Leaving my abused teens and finding education
03 Jan 2020
Illustration by India Joseph
Trigger warning: mentions of rape and racist language
The 2010s were most significant of any decade so far in my life. I left my abused, naive teens and became an educated adult. I stood on my own feet with the gift of words, literacy and knowledge behind me. At the end of a decade filled with lows, lowers and rock-bottoms, I am “the educated Gypsy”, a trope not yet realised by Hollywood or Insta-Boho-Girls.
Many of you reading this will pinpoint the exact moment you realised that your skin, your nose, your lips, your hair, your existence was “wrong”. Maybe it was in nursery when a child asked you why your name was so funny. Maybe it was in primary school when you couldn’t find a reading book with someone that looked like you on the cover. Maybe it was in secondary school when you were called a racial slur but made to feel as if you couldn’t “take the joke”.
Maybe it was more recent. Maybe it was when you watched your country elect a government that has broken the racist dam.
For me, it was when I was a very young child and I asked Ma why the woman spat at me in the market when I smiled at her. She explained what it meant to not be white. I wasn’t who the world was meant for. I was background, audience, piped in white-noise. I wasn’t who justice, success and fairness were meant for. I reminded her I was half-white. She laughed and told me, “see how much that helps”. I realised my white heritage wasn’t what people saw in my brown eyes. They saw my Indian ancestors, my Gypsy people, my Sinti suffering. And that mattered. That mattered more than anything has ever mattered. It defined me.
“I wasn’t who the world was meant for. I was background, audience, piped in white-noise”
As I was pushed and pulled from danger to horror, city to city, school to school, I became hungry. I wanted a life where I could watch Ma come home from a supermarket laden with treats, instead of limping back from work with a bra-full of crumpled notes. I wanted a life like my beloved siblings; thriving, blonde and free in German backdrops. Watching my brother return to his Black Forest paradise in the mountains of southwest Germany, to skipped classes and drunken abandon; watching my older sister return to Berlin panache, to daily bakery trips and un-arsed school assignments – it infuriated me. We had the same father, why couldn’t I have that half-hearted attitude towards life?
I didn’t have time to dwell on it. I had to carry on because that’s what poor people do. We carry on. I wasn’t rich, my Dad had the money. While he was paying for my sister’s luxurious life in Germany to make sure his image wasn’t compromised by a raggedy looking child, I was in England wearing charity-shop clothes and doing monthly lucky-dips in the lost and found for uniform-replacements.
My mid-teens were particularly rough. I had permanently itchy skin, my living situation was miserable and I was bullied relentlessly for being a “pikey tramp” or a “p*ki tramp” depending on the mood of the day. I had made my mind up that I would kill myself as soon as I heard from my siblings one last time. My little sister had just been born; her blonde curls, blue eyes and peachy skin was everything that I’d been shamed for not having, but it made no difference to my fierce love for her. I wanted to hear her high-pitched cooing a final time.
I knew I was barrelling towards ending the shrieking laughter whenever I had to woefully walk over to the unlucky group that ended up with me on their P.E team, ending the pained efforts to pretend I couldn’t hear the rest of the table trying to move their bags away from me in case they “caught something” and ending that look from the teachers. The look of disdain and “what do we do with you?”. The end was as close as it had ever been when I was given a homework assignment that changed my world.
The assignments for me were always different from the rest of the class as I could barely write and my English skills were sub-par. This particular assignment was to do a report on a book of my choosing. I went to the school library as usual but instead of hiding next to the fire exit all lunchtime, I browsed shelf after shelf and felt a warmness rush through my blood. I was excited. I was eager to pick up handfuls of these small rectangles of joy and discover what the painted covers held.
“I browsed shelf after shelf and felt a warmness rush through my blood. I was excited”
From then, I never looked backwards.
I read and read and read. I read as much as my stumbling ability would allow. I moved to a different school and continued travelling to different worlds and universes at lunchtime, cuddling my legs to my chest as my stomach growled. I wanted to be a librarian, I wanted to be in charge of rows of books, I wanted to be the one who could tell you exactly what book you should read. I wanted other lonely people to discover their friends in these pages, discover their families in these words and discover themselves in these worlds.
From then, I had a purpose. I had a passion. I had a path.
Life took its own time with me. I suffered through violence, rape and depression. I survived as much as one can survive these things. I was adamant not to let the flame of determination extinguish. I knew great things could be achieved with education. I especially knew that as the only one in my Gypsy family who could read and write, I had the weight of them and my ancestors on my shoulders. Thinking of the stories I’d heard about my family members who perished in the Holocaust, remembering my cousins, still illiterate and confined to our Eastern European ghetto, I knew I had no right to waste this chance.
As I completed college, crossed my fingers for university acceptance, sat anxious and nauseous in a sea of beautifully made-up girls and smartly dressed boys in my market-stall clothes at the back of uni lectures for the first year, I pushed on. I earned my degree.
Now I start the next decade with a Tory target on my Gypsy back. But this time I have a voice and strength. This country gave me the power of words, the honour of education and the arrogance of achievement. It is my country to love, to criticise and to fight for. This country isn’t one shade. It’s black, brown, white, straight, gay, trans, poor, rich and ours.