We hear of the lack of support, discrimination in education and at work, misunderstandings, difficulties and trauma, and I have had my fair share of those. Apparently more than someone who’s just reached 30 should. But what about everyone who got it right? People who took the time to get to know you? To understand. Work out what matters. To listen and really be there for you? What about them? We are often misunderstood, but sometimes we are understood too. Those people should be recognised more than most people know. I say most people because if you are reading this, you probably already know.
I’ve written an open letter to those people, with as much anonymity as I can allow (no names are mentioned) so not to embarrass anyone. If you identify yourself in any of this, thank you 🙂
To all those who have ever understood, been there and gone the extra mile…
Thank you for giving my parents the tools to understand me, to put the pieces of my jigsaw together, to work out where to go with their daughter. I was only seven and very much confused but you took the time, attended review meetings at school and gave my parents mountains of reading to make their way through. It all helped I think. Meeting other families “like me” helped to formulate the understanding of varying levels of difficulties, and that we were all very much different. I hated going there I admit, there would have been a million other places I’d much rather be on a Saturday morning, I’m sure, but being there helped my parents to get me, that in the end helped me to get me too. I don’t know where you are these days, we lost touch as families years ago, but wherever you are, I hope you have continued your brilliant campaigning.
Thank you for providing me with an environment where I felt included, valued and could participate. Every week I developed my values, morals and need to speak out when something didn’t feel right. I developed a great sense of justice and desperately wanted to strive for a better world. I got more out of attending weekly meetings and camps than was recognised at the time, the adopted path and slightly more adventurous dolphin are memories I’ll treasure. I remember being listened to and feeling that what I said mattered and people cared. I was streets ahead of my peers as I moved through school, I had a good sense of values, knew what I believed in and fought for issues I knew were right. This brought a few problems my way as my passionate campaigning and speaking up was interpreted as being disruptive, but I eventually learned to make my point eloquently so people listened to things I had to say. And eventually respected me for having a voice. All of the woman I am now is very much down to the background you gave me and taught me as I grew up through some pretty tricky years. I needed the escape. So many kids did.
I was utterly terrified when I came to you, scared about what I had left behind and cautious about the future. At ten I really had a sense that I was different, but struggled to understand why or join the dots at this age. My life revolved around hospital appointment after hospital appointment, and people talking about me but not with me. When I came to you I was welcomed and made to feel part of the community. I was given the time I needed and as a result I thrived. Years later when I saw some of you, you described me as your “success story”. I’ve reflected on this, and concluded that I did so well, was able to achieve and grew in confidence, because I was in an environment where you saw Alice first and any diagnosis second. You gave Alice what she needed. I needed a supportive environment. People who listened. I needed to feel believed. To feel safe. To know that with you nothing bad would happen. You gave me all of those reassurances and I flourished. You indeed made me your “success story” and I will always remain grateful for that time.
I first met you when I was fourteen, and you since remained supportive and encouraging of me. You listened, when it wasn’t aways your job to, and helped me to get that History GCSE. I loved your lessons. I hope you know how much of an impact you had on my teenage life, it wasn’t just about the history, my education, or getting into university. It was knowing there was someone, who, whatever time of the school day, would sit down with me and listen. Remember when I wanted to organise that ceilidh during charity week? You backed me. You supported me when every other teacher I spoke to told me it wouldn’t happen. It was clear that you really cared for your students. I asked you to write my reference to go to India because I knew how much you valued me. Even after I went to uni, there was still time in your life for me. I don’t know if you knew at the time, but I had a breakdown when I was 18, I was terrified about becoming an adult, terrified of going to uni and couldn’t process the change. I spent most lunchtimes chatting to the Samaritans outside the school gates. I was very good at hiding. One day you offered to sit with me in the 6th form common room to attack the pages and pages of personal statement I’d written. I didn’t think I’d ever get it done by the deadline. I didn’t believe I could study history. But you sat there for the best part of two hours one afternoon, and made me believe that it was possible. You dealt with the anxiety by being there and showing me that someone cared. You listened and did more than any other teacher ever did for me. You knew I could do it. And I bloody well did it. Thank you for being the influence in my teenage life that I needed at the time.
