Mum, why do you sound so posh?
A resounding question every time my daughter hears me on any type of work phone call, a question that we both laugh hysterically about and often becomes quite embarrassing when she attempts her impressions of my ‘phone voice’ in front of others! A common whatsapp theme is of voice notes sent from my 12year old in my ‘phone voice’, answering my own questions to her. Similarly, I can reflect on my child self, who used to ask the exact same question to my dad – who will also laugh hysterically about this, when he reads this piece. Moreover, a common theme for entertainment as a child with my two sisters, was mimicking this exact same ‘poshness’ that my dad presented.
Although addicted to heroin, and heavily involved in supply, to feed not only his addiction, but that of my unemployed, mentally-ill, also addicted, mothers. My dad’s presentation of ‘posh’ came not from work calls but in the form of school meetings with the headmaster, as a result of my multiple suspensions, that finally led to full exclusion in my final year of high school. The reasons for my suspension and exclusion are important here, possibly because at that stage in my life, I hadn’t mastered the art of language, aside from the ‘I fucking hate school’ sentence that was heard daily from Monday to Friday in the house we lived in.
Why did I hate school? More importantly, why did school hate me?
My childhood exposed me to what exclusion and marginalisation really mean, despite being of an age and lack of lived experience, which meant I didn’t really know and couldn’t really describe what was happening to me. That is not to say, that I haven’t internalised the consequences of such experience. Actually, I did know what was happening to me, and I knew it wasn’t fair – I just didn’t know the extent to which institutions, services and professionals work in ways to further exclude the voices and experiences of oppressed groups. And, I certainly didn’t know what Labelling Theory was, and how I would come to relate to so much of it in my adult life, as an activitist and professional within the arena user involvement and inclusion.
My childhood days were mostly spent ‘getting up to mischief’ – whose weren’t? Although, my mischief was unsupervised, it was mostly illegal and often dangerous. I wasn’t wondering off from my mums direct eye line at the park. I was drinking myself into a hospital bed with spirits I nicked from the co-op, at 13 years old. I was ‘going out’ with 20 year old blokes, as a 14 year old. I was going out on week nights to pubs, clubs and house parties and keeping in contact with my parents via phone calls was not even an option! With the exception of using the BT call back service on a phone box, when my sisters and I were stuck outside a nightclub at 3am and we needed picking up.
I have two vivid memories of being ‘excluded’ at primary school – although I didn’t know that I was being excluded – I just felt horrible and the experience felt horrible. The first one was when I was in year 5, around 10 years old. My elder sister was 12 and younger sister was 8. We were all at the same primary school, waiting to be collected at the end of the school day by our mum. She was late, so after waiting outside, watching all of the other children go home, we were cold so decided to go back into school and wait in the corridor. Other children also hadn’t been collected, so they were taken back in by two teachers. These teachers led the other children down the corridor, to the lunch hall for some after-school activities. In passing, one of them suggested that my sisters and I should follow them to the hall. The other teacher proceeded to announce ‘their fine, their mum is always late’. Instantly, this told us that we were not welcome in the hall, with the other children. Simply because, our mum was always late! Presumably, the other children were being collected by late ‘working mums’ and our exclusion was due to our late mum being addicted to heroin. This tells us that, an acceptable reason to be late to collect your children from school, is being at work. Therefore, if this is the case, we will ensure your children can purposefully spend their time waiting. If however, you a drug addict and we don’t recognise your condition as a health problem, and we don’t recognise your children as suffering, then your children can just wait in the corridor.
On their own.
Away from the teachers and other children.
The second time was in year six, a year later. A fellow year six pupil had flown to Disney Land in Florida. Upon her return to school, she gifted every year 6 kid with a Disney souvenir.
Every other year six kid.
Apart from me.
Secondary school became even more toxic, and I became even more excluded. This was due to who ‘I’ was, which fed from the perception of who my parents ‘were’. My reaction to this, as a teenager was not to educate myself around inclusion and diversity, or to question the systems and structures that perpetuated my exclusion. It was to rebel against it. Being bullied, led me to bully. Being excluded, led me to isolate. Being punished, led me to believe I was naughty. I was victimised by teachers and institutional systems, that somehow always managed to position me as the perpetrator. My response was to simply not give a shit. I stopped going to school. At times when I did attend, I had a very quick fuse, which blew at the very slightest provocation. If I was asked to go and remove my make-up, despite a few more hundred girls in the school covered in slap – I would just go home.
