I was the Principal of a school in London called Oasis Academy Shirley Park in Croydon. I had come from an outstanding boys school in Woolwich and Shirley Park was one of the worst schools in England. At the end of my first week, I put my head in my hands and thought, how am I going to do this? I had to break up at least half a dozen fights, a large number of staff were being verbally abused by students, school attendance for the week was less than 60%, three staff resigned, and two students smashed my wing mirrors and cracked the windshield of my car. I had a Dad threaten me, we had confiscated two knives, and a teacher’s laptop and purse had been stolen. I also had to remove a local gang from outside our school who were looking to recruit my students. I was overwhelmed and under-resourced.
One day, I heard a voice and it was one of my teachers, Yemi Hughes, a fantastic teacher and person. She said, “Glen, I want to introduce you to my son who is going to come to our school.” I stood up and in front of me was a very small Year 8 boy, Andre Aderemi. He said, “You are tall. Do you think I will be as tall as you one day?” I said, “I don’t know but if I look at your heart I’m sure you are as tall as me!” Andre replied, “I am almost as tall as you!” Yemi said, “Glen, it’s tough here but the kids need good people that care about them and then we can go from there!” She was completely right.
I loved Andre. He would fly close to the wind during his schooling and fall foul of the teachers at times but he had a heart of gold and I could see the greatness in him. The staff could see greatness. Andre and I had a running joke where he would say to me, “Almost Sir, almost”, which meant that he was almost as tall as me, despite me being half a metre taller than him. When I resigned from Shirley Park to take up my job at Massey High School, Andre came to see me. He had left school and was now at a sixth form college. We had a big hug and talked about his future. He wanted to be a rapper and we talked about what his Plan B was. He said to me, “Sir, are you trying to make rapping my Plan B and something else my Plan A?” I said, “Andre, you are far too clever for me; that’s exactly what I’m trying to do.” As he left he said, “Almost Sir, almost!” I smiled and said, “Almost.”
I was fortunate to go back to Shirley Park 18 months later with a group of my SLT from Massey High School, Auckland, on a study tour of the best schools in England. By luck, Andre was there visiting his Mum. He was shocked to see me and we had a great chat about what he was doing. He told me that he was moving out of the Monks Hill estate as it was too violent. Sometimes young people on estates had to connect themselves with a gang just to be protected. I was happy to hear he was leaving and going somewhere safe. He talked about his studies and told me that he was still rapping but his school work was just as important. He said, “Sir, it’s a shared Plan A.” He was excited for the future and he told me that he would make me proud. I told him that I was in a new job and I would work hard to make him proud. He said, “We have lots to do if we are going to make each other proud.”
I walked with him out of school and I gave him a hug. As he crossed the road to catch the bus he yelled out, “Sir!” I looked back and he said, “Almost Sir, almost.”
A month later, I got a phone call from my old P.A at Shirley Park. She was crying. Andre was dead. He had been murdered on the Monks Hill estate. It was devastating news. There is always a piece inside my heart that is lost when these things happen. I cherish my memories of Andre and the way he told other students at Shirley Park that he and I were mates and that if they got into trouble he could sort it out for them, with me.
I thought, could we have done more when he was with us at Shirley Park? Could I have done more? The word that kept coming back to me was, almost. Andre was almost out of the clutches of the Monks Hill estate; he was almost safe; he almost had a bright future. He almost made it.
Yemi wrote a book called ‘Senseless: The Andre Aderemi story’. It’s a beautiful book and captures the essence of who Andre was.
I believe in my heart that we should always catch our boys with soft hands. That sometimes boys, like Andre, will run full pelt into us and we must catch them with soft hands. We let them know that this is the boundary. That this is the line that’s been drawn but we are here and we love them and we are here to listen to them.
It’s difficult sometimes. I know how trying young people can be at times. If I am meeting with a student who has crossed a line or been disruptive I always say to myself, almost. What is the ‘almost’ that this young person needs from me? What is the little piece that is missing to make the situation better, to make it whole? The student is almost there, how can I help?
I thank Andre for making me a better teacher and person and for reminding me that when our boys are in trouble and need help, this is only temporary – they are almost there.
Receive the light and pass it on.