You really always understood me. From the day I met you, as you became my head of year, and my difficulties brought constant meetings in your office. You saw how much music meant to me and encouraged this. You encouraged me to join the school choir and knew I’d get so much out of ceilidh band. You knew I’d do well in my A Levels, you didn’t for one moment think university was beyond me. You gave me extra time after school to practice my A Level music performance pieces with the piano accompaniment. You made sure I was ready. And I was more than prepared. I was very misunderstood at school. The library. What was that all about? Six incident slips and I don’t know how many detentions in one day. Some kind of record. But you sorted it. You believed me. The times I appeared in your office in tears. You’d listened. Sent me home if need be. Tried to resolve whatever situation I was dealing with. I remember you writing in my leavers book “I always knew you could do it,” and I wish I believed that sooner. Because I have done. To a sort of fashion. We met recently at a funeral, so not the nicest of occasions for a reunion. You hugged me, we’d just said bye to a man who also appears in this letter. And I wish I’d said thank you then. It was your job, I get that, but some teachers just get it, and you really really did.
I would never have believed that a technology teacher would have as much impact on me as you did. I avoided anything practical, and just thinking about it caused worry. But there you were one lesson writing in my planner the day and location of ceilidh band practice. All it said was “THURSDAY NIGHTS, LECTURE THEATRE!” That day has impacted on the rest of my life. I went to ceilidh band after often difficult days, and felt included. You taught us tunes. I think the first ever tune I learned from you was “Salmon tales up the water”, closely followed by “Maries Wedding”. I’ve written before about how much I took from discovering folk music, what it gave me and the community it brought me towards. I wouldn’t have any of that if you hadn’t written those four words in my planner that day. When you were off work for a while, four of us went ahead and auditioned for the variety show. We played “Leanne Barber” a tune you’d written for poignant reasons, as I stood there up on stage playing away, I heard someone shout from the audience “ew it’s Alice, why is she up there?!” I ignored her and played louder. I was proud to be with a group of people who got me, who used music as a very powerful mechanism for unity. Nothing else mattered in that moment.
I think I first met you when I was 11, when on a trip with the ceilidh band from school. It was exciting as we bundled into the mini bus, instruments and all. We spent the whole day immersed in music. Learning tunes. Being with other young musicians who loved folk music just as much as us. I since met you again when I got involved in more workshops and eventually summer school. You always remained supportive. I was never treated any differently from the others. You knew everyone by name. There were hundreds of us but you knew us all. The time you took to get to know us meant the world. When I returned after picking up my A Level results, you were there at the door, first to congratulate me. Every time I see you, you say “Keep playing your fiddle, Alice” because you know how much it means to me and what it has given me over the years. I saw you over the summer and your words “Keep doing what you’re doing Alice, because you’re doing great things,” really struck a chord with me. It was about one in the morning at the time, following a ceilidh, so I wish I could have been more communicative than I was. But thank you. I know you understood when I was a kid. You made me feel welcome, so much so that I came back for years. I quickly learned that it’s not about being the best or most talented, it’s about joining in and having fun. Feeling included and immersed in the music really made my summers special.
When I first came to you for lessons, I was nervous. I had never had lessons outside of school before, let alone with someone as well known as you. But you guided me through learning some pretty brill tunes and were one of the reasons I passed A Level music. You suggested a topic for final project, a piece of music that I could really analyse and set up a meeting with the composer. Where I was able to ask all of my questions. Every time I see you, and I will eventually come back on Thursday nights, you seem pleased to see me. With that massive grin and enthusiasm for a music you love so much. I don’t think I’d enjoy playing Hill tunes as much as I do if it wasn’t for you. I don’t even know if you knew of my dyspraxia, I certainly never discussed it, but whether you did, I felt supported to achieve. You re-arranged a piece when I struggled with going into 2nd and 3rd position. So that I could enjoy playing and not worry about hitting the right notes. You then, one lesson, snuck the original score in, and I nailed it. Sometimes it takes me more time to get things and you, whether you meant to or not, gave me that time.
