I initially didn’t pay too much attention to the BBC news story about the 14 Black men studying at Cambridge University, (see here). If you hadn’t heard, the guys represented Cambridge’s small Black student population and the group shot (taken by a Black female Cambridge student) was aimed at encouraging more from the Black community to come forward and consider learning at the institution.
The image subsequently went viral on 3 May 2017 and the woman behind the photograph told the BBC she had been inspired by a similar initiative launched by Yale University’s Black male cohort. The reason I initially shrugged it off was because I didn’t think – in this day and age – we had to keep flagging up milestones that should be available to all regardless of what they look like. But the more I read this news, the more it reminded me of my own experience of applying to the Oxford and Cambridge (Oxbridge) universities and why the achievements of these men still needs to be made visible.
I attended a grammar school in Birmingham and we had it drummed into us that when it came to education, we were the top 10% and were more or less invincible. So when my friend convinced me to apply for Oxbridge with her, I thought – why not? The decision wasn’t because I had always wanted to go there. Like many Black people of my generation, and I guess clearly based on recent events this attitude still applies today, it wasn’t a space I saw my own reflection in or thought I would feel comfortable in. I had spent over a decade of my education straight-jacketed in an environment where being fully you was not acceptable.
So my personal ambition was to be among people that reflected and shared the same cultural values I did. Having said that, when you are 17 years old, you are curious and I did not see the harm in applying – just to see the outcome. Afterall, what was the worst that could happen?
Well some weeks after submitting my application, the worst did happen. I was summoned to the headmistress’ office. I was petrified and spent the minutes waiting to enter her office racking my brains as to what I had done to have warranted such a personal interaction. You see, at school, I was the quietest of the quiets; I even rivalled church mice on that one. And if you were looking for trouble, I would be the furthest away from such antics – always trying to work hard instead.
So you can imagine my surprise when my submission to Oxbridge was the reason I was called in. In hindsight, I see how calculating and cunning my headmistress was. She called me to her office without warning and without the invitation of my parents.
I remember she circled around the issue initially, leafing through papers she had on me and talking about my grades and predicted grades. All the while, I was wondering what she was driving at. But finally she announced that she would tell the powers that be at Oxbridge to reject my submission if I did not withdraw it myself. Her reason being that she did not think I would get the grades and our school had a reputation to protect.
To this day, I remember sitting awkwardly in her office, watching this short woman wield so much power over me for something I had applied for – not because I so desperately wanted it but because the opportunity had arisen. The fact that this so-called defender of me and my education was prepared to pre-empt my capabilities without giving me any chance was – I guess – a taste of similar experiences yet to come.
I think if I had so desperately wanted to go to Oxbridge, I would have fought for it but in part I felt intimidated and one of my main concerns was having to potentially endure more snobbery for another three years. I decided to withdraw my application instead.
I should add that my friend, who had wanted the place, originated from India and didn’t have the same experience as me. Her application sailed through and even though she never secured a place at either of the two prestigious institutions, it seems that that ‘failure’ did not tarnish my school’s track record.
Seeing the image of the 14 Cambridge students was a reminder of how far things have come since my time but also how far things still need to go. For good and or for bad, it showed just how deep-rooted the power that the school environment and teachers can wield over students in setting them along a chosen path.
I had a lot of good and bad experiences while at this school. I remember the supportive mentors like my form teacher, my PE and French teachers, and most memorably an amazing teacher who headed up the English department. She made no bones about telling me – in front of my mother during a parent’s evening – that I had a maturity to my writing, which would take me places and I should keep on writing.
But in my seven years at this particular school, I also remember being told by another English teacher – a former nun – that because I was so quiet in class, she was surprised that I had such a good command of English. Shortly before I picked my university options, she told me I would not be capable of securing a university place to read English.
And I distinctly recall my geography teacher helping to reinforce her stereotype about people in Africa. According to her, we have big families so that when one child dies, we can replace them with another to work on the farm. Like cattle – no feeling, no thought.
I remember looking at my teacher and recalling how desperately sad my grandmother was when I had pressed her a few years previously about the death of her 12th born. Yes my grandmother had a big family but being a mother in the late 1920s left her little freedom around birth control. And yes she farmed and my mum and her siblings helped her but they were her beloved children – each one precious including the last that didn’t survive.
I remember my careers teacher telling me that I should consider social work – as that was what a lot of Black women went into. But I think, the pièce de résistance has to go to my history teacher who predicted me a ‘C’ at GSCE level. She told my mum and dad at another parent’s evening that she did not place much hope in me on this particular subject. She also threw in that most Black people ended up working as cleaners…
I remember my mum squaring up to this teacher and telling her that she was a successful Ward Sister and my dad a Business Lecturer. I still remember my mum’s words today “….and when my daughter comes home,” she said: “she tells me in great detail about her day including how you ignore her every time she puts her hand up to answer a question”. My teacher turned crimson!!!
Read: Should the African presence in Tudor England be taught in schools?
I feel extremely lucky to have had an immensely supportive and vocal mother who stood up for me when I didn’t know how to. Suffice to say, I gained an ‘A’ in GCSE history, secured a university place reading English and became what I always wanted to be – a journalist.
I returned to this school last year for a reunion with my class only to face the same headmistress. Nothing had changed in those 20 years. She still ignored me and tried her best to undermine me but the difference today is her prejudices do not define me. So looking again at this picture of the Cambridge 14 is extremely powerful because it speaks about the resilience of these young men to enter into spaces initially not designed to welcome them. The image honours those families that most likely had to speak out about prejudices, and it speaks to those free-thinking mentors that recognised and celebrated the potential of these students irrespective of their colour.
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