It’s never a good sign when you are greeted at the entrance to the children’s department of Russell & Bromley with a ‘Take a Ticket’ machine. I thought I’d been clever, choosing a Tuesday afternoon three weeks before the start of term to go school-shoe-shopping with Mini-Me. It seemed, however, that every other mother in outer London had been struck by the same good idea.
Mini-Me plucked a ticket from the machine and announced,
Ever-optimistic, she then proclaimed it would be just a short wait, as they were serving number eleven already. What she hadn’t noticed was that I was the only mother there with one child – the others had a gaggle of three of four with them, all being dealt with on one ticket. We would be there a while.
I found a seat and Mini-Me trotted off to look at shoes, her heart set on finding something “un-babyish”. Her taste in shoes is becoming increasingly on-trend and sophisticated, mainly thanks to The Doctor, who dramatically announced during a visit from Johannesburg at the beginning of the summer that he was banning Crocs from his daughter’s wardrobe, as they were only suitable for anyone who was (a) under the age of about six, or (b) who frequented an environment which required constant sluicing down. As Mini-Me fits into neither of those categories, the bright plastic monstrosities and their accompanying Jibbitz are a thing of the past. I can’t say I’m sorry; shoes are meant to be things of beauty and discomfort.
Mini-Me picked up and examined most of the shoes on display, voicing her concern that even though she loved the black lace-up brogues she was holding, she suspected that they would mean being in constant trouble with her sports’ teachers for not getting changed after PE quickly enough.
I was feeling disgruntled about schooling in general, so being forced to wait so I could buy my daughter some pricey school shoes didn’t add anything positive to my mood. The day before, I’d received a letter from a charity I support, telling me that the girl, P., who lives in relative poverty in Zimbabwe and whose education I pay for, had “left the scheme”. I have been sponsoring P. for five years and she should now be in her last year of school. The letter went on to suggest that I might be “disappointed” and gave me details of another girl I could transfer my sponsorship to. I wasn’t told anything else about what had happened to P., whether she had left school through her own choice or whether family circumstances, or something worse, had ended her chance at getting some desperately needed formal education and a school-leaver’s certificate. Either way, I tried not to feel helpless. I do intend to go to the school in Zimbabwe at some point, but hadn’t planned on doing it this week. I sat in the shoe-shop, frustrated that the right to education was so breezily accepted by the girls surrounding me and was so desperately fragile for huge numbers of girls around the world.
Now, I’ve always been led to believe that name dropping, in any context, is the sign of an insecure social climber who feels they need to impress others by letting them know whom they have met, mixed with or have associations with. It’s as if crossing paths with someone well-known or famous makes them more valid and interesting.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not at all blasé when it comes to famous people. I enjoy the fact that Max Clifford parks his Rolls Royce outside the café where I get my coffee and I see him most days out and about, wearing shorts whatever the weather. I once saw Cliff Richard in my local Waitrose and I understand that Andy Murray walks his dogs in the nearby woods. I taught German A-Level to Carey Mulligan (very sweet girl; always had the wrong uniform and clearly was only introduced to a hair brush when she broke into Hollywood); and when I first started teaching, I was Andrew Garfield’s form tutor for a few years (mischievous; hard to be properly annoyed with him because he was pretty witty)
See? Even putting these supposed claims to fame down on paper seems pathetic and, were I telling you face-to-face, then I have no doubt I would have trailed off mid-sentence, too embarrassed by my attempt to somehow associate myself with these people to finish what I was saying.
There is, however, one name I have no hesitation in dropping. Loudly. And from a very great height.
Malala Yousafzai, at the age of twelve, became well known around the world due to her activism for girls’ education in the Swat Valley, Pakistan – a region where girls had, at times, been banned from attending school. Three years later, on 9 October 2012, Malala was shot in the head and neck in an alleged assassination attempt by Taliban gunmen whilst travelling home on the school bus. Since then, she is often cited as probably being ‘the most famous teenager in the world’.
This incredible girl has made it her business to keep her story in the news; she campaigns relentlessly for the rights of girls in her home country, especially those pertaining to their education. She is known by politicians, world leaders, and is a permanent face in the media, having featured on the cover of Time magazine and in Vanity Fair. The publication of her book is being suitably hyped and she has apparently been nominated for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts towards worldwide access to education.
Malala moved to the UK, to Birmingham, in order to undergo intense surgery for her injuries. She made a good recovery and has settled in the city with her father, starting a new chapter of her life in safety, far away from her family and home.
She is fifteen years old. Fifteen. With balls of steel.
Her first day at school in England was covered by the BBC and I’ve watched repeatedly the clip of the TV interview she gave, showing her standing on a familiar driveway in her green uniform (a uniform I recognise and still have bits and pieces of ) and wondering what it must feel like to be her, and comparing her to the fifteen year old me standing outside the exact same gates. Had Malala been in the same year as me at our school, I have no doubt that she would have given me and my friends a run for our money.
I attended the all-girls’ school in Birmingham from 1984 until leaving, aged eighteen, in 1991. I’ve been back only twice since then and have kept in contact with a smattering of other girls. My cohort, as with all former year groups, I’m sure, has scattered itself all over the world (and no, that’s nothing to do with the fact we were brought up in Birmingham and wanted a quick route out). We are teachers, medics, TV producers, musicians, chefs, movie directors, scientists, models, marketing directors, business women, and many, many of us are also mothers.
A decade before The Spice Girls heralded ‘girl power’ we were being educated to believe, unquestioningly, that women were equal to their male counterparts and that there was nothing we couldn’t aspire to in terms of qualifications or career choice. Admittedly, unlike other Thatcher’s Children, we were privileged with a private, single-sex education, in an academically selective school, for which our parents made significant sacrifices, so we were somewhat cossetted from what was the reality for many other girls at the time, who faced a lack of opportunities or support. I look back and realise that not once did I ever doubt my options, the possibilities open to me, or my relevance in the world. I was extremely fortunate. And naïve.
Exactly twenty-two years ago I was with a group of school friends, clubbing in Birmingham, celebrating the fact our exams were over and we had left school. I blurrily remember going to a karaoke bar at one point and a dozen or so of us belting out Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun to an audience of bemused and slightly scared Friday-nighters. En masse, we were a force to be reckoned with.
It’s horrifying to me that this display of freedom, celebrating the end of our time at high school where we had been given a first rate education, resulting in all of us going to university in a few months’ time, was almost a quarter of a century ago. Today in parts of the world it is still too dangerous for girls to even go to school, or it’s not possible because of familial responsibilities or restrictions. Say what you like about name-droppers and school-shoe-shopping, but until that changes I’m going to talk about Malala Yousafzai and I am going to celebrate the fact there’s a queue of girls buying shoes in preparation for going to school.