Because of you, I wouldn’t have any of the above, you gave me the music and gave a shy seven year old her first fiddle. It saddens me to know that you’re not here to read this, but I think you knew. Your face lit up when I bumped into you at the pub or the shops. “Glad to hear you’re still playing”, you’d say. One lesson you told me that “the easiest way to relax is to do vibrato, and the best way to do vibrato, is to relax,” I thought how the hell is this going to work. I practiced every night, trying to coordinate my hands and body to relax, trying to remember what you taught me, and eventually I got it, to a fashion. So through the stealing of sweets, dry sense of humour and smoking out of the car window while you drove us to youth orchestra, I know you cared. You wanted me to stick with music so much, that when I wanted to cut down the amount of orchestras I played in during my A Levels, I had to put forward a well thought out argument. I did. I was well up for that challenge, and eventually just focussed on Tuesday nights. My first time at orchestra, you sat next to me, in second violins and played my part with me. You made sure I didn’t get lost and knew where I was on the page. You really did give me the music.
When I first went on over seas tours, I’m sure my parents knew I would safe and supported where needed. I loved my summers exploring Germany, Italy, France, Belgium and Austria. You made it exciting. Included enough to make it an “educational visit”, rehearsals and performances. Then fun. One highlight is the salt mine in Austria. And eating pizza in Italy. On the ferry one trip, I felt sea sick, so you told me to stare at the horizon. And I did. For the entirety of that journey. it made me feel better because I had something to focus on. A bit like music, it gave me some where to channel my emotions. I used the music as a focal point at that stage in my life. Thank you for those opportunities.
You often talk about “the girl who didn’t speak”, and I was for a time. Until I came to you and you showed me what youth work can do. My confidence improved from being the painfully shy girl, who didn’t believe what she had to say mattered, to the girl who was able to stand up and take command of a room. The first time I realised I was pretty good at public speaking and delivering sessions, was when you gave me the opportunity to do so. One day I said, “Can I have a go”, and without hesitation you told me I could. I was never told I couldn’t, you always told me I could. You knew I could. Even when I believed that he worst was always going to happen. Your frank chats and honesty helped me to weigh up what was important and what I had to do. I felt included on Tuesday nights, with somewhere to go and a structure to follow. Thank you for being the youth worker I’d love to be one day and teaching me to love myself a bit more, and making me believe that I can do it. I still speak fondly of those times, those memories, what being there gave me, that school didn’t and I couldn’t find from anywhere else. I’ve been part of a few communities in my life, and you very much made me part of one that I will always treasure as something that really did inform my career.
Without you lot, and I speak collectively now, I would have never gone to festivals, continued to play music or enjoy sessions. I would have never dressed up as S Club 7 one over to you, worn a beard at another and danced around stage unsure what we were actually doing or dressed up as a tiger to go to the pub. They were all the daft memories. The things that make me wonder “why did I do that?!” But more than anything I knew I’d found my tribe. As adults I’ve been to birthday parties, hen do’s, celebrated with you when we’ve collectively got through educational milestones and been there at times of tragedy. That group may be slightly more distant these days, we don’t see each other half as much as we did when we were younger, but that’s because we’ve all made something of life. Some a bit quicker than others but we are all getting there. To think that we were once a group of over excited teenagers bursting with energy and a desire to have a good week with our friends. You guys made me feel included and part of something pretty special. No conversations were needed for you to understand me, because you really did get me.
