Poor Lass Zine: Education
‘You have to learn the rules before you can break them’ a teacher snapped at me, aged five, when I started a sentence with the word ‘and’. I have never forgotten the hardness in her voice as she said those words.
University signaled escape. As a ripe sixteen year old with my head buried in books and my feet skittering across dance floors, I was bored of the North East of England. Bored of the dull grey bus station where life sagged in the corners and old drunks pissed in the seats. Bored of catcalls from sweaty builders and stumbling over cobbles in the dark. Bored of school uniforms and nightclubs and the older women at the pub where I worked whose mouths twitched at the corners when I told them I was running away to London. The pervasive feeling that I didn’t quite fit crept into my clothes and clung to my skin like a bad smell.I spent every break time and free period in the school library, scribbling essays on Freud and Nietzsche, thinking about coffee shops and red buses and devouring Camus with a caged look in my eyes. I stayed up all night in smoky bars dancing to David Bowie, running wild through the streets to stave off the morning and release the frustration that had built up inside of me. I would fall into my boyfriend’s bed as the birds were beginning to sing but I would always get up and get dressed in the dark in time for school, spraying hairspray to mask the stench of the night before. Dancing gave me a release, but I knew that my real route out was through books and learning.
I can still remember the bus ride home the day I collected my A-level results. It was the same journey I had made a thousand times; the neon glare of the yellow handrails, the wind-stung eyes of the old men, the smell of the patterned seats like dirty feet and wet dogs. Something behind my eyes had changed, coating the weary roundabouts in sunlight. I knew that I was getting out.
I did an undergraduate degree in English Literature at King’s College London. It came as a big shock to me. I went from wandering around B&M Bargains and spending lunchtimes in Sainsbury’s café with a flask of instant coffee to sharing student halls by Borough Market with an earl’s daughter and a gaggle of beautiful medical students for whom ponies and tennis courts were the norm.
My fake-tan stained fingers fretted the ends of my jumpers while I slouched in the corners of seminar rooms stumbling over poems as girls with shiny hair and hockey sticks sticking out of their Longchamp totes gushed over writers I had never even heard of. I felt that my peers could say anything in their soft voices carved from Waitrose butter and sound sophisticated, whereas my rough northern syllables were clumsy and stupid. I trained myself to say ‘buck’ instead of ‘book’. I was so intimidated and insecure that I barely spoke in a seminar for the first two years.
I worked countless sticky nights in grimy bars to earn enough money to live. I would run to lectures, dash to work, have a few drinks, snatch a few hours of sleep and get up for university the next day over and over again. I served bankers in Shoreditch who ran up an entire year’s worth of my uni fees in gin and tonics in one night, and left without leaving a tip or even looking me in the eye. I missed birthday parties and cosy hangover days and Saturdays lazing in the park but I never really turned invitations down. I just met up with my friends or did my reading when I finished work, and stayed out longer and went harder and madder than anyone else. I stopped sleeping and started pouring coffee on my cereal to save on milk.
It took me a long time to get to grips with the disparity between the rich and the poor, both in London and in life, and it took me a lot of practice to learn how to balance university with everything else but I did it. I thought a lot about my working-class identity and became proud of my roots and the people I grew up with. I relished going home and hearing delicious Geordie accents the further north I went, and I craved the strong sense of community and the practiced art of not giving a fuck that northerners are known for. I stopped saying ‘buck’ and started saying ‘book’ again. I forced myself to start contributing in seminars.
I learned not to resent others for their handouts in life but instead to be grateful for the adventures I had. I befriended poets and sex workers, lawyers and tattooists, hairdressers and fashion designers. I got advice from world-famous artists and rock stars. I learned how to stand up for myself. I was always late for everything and my dresses were forever getting tangled and torn in my bike chain; I was skinny and cynical and full of wild ideas but I graduated just like everyone else, and when I look back now I feel incredibly rich in experience, and proud in the knowledge that I did it all on my own.
