When I left high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I had not been inspired by many of the teachers during my primary and secondary school years (one can only appreciate that that was an unconscious expectation with the passage of time). College followed with the same flatness but I was later advised I should try University; I had the ability, someone said. I would become one of those 'firsts' in the family (from a "non-traditional" university going background) to do so. I would have gone sooner, I think had both my Schooling and family been more encouraging about the possibiity. But I made good time with the late start.
Last week I witnessed something so inspiring it caused me to reflect on my journey through school. I have been doing some academic mentoring with some students at Phoenix High School in Shepherds Bush. For their Enrichment Week they were invited by the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith to experience a range of art forms with some of the best artists in the country. I was so excited to be part of this amazing opportunity for students to explore their creativity during the week's residency.
I was surprised how cool, how absolutely refreshing the refurbished Lyric looked - it's an especially inviting place for young people. Traditionally, theatres seemed stuffy, appealing to equally stuffy upper/middle class Europeans. The Lyric's make over, cleverly invites diverse audiences, making it perfect for Phoenix students to appreciate that the arts are there for everyone to enjoy.
Phoenix, one of a few remaining state schools has a large number of Black and Minority ethnic students, many of them practicing muslims. Many of the young people have little opportunties to appeciate the arts and explore a broader academic and creative outlook. This collaboration provided year 12 students with the chance to adapt to new skills which will be useful for their extended projects and UCAS applications. As part of the programme they could choose from workshops in Musical Theatre, Music Technology, Film Making and Digital Art in the Digital Space, which included tasters of each discipline.
I observed students emerging from their comfort zones to craft lyrics, test out their shaky voices and nerves, beat drum, shake fruit shaped shack shacks, strum guitars and violins, come up with interesting 1 minute film scripts and pitches, devise playful props (the purple wig on one of the young men was a cute one), edit their pieces for screening, including adding musical scores, fathom the codes that could lead to the development of 'games of peace'. The rowdy, maybe more confident students magneted to Musical Theatre and seemed to be having the most fun with Pete, their excellent director from Youth Music Theatre UK. I was gutted I missed their final performances, which I was told went really well; earning a few of the exceptional sparks a chance to see Bugsy Malone - now playing at the Lyric (extended till September, which reminds me, I should try to go and check it out - it was one of my favourites as a teen).
Musical theatre sign-ups revisited 'Romeo and Juliet' - had crazy fun singing the cheesey lines.
Other artists involved in the project were from Musiko Musika, led by Mauricio who appealed to the students to free-up (from their overwhelming shyness) and enjoy the sessions. TeaFilms, specialising in documentaries, short films and videos took students through the process of film Making in a week! Digital artist, Gemma May Latham challenged students to think creatively about engaging with technology.
This was a stunning environment for Phoenix students to reflect on their life prospects; for they are blessed, even if they cant see it now to be attending a school that claims to be:
"committed to providing the best learning opportunities for all our students and the wider community. We believe fundamentally that every individual has the capacity to achieve and it is our function to do all in our power to maximise the opportunities for success."
From what I have seen during my time at the school, this is beyond rhetoric from the School's Executive Head Teacher, Alan Streeter; the experience at the Lyric confirmed this. Many of the students were thrilled by the initiative. But there were some who flopped out before the end of the week. Some didn't come at all! I guess it's only hindsight that would make those students realise the mega mistake it would be not to take up this kind of opportunity. There was nothing like this offered to students at my High school, if my memory isn't tricking me. Most we came to theatre was the yearly sing along of songs like 'we'll meet again, don't know where don't know...' you know the rest! And I dressed up in combats too and proudly sang 'pack up yer troubles in yer old kit bag,' at the time having no idea what on earth I was doing!
Gemma May Latham with Joseph in the digital playspace
Rather than this marvellous inspiration, I was told I didn't qualify to do O'Level art by my pocky face art teacher who seemed to resent the very air I breathed. She had nothing positive to say about my work - contrary to another teacher who was more supportive, but was not the decision maker. This pocky face art teacher, her nose all kinds of bent up, hair a ghastly shade of red intended to flex her with eccentricity later told me (after I had been entered for the lower qualification) that had I painted the way I was one day doodling at the pre-exam classes for the O'Level students I would also have been doing O'Level. I call that 'bad mind.' More accurately it was barefaced discrimination. My mostly white friends, on the other hand were all entered for the higher qualification, despite being at the same doodling level as I at the mock exams. (She had dared to discriminate against another black student, whose parents didn't stand for it). That parental back up helps.
With inspiring teachers and those in positions that can make key decisions, who are genuinely interested in advancing the life chances of all young people, real transformations can take place. Jan Parnell, Director of Post 16 and progression at Phoenix was intrumental in developing this partnership with the Lyric. She is committed to enabling high achievement of students whose social and cultural background might limit their potential and aspirations. The readiness of organisations, like the Lyric to exchange skills and experiences, to recognise the importance of community enriching initiatives also play a major part in aspirational outcomes of young people. Becky, who co-ordinated the project at the Lyric was wonderful - she always looked relaxed and unphased by the natural displays of being teenage. One of the tasks she set them, which I thought brilliant was to spend a few hours exploring London. This tallied with the Schools 3 progression schemes of getting students into University, into Work and into London; the latter because few young people explore the cultural richness available to them in London.
Students who fully embraced the workshops had this to say about their time at the Lyric:
"It's been an exceptional experience. It has Given me ideas about what to do in the future." Sohail
"It has been really enjoyable being able to use technology to create structures in a game." Joseph
"I was quite surprised how much I enjoyed the drama session." Sumaya
"It's been a cool experience, learnt a lot of stuff about different camera angles." Naim
"My experience at the lyric has allowed me to identify my strengths and weaknesses in the creative arts." Deana.
"This is something you wouldn't do at another school. It's helped me experience different types of creative expression." Guled
"I never thought I'd enjoy myself so much. I wouldn't hesitate to come here again." Sean
Film making editing session.
So like Becky from the Lyric, I agree - Phoenix Post 16 is a special place. And I too am looking forward to working with the school in the future. I wish all its young people every success and hope they will continue to welcome opportunities like these as they never know where it might lead them on their journey through life.