I want to mention you, because I wish we’d had time to have more conversations, to have deeper chats, away from the rabble. You were a bit different too, I don’t know if you were neurodiverse as well, you might have been but were never around for long enough to have that conversation. I wonder what you’d be doing now? What job would you have? Would we still be mates? I don’t know, but I do know that I really valued you as a friend and was devastated to hear you’d no longer be on my Facebook wall, offering words of wisdom now and again. Thank you for being part of my life, and I hope you appreciated me being part of yours.
When I met you all nine years ago I was terrified, we were all strangers, yet were about to spend the biggest moments of our life (at the time) together. When I got on that plane I didn’t know what to expect, none of us did. It was very much the unknown. We reassured each other. We had different fears. Worries. Expectations. As we discovered where we were living, some of us relished the challenge, and others like me wanted to go home. Culture shock is real. But we all got through it together. We may all now be living in different parts of the country but we will always have those memories of our time together.
When I left school, I had no idea what I wanted to do, really. I had a good idea of what I was good at but was lost as to how to make that into any useful career. It took me time to fall into youth work, but when I did, training with you all was the best thing for me. I speak fondly of my time there, and often meet grads from our uni on my travels, we really do get everywhere! The encouragement between lectures, cheering each other on during assignments, checking up when one of us missed a day, providing wisdom from our varying experiences and background. I learned loads. It made me the youth worker I am today.
We’ve lost touch now, but occasionally I bump into you. I never told you how much I valued your time, when it felt like my world was going to fall apart. Once you offered your house to me, when you weren’t actually in it at the time, but knew I needed to get away. I needed to be away, but not far away from home. In exchange for feeding your cat, that I was more than happy to do. It was the best place for me at the time. I’d pop round after uni and you’d listen. I often worried that I’d burden you, but you never told me I did. You offered an escape. The most important thing that you ever did was support me in referring myself to therapy. You sat with me while I made the phone call and drove me to my first appointment. I don’t know if I’d have gone if you hadn’t done that. I really hope that by the end of our regular contact I wasn’t a pain or a burden, or needy. I really appreciated what you did for me. I know you had your own life to lead, and kids to bring up, so I distanced myself. I didn’t want to be seen to rely on you too much. But when you were there, it helped.
Work has always been tricky to get right, and sometimes my first job in particular, I didn’t know if I was doing “it” right because I had no idea what “it” looked like. What makes a good youth worker? Am I it? Who knows. I was young, very inexperienced and thrown in the deep end of some pretty tough youth sessions. Young people who would get more out of youth work, than the nice middle class backgrounds that echoed my own experience. I learned from you. You took time to debrief after sessions. Chat about what happened. What could we do better? Plans for next week. That first job taught me so much about life, youth work and all of its challenges.
My first memory of our paths crossing, is in the corridor, you were crying and I was giving you advice about some boy. We have since clicked and remained friends ever since. I could fill the rest of this letter wth everything you’ve done, things we’ve been through together, how much I value your friendship, but I won’t because I know you know. If someones been around this long, I know we’re stuck together for life. You’ve listened when I needed, and I’ve returned when you’ve needed. You’ve actually understood me in ways few people do. We’re very much chalk and cheese but I like it that way.
Finally, I know you get me because you’ve been there too, although sometimes in different ways. The amount of “me too’s’ we’ve shared recently has been incredibly comforting. I wish you were in my life sooner, but I am glad you are now. It’s always helpful (as you know) to have someone at the end of the phone who really does understand. It’s great not to have to over explain myself sometimes, as we all have to do more than we’d like. You just know, without the need for an explanation. I value you more than most.
I wanted to write this, not to embarrass anyone or make those featured feel awkward, but to demonstrate that as much as we are often misunderstood, judged and asked difficult questions prompting emotive answers. Questioning taxi drivers comes to mind. There are also people throughout our lives who will actually get us and understand, or if they don’t, take the time to. If we want others to have that understanding or to do things better, learning from and recognising others who get it right can only be a good thing.