I remember my mum once giving me some money to go to the hairdressers and get some braids. For me, this was a big thing. I wasn’t a child that had hair-dresser appointments. The braids in my hair were tied up with coloured bobbles. When I went to school, I was called into the head of year office and told to take the braids out, because coloured bobbles were against the school rules. Take my braids out, no way. I went on to explain, with tears in my eyes, that I only had my braids done yesterday, and they will last a few weeks and I really don’t want to take them out because I like them and my mum actually gave me the money to go to the hair-dressers and get something I wanted done to my hair! They weren’t having it, and gave me a choice of removing my braids or leaving school. Of course, I just walked out and told them to fuck off. When I arrived home, after catching the bus, the school had already phoned home and informed my dad that I had been suspended for a week! Result, I thought!
This was a continued pattern. Injustice of any kind through-out high school resulted in me leaving, subsequently being suspended and then returning. The cycle of injustice and suspension continued. As did the meetings with head teachers and my dad, who was always ‘welcomed’ to discussions regarding my return to school. These meetings always consisted of conversations about my wrong-doing and negative reaction, which always provided a space for their justification of my exclusion. What these meetings failed to do, was examine whether their school policy suited my needs, as a child in need of nurture and support, not punishment and exclusion. As a teen, filled with anger and frustration, I didn’t know the language to call this out, although I knew that these conversations failed to get to the root causes of my feelings and actions.
I’ll always remember those drives back to school, dad in his only suit that was too big for him, with some very weird purple tie.
Always the same suit.
Always the same tie.
The greetings in the school waiting area, beginning with a formal hand shake of my dad and the head teacher. Then being led into his office and asked to take a seat. Dad would always put on a different voice and have a completely different persona and opinion when in company of the head. That used to piss me off even more. I would stare at him as he was talking, thinking to myself ‘what the hell are you going on about? ‘and ‘why are you in a suit?’. He never wore a suit, he didn’t have a job. That suit must have been for court appearances and the obligatory back to school meeting for Michaela. Perhaps he thought that presenting this way would enhance other peoples view of ‘us’ – if we could become more like ‘them’ the chance of my school life may become less of a fuck up!? I knew we weren’t ‘like them’ and I knew that I couldn’t pretend to ‘be like them’. I didn’t know what class inequality was, and I didn’t know what oppression was. I didn’t know we were less than working class in a meeting with a middle-class head master. And, I don’t think my dad did either. What I did know was, this man making decisions about my school life and explaining my behaviour to us, had no idea what he was talking about. He had no idea about my life at home, he had no idea about my life at school. And here he was, attempting to tell me about my own life, with my dad there, unintentionally colluding with him by his presentation in a suit, with a false perception of our lives, and a voice that didn’t belong to him.
My sisters and I still laugh about dad in that suit, and all the times he wore it to my school meetings.
Fast forward 13 years, and my own child is now doing the same thing to me. ‘Mum, why do you sound so posh?’
Rebelling against unjust systems as a teen, didn’t result in any positive changes in my life. Effing and blinding all the time and leaving situations due to lack of ability to explain things, didn’t help change things. Educating myself, learning the language of the ‘others’ and mastering the art of expression and vocabulary was what enabled me to position myself within the firing line, and remain there with confidence, in speaking up for myself and others when faced with injustice of any kind.
Anger at the victimisation of the marginalised, gave me the passion to learn how to speak. Determination to ensure I wasn’t ignored encouraged people to listen. But, people only listened after I had learnt the language. After my own instant reactions that were indicative of someone who needed help, were ignored.
What do I say to my child when she asks me, ‘mum, why do you sound so posh?’
Well, I certainly don’t tell her that in life, we have to pretend to be someone different and present as something ‘better’. I don’t tell her that as a kid I was mistreated and reacted negatively because I lacked the skills to express what I was going through. I also don’t tell her that she will probably grow up to have a ‘phone voice’. Although, she probably will!
Kid, I ‘sound so posh’ because I grew up in silence, even when I was screaming, because that was the only sound I knew. I ‘sound so posh’ because no-one listened to me, when I spoke. I ‘sound so posh’ because it provides me with opportunities that wouldn’t come my way if I didn’t. I ‘sound so posh’ because space for ‘me’ is limited. I ‘sound so posh’ so I at least, have a sound.