Failure, Strength and Racism

This blog comes from Halil Tamgumus, a serving headteacher in Leicester.

Up until university, it is fair to say that education and I were not the best of friends.
We tolerated each other, but I didn’t get much out of the relationship.
There are many reasons for this. A large part of it, I feel, was down to the fact that education back then wasn’t aimed at engaging me. It didn’t take in to account who I am. I lost interest.
I remember the day I got my GCSE results as if it were yesterday. The envelope in hand; My mates all, and I mean all, screeching in delight. The hubbub of all the other “not quite children – nearly adults” a blur in the background, muffled by the beating of my heart in my ears. Deafening. I felt sick. I knew. I knew it wasn’t good news.
I opened it…
On my own…
And my fears became a reality.
I failed all my GCSEs.
Yep, that happened.
I felt sick; you know the feeling you get when your heart sinks into your stomach? My head was spinning.
Baba had asked me in the morning to go past the shop he was working in at the time and share my results with him. I considered not going, I mean in all honesty, I even thought about running away. But I did go because I knew if I didn’t, he’d be worried and I am sure if I was more than 30 minutes later than what we had agreed he would have galvanised the whole community and sent out a search party for me!
The walk there felt like I was moving in slow motion, the world around me put into fast forward but ironically before I knew it, I was standing outside the shop. Baba saw me straight away. I mean, I wasn’t exactly inconspicuous – at that time I was about 17 stone (I’m big-boned alright!).
He beckoned me in with a long arm gesture.
I shook my head.
I watched him pass the food he was preparing for one of the customers to his workmate. I read his lips as he spoke to him – kötüdür – simply translated – ‘It’s bad’!
By the time he got outside, I was leaning on our family car; my legs had gone to jelly (insert weight joke here 😊). I mean, seriously, what was I going to say?
He stood in front of me, and as far as I was concerned, it was just him and me – the world around us melted away. I took a deep breath. Opened my mouth to speak and before I made a sound he said in the calmest and sincerest of tones
“it’s going to be alright son, I love you”.
I sobbed uncontrollably. I couldn’t catch the air around me quick enough to feed my lungs. It was as if I was on top of a mountain where the air is thinner.
I didn’t cry like that again until almost 20 years later. It came as a delayed reaction to the news from the consultant that my father had months to live. Ironically, I was outside a Turkish restaurant while leaning on my car and my sister standing by my side telling me she loved me.
I’ve wiped the phone of my tears several times; the last few paragraphs have reminded me just how much I do miss him.
Our next exchange of words influenced me in such a profound way that it had become part of my being; it changed my outlook on life; it prepared me for what was to come.
It was one of two critical moments in my life regarding my father guiding me through education. The other was just before I went to university (another blog for another time).
He asked me “what are you crying for?” My response – the crux of my pain – “I’ve let you down – I’m so ashamed”.
“My son, you haven’t let me down! You could never let me down. Tell me what you want to do?”
“I want to retake my exams Baba” I couldn’t give him eye contact, my eyes firmly fixed to the pavement.
“Ahh yes… There you go” he placed a reassuring hand on my shoulder while gently tilting my head up with his other hand under my chin. He was smiling and smiling with his eyes. He had the kindest eyes.
“You are a clever boy. Don’t give up. People will tell you you can’t do this and you can’t do that. Fight! That makes me proud”.
He endured a lot of “you can’t” and “you don’ts” in his heartbreakingly short life especially while he was trying his best to provide for his family in a country where he was, in the main, not made to feel welcome.
He never gave up, right until the end.
I don’t give up. Yes, I’ve had to work hard to get to where I am. Some may argue I’ve had to work harder than expected. But I never gave up.
Those of us who have had the misfortune of being on the receiving end of racisim, through no fault of our own but the fault of inequitable systems, have had to fight harder to get to where we are.
We never give up!
Some of those people who do not experience this see this perseverance as “confrontational” or “arrogance”.
Look a little closer and you’ll see the scars –  the constant reminders of the battles we have had to endure to get to where we are.

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