I’m a council estate kid. A kid that grew up around tower blocks and police raids and fights. A kid that ate little and saw a lot. I’m a twenty one year old that still feels like that council estate kid. There’s this feeling that I’m a poorer breed; a breed that should be kept in the estate and only let out after dark. After all, no one would be able to see us then.
When us kids from the council estate converse, there’s an acknowledgement that other people can’t see. We know hardship; it’s sort of settled in our bones like it’s the real strength waking us up every morning. We’ve seen things that other people either ignore or disbelieve in; we see life in its raw, truthful state. Broken homes, broken windows, broken bones. Does that make us less worthwhile?
I went to a grammar school; one of the best in Kent. It was Ofsted’s idea of perfection and my idea of prejudice.
Sometimes, there’s no tell-tale sign of being from ‘that council estate’ but they’ll pick up on it. They’ll see things or hear things and eventually know you in a way you didn’t want them to. Your deepest secrets laid bare through Chinese whispers and playground chit chat. Soon, other parents will be warning their children to stay away from you as though you’re a disease that is spreading at the rate of the bubonic plague. They say you’re a ‘bad influence’ although you’re a straight A student with great prospects. Sometimes I wondered what they thought my influence would be. Pissing on the pavement by the school gates? Smoking my lungs away? I decided my lack of parental guidance and money was just too bad in itself.
I didn’t go on many school trips and there were never any parents’ evenings but I knew what the difference was between an ambulance siren and a police siren. I knew I had a battle between education and reality and every one of those ignorant people in between.
I’d never bunked a day in my life until sixth form. The issue is, if you tell someone often enough that they’re nothing; they’ll soon behave like that. They’ll believe they may as well do what you think they’re doing because you’re thinking it anyway. I would bunk purely so I had control over something when I had no control over everything else in my life. There would be a sense of pleasure every time I’d sit in some café knowing I was meant to be studying Simone de Beauvoir in Philosophy at that very moment. It was like I’d taken life in the palm of my hand and squashed it to smithereens; I was free for some time.
When a council estate kid has the opportunity to go to university if they ‘get good grades’, it’s a tough scenario to be faced with. No one thinks you can do it. Your so-called parent doesn’t think you can do it. You don’t think you can do it. It’s a live or let die moment where you make a choice that will change your life although there are already so many choices that are sitting on your shoulders in great iron boulders. Teachers refuse to help you and the few that do patronise you to within an inch of your life. I faced such a decision.
My head of year 13 said, and I give a direct quote here, ‘you have mammoth amounts of work to do if you have even the slightest hope.’ It is a direct quote because I burnt it into my memory as though burning through layers and layers of negativity. I made a rash decision two weeks before my International Baccalaureate exams to actually try. I knew if I didn’t and failed, there would never be a way out of the estate. There’d be babies and drugs and every other stereotypical thing you can think of. For fourteen days straight, I revised solidly. People continued to tell me not to bother; it was a ‘catastrophic waste of time’. I passed all seven subjects with an A* in English.
When you’re studying for a degree, you feel as though you’re part of some sort of underground revolution. As though we’re all going to rise up and take over the world with words and language and new found respect. It doesn’t quite work out that way.
I graduated in July 2013 and have been working non-stop since. There’s rent to pay and food to buy and an array of bills that stack up venomously month by month. I can’t move back so I’m alone in London with my degree and my past to push me into better things and a future that labels me as nothing other than who I am. However, there is a huge, fundamental catch 22 that so many people are failing to see or who are in full agreement of it.
Companies nod along to your degree as though it’s as easy as reciting the ABC and then ask ‘what experience do you have?’ I ponder this carefully. If, like so many other council estate kids, I live alone with no help from parents or family, how would I be able to do unpaid internships? They ask for full time unpaid for three to six to eight months; how will we survive? When I reluctantly say I have no internship experience, I know they’re questioning my dedication or my loyalty to my craft that I love beyond anything. But I ask, doesn’t my work ethic that continuously pushes me to work at a place that offers me nothing show you more than a couple of internships on a generic CV? If I had the chance, I’d do every internship available. I’d write whatever they wanted me to. I’d sacrifice anything. Yet life isn’t just fields of gold and fortune, is it?
In my first year of university, my lecturer asked the class ‘can you teach someone how to write?’ I thought it was such a ridiculous question; of course you could hence the Creative Writing course. Now I know what that lecturer meant. You can’t teach people what they don’t already know how to do; you can only nurture and enhance their skills and talents. If I was to go for the same job as someone who has three internships under their literature belt, does that make them a better writer than me? Or does it mean they’ve had a luckier social upbringing than other people? If someone lives at home with no money worries and all the time in the world, it’s a wonderful thing. Of course it’s a wonderful thing to get out there and learn and grow from internships but what if you’re on the other side? Middle-class children from middle-class families will continue to be middle-class and us council estate kids, degree or no degree, will always be second best.
The catch 22 is that some people are born poor and some people aren’t. Some people are born with the love of both parents and some people aren’t. That is the way of the world and clearly, we’re still much more privileged than a lot of other people in a lot of other places. But how can we stop being poor if companies are continuously choosing those with the greatest experience but not the greatest skill?
Council estate kids aren’t envious of middle-class people; there’s no deep yearning to be any other ‘class’. The only thing we are, some of us, is motivated not to go back to the place that took away so much from us.
Some of the staff and pupils from my past said I may as well not bother. They said a council estate kid will get nowhere and I wonder now where exactly my nowhere will be?