I took the train to St Helens on Tuesday evening. I was going there to see a celebration of learning event, organised by Arch Initiatives St Helens. It was in the library and I had to be there by a quarter past five, Nicky told me. I dialled her number. ‘I’m outside the Town Hall. Where’s the library?’ ‘Just a minute, look….turn to your left and you’ll see someone waving out the window. That’s me!’ ‘Hello, I see you!’ and two seconds later I was shaking her hand and meeting Jo again too, her colleague and close collaborator.
They had organised a showcase event of all the work the students had completed over the last few months. Two WEA tutors, Lenny and Celia, had been working closely with the groups, producing lots of personal writing, scripts, poems, art and craftwork. They had created an exhibition of their poetry and writings, their paintings and objects they’d made , such as the wonderful creative hands reaching upwards. Lenny was chatting to someone, as I sat down. They were talking about the dark nights, the cold, how it takes you down sometimes. The man explained how he’d come to deal with this. He would get stuck into housework and he also kept a diary. Writing helped him keep life in perspective. I chipped in with how I’d just spent a morning, sorting piles of papers at home. What a good feeling that was. ‘Helps you get things back under control,’ Lenny said. I nodded.
The first show started. It was a play called, ‘Leggin’ it to Spain’, all written by members of the group with support from the tutor. The cast of eight was made up of students too with Nicky, the sole staff member. We were treated to an uproarious tale of diamond smuggling, missing legs, awful snobbery between air hostesses and, not least, the whiff of romance. Less Christian Dior, more Pit d’Arme, it has to be said. Sailing very close to the wind at times, everyone loved it, especially the librarians. Well, we know what they’re like, don’t we? It showed how much learning meant to them, how they’d grown in confidence. Not only the ones performing too. 25 people, we were told, had helped put the drama and art shows together! The script cracked and whizzed with pace. The actors delivered with relish in all seriousness.
Next, we heard from people who have worked with Arch Initiatives and WEA, trying to come to terms with problems of drug and alcohol addiction. There were a number of men who, in overcoming their addiction had gone on to work as mentors within Arch. Some had found other employment arising out of the mentoring. They highlighted the value of the support they’d received from Nicky and Jo, from the tutors and, above all, from each other. The help and encouragement, probably giving a kick up the backside too, when needed, had been vital. What came across to me is how important it is for all of us to be treated with warmth and respect. The Inspire programme gave them the possibility of having a stable, secure space every week. It gave them a good reason to get up in the morning. As a parent, two stories, in particular, struck a chord with me. Both told of how they had been reunited with their children and families after years of addiction. Their words held out a hopeful prospect for us all.
Then, some of the current students got up to speak. No mean feat, given that there were at least a hundred people, including the Mayor, in the audience. And yet, they did, and spoke out loudly. Sometimes, Nicky stepped in to continue their testimonies, if it got a bit too much. They all spoke movingly of heading towards a more stable lifestyle and their hopes for the future. As a WEA Organiser, I was struck by how much each one appreciated the opportunity of being able to turn up for classes. There are often difficulties with attendance when someone starts. It takes a while before the ‘penny drops’. Perseverence can really pay off, though. My second thought was how good are our tutors! They were making a real difference to these people’s lives. And I know they also had benefited from the involvement personally. ‘The best two hours of the week,’ Lenny said. Later, one of the men passed me by, calling out, as he did so, ‘Albert Mansbridge would be proud tonight, if he were here!’. Indeed, he would have been (A M was instrumental in founding the WEA in 1903) but how did he know? I found out later he’d written a project about the WEA while on his teacher training course. Good man and great Tweed jacket! I think I’ll get mine out again. Cool!
They spoke about what learning meant to them. It brought colour back into their lives. Unsolicited by me, they even said how they were looking forward to gaining maths and English qualifications. Each person spoke of the camaraderie of the group, of how they couldn’t have managed it on their own. They needed the support from each other, from Nicky and Jo and from the tutors, Celia and Lenny. They spoke of having a structure to their lives which gave them stability. We heard how some of them had gone back to bad habits for a time but had come back to the group and moved on. At such events, we do see the success stories more. Not everyone does or can suceed, sadly, but here were real people telling real stories, offering rays of hope, arrows of practical support and solutions. Crucially, each one involved a moment when they realised they had to change or else carry on as they were. So many spoke of reaching a point when they decided they were going to do something about whatever was troubling them. They stopped seeing drugs and alcohol as the great things they thought they were. Quite the opposite, in fact.
We broke out to appreciate the art work exhibition. Big headlines on the walls proclaimed ‘Crafty Sods’. A golden vein of humour ran through the whole event. I’d like to say my own big thankyou to Celia and Len. I didn’t fully appreciate how far they had done the extra mile in preparing for this showcase. True, we’d run lots of courses in creative writing, writing for radio, patchwork art and craft classes, even a ‘Banner for St Helens’ course. So much of what they created was on display here. Paintings depicting a drug addict’s day bared their innermost fears. Models of hands reached up but for what? Photographs coloured the walls showing the groups in action, focusing on a task or smiling in the group. In my own contribution, I spoke of visiting a session in 2008, not long after we first started working together. They were preparing to put on a pantomine about blood-borne infections. Each person was focused on stitching their costumes for the show. You could have heard a pin drop… but one didn’t.
All this takes time and committed hardwork and support over many years. Relationships need time to grow. Lots of encouragement is needed if trust is to be grounded. There are many setbacks along the way. So many people in the room had turned the corner, had succeeded in making concrete changes in their lives. Evidence of the impact of this work was in plentiful supply for us all to see and hear.
The evening was rounded off by a short sketch involving a CAB volunteer and a visitor from another planet, an alien, seeking advice. Sharp, witty script, great acting, it made you think about how we relate to people we perceive as different from ourselves.
Leaving the library on my way back to the station, I passed a group of happy, excited students, laughing and joking with one another. They were clearly on a high after such a good night, and why wouldn’t they be? They were brimming with endorphins. I hope some of that confidence remains when they wake up tomorrow and start going about their daily lives again. They’ll have to relate to all those who weren’t in the audience that night to hear their stories. Whatever happens, they know that next week there is another class with their tutors, another session with Nicky and Jo, another chance to meet up with their friends and, hopefully, learn more about themselves and the world.