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11 September 2019

Personal story: The cosmopolitan north London school that shaped me

At Park View, I was one of only a handful of white British students from a middle-class home – and my education went far beyond the syllabus. I’m still not sure I’ll ever again experience anywhere as vibrant, warm and chaotic.

By Heather Cant

In my first year at Park View School I was repeatedly asked where I was from, and “England” was never a credible answer. “No, I mean, like, where are your parents from?” “They’re English.” “Yeah but your grandparents then, your family?” “English.” “Swear down? I thought you were Albanian.”

Nestled in N15, one of Europe’s most ethnically diverse postcodes, the school had a blend of histories from the shifting landscapes of Somalia, Syria, Turkey, Jamaica. Park View moved with these waves.

The local area was a reflection of this. At 8.30am each day, across the road, the Bollywood-blaring off-licence would be inundated by a rush of students grabbing Boost energy drinks and Toxic Waste sweets. The shelves displayed Polish beer, Middle Eastern spices, Nigerian Sim cards and Turkish biscuits. Outside, chicken bones shining with grease lay discarded on the gum-pocked pavement.

At the school gate, two suited security guards speaking Jamaican patois would tug at our ties as we jostled through, pulling them down to the required six-stripe length. Hijabi girls were made to show that their top buttons were done up underneath their scarves, and would undo them again as they made their way down the sticky-floored corridors to the classrooms.

My Englishness was a novelty. I was one of only a handful of white British students from a middle-class background. I lived in a mortgaged house, both of my parents had degrees, we went on holiday every year to different places – things that were foreign to a lot of my classmates.

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The knowledge of someone’s ethnic origin was pounced upon eagerly as a way to find friends or as an evergreen supply of banter. Polish kids were referred to as “Polski sklep”, Somali kids were greeted with a cry of “Wariyah!” and the Nigerians were repeatedly asked to pronounce their full names, rather than the shortened versions they went by, which was met with gleeful laughter whenever the name exceeded three syllables. As an English girl, I was told I spoke like the Queen and ate cardboard food with no flavour.

Whenever I performed well academically – scored highly in a test or was asked to share my work – a few of my classmates would comment, not unkindly but by way of explanation, “It’s because you’re English.” A simplification, yes, but they may have had a point: I’d grown up in an English-speaking household, with a room of my own, plenty of books and without the instability of being often uprooted.

Among such a mishmash of people there is no such thing as a typical experience, yet I was in a privileged position compared to many of my counterparts. The threat of gang violence didn’t affect me. The 2011 Tottenham riots, which erupted one summer holiday and temporarily left some students homeless, happened while I was away on a family holiday in Devon.

Sometimes the simmering difficulties in an area grappling with poverty would come to a head. Gang culture was glorified and the blades of poverty would cease to be a metaphor. Resilience would reveal itself in scribbled elegies to lost friends on desks and corridor walls.

When I joined Park View in 2008 it had a 31 per cent GCSE pass rate for English and maths, compared to the 48 per cent national average. It was situated in the rougher part of the borough and had a large majority of students who would count English as their second language. Perhaps for these reasons it was a school that many parents in Haringey actively, and expensively, avoided. In the months leading up to sorting school placements, families would rent out their homes and move to the catchment areas of what were considered better schools, despite Park View’s “good” Ofsted rating.

For me it was a place of constant stimulation. The rich mix never became mundane, and it inspired the interests that led me to my degree choice of English and Spanish.

At lunchtime, students would huddle together, speaking a language of languages: “Bruv, drop me a pound for a lahmacun. Wallahi I’ll pay you back.” Snippets of different tongues were strung together in sentences incomprehensible to anyone who wasn’t part of the Park View cohort. The accent was gritty and flowing, like sand. It was a language specific to our here-and-now. Without us realising, it was part of a much bigger picture, tracing and converging the global waves of displaced people culminating in our Tottenham hub.

The collision of cultures in a place like Tottenham breeds creativity and confusion, and often sparks moments of hilarity. I fondly recall a line of students that stretched down a full corridor, each pupil holding the little fingers of the person either side, hopping in unison in an imitation of Turkish dancing, while music blared and teachers yelled at us to stop.

If you grew up there, Skepta’s song “Oynama Sikidim Sikidim”, in which the Tottenham-born grime artist of Nigerian descent harnesses a Turkish chorus, makes perfect sense.

Park View was a school with a warped and warm form of acceptance: we all belonged in our non-belonging. Everyone was indiscriminately and affectionately ridiculed for their most personal insecurities. Ruthless insults were thrown out in playground rap battles and the most creative and cutting jibes would trigger reverberating applause.

The education I received there went far beyond the syllabus. I could sit comfortably with friends and wear a baati (a Somali dress), drink Turkish tea and listen to afrobeats – and think nothing of it.

Since leaving I haven’t experienced anywhere as vibrant, warm and chaotic – and I wonder if I ever will again. The reality was a far cry from the rumours of its hooligan-like student body with dead-end futures. The school was a patchwork quilt stitched messily together; a place of comfort made up of disparate parts. 

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