watched a programme on television in which they introduced me as 'Britain's new black writer', so I thought I'd better go to some adult education classes. The poetry and the performance came before the writing.
I want to give kids now what I didn't get and put into the system what was missing in my education. I would have been really inspired as a kid if someone like me had come into school and brought poetry to life.
Education is really important. I think you can have an education and not be educated. If I see someone who has a public school education, but they are racist, then they just don't understand the world. When I was in a school this week a kid asked me for advice. I looked at the teachers in the room and said: 'Don't believe them.' The teachers look worried. Then I said: 'Don't take what your teachers say as gospel, question them, learn to think for yourself.'
To be educated is to be curious, that's how the best inventions are created and breakthroughs are made. I think the poetic mind is a bit like the scientific mind, they are both creative and curious.
Sometimes that curious nature comes through when someone is not educated, but a good teacher can draw that out.
Benjamin Zephaniah was speaking to Kate Whitehead. He is currently giving readings in schools and will perform his poetry at the Fringe Club on January 19 and 20.