I graduated and spent a year pulling pints and interning for free, lost, confused, working sixty-hour weeks and becoming disillusioned. It seemed like my peers walked into advertising jobs, copywriting jobs, fashion magazines and cosmetics companies. It felt as though everyone else was taking taxis across the city wearing expensive shoes and Instagramming espresso martinis while I cycled around on a broken bicycle in the rain. My hallowed education felt like a broken promise. I moved into my boyfriend’s tiny flat in order to afford to live but having no money and working opposite hours of the day and night eventually destroyed our relationship.
I decided to apply for a master’s degree in Creative Writing. People gave me concerned looks.
‘But how are you going to afford it?’ they asked. ‘People with MA’s have money’.
‘I’ll get a job’, I said. ‘It’ll be alright’. Everyone was worried.
‘We know you want to be a writer’, they said. ‘But what are you actually going to do?’ I got a place on a course in Paris. People looked uncomfortable. There seems to be this idea that if you’re working-class then when you get a break in life you should take it and settle, that you’ve been given your lot and its ungrateful to ask for any more. My mother eyeballed my secondhand clothes and my old boots.
‘Why don’t you come home?’ she said. ‘Why isn’t anything ever enough for you?’
There’s something strange about going home when you’ve moved away in pursuit of something different. There is a certain kind of hostility, which sometimes manifests in your own mind as guilt. People look at you differently in the street, as though they are suspicious of you for wanting more for yourself. It makes me crumble inside, because I’m painfully aware that I’ve been very privileged, and because it hurts to leave the place that you came from, never to fully return. There is a constant sense of dislocation and a feeling of displacement, as though I don’t really belong in any of the worlds that I straddle so precariously.
I started the first part of my course in Canterbury. I got a job in a punk bar working five nights a week. They didn’t have cleaners, so being the new girl I had to clean the toilets at 3am when the pub closed. I scooped semen and shit and once some heroin induced vomit from the urinals with my gloved hands, writing poems in my head for class the next day. I swept the street in the cold staring at the moon and I grew a different kind of skin.
I lived on tinned chickpeas and applied for some funding from the university. I had to go to a meeting with a financial advisor. She looked over my bank statements and said
‘You know, we expect you to have made financial provisions for this course before you enrolled on it. Postgraduate education is a luxury’. I turned red and hung my head and apologized for being there.
‘I’m mad, I know. I’m sorry.’ I said to her from behind my hair.
Someone somewhere took pity on me and I got allocated some funding and moved to Paris to continue the second part of my course, which is where I live now. I work as a nanny for two different French families, and I live in an attic room in the old servant’s quarters on the eighth floor. It doesn’t have a shower, so I wash in the unisex swimming pool changing rooms down the road, where old men stare at me and rub soap into their willies. An angry old lady lives next door and throws various objects at my door in the middle of the night, and has been known to chase me down the stairs in her knickers screaming obscenities.
Now and again I wonder at the comfortable lives of my wealthier friends, where things are simple and there is no need to brew coffee in a pan or brush your teeth and rinse your armpits in the same cold water sink, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
There’s something very liberating about living day to day, sometimes not knowing where your next meal or next Metro journey is coming from. You are forced to be an opportunist, to embrace chance and be open to everything, because you don’t know when the next opportunity will be. When you have little to lose you have less to worry about. You don’t have to build barriers around yourself or fear being robbed or conned. Being poor can be claustrophobic, but in some ways it makes you very free.
So I’ll continue cycling around cities with bike oil smeared across my thighs, keep on climbing and scrambling and always asking for more. I won’t let being young, or female, or working class stop me. I’m learning French, I’m writing a novel and I’m travelling around the world.
And I start sentences with whichever word fits best. Once you’ve broken one rule, you might as well break them all.
Published in the 'Education' issue of Poor Lass Zine, Feb 2015.