A few minutes pass by and suddenly I feel a tugging on my camera bag. Attached to the zipper of the little pocket holding my mobile and Oyster card is a hand. Attached to a guy sitting behind me.
"What the FUCK do you think you're doing?!!" I shout at him, jumping up and hugging my bag to me (I'm freaked out, but not letting him see this)
"Wha, wha? I didn' do nuthin"
I hurry down the stairs away from him because the bus is pretty empty at the top and I didn't fancy having this moron pull a knife or something on me.
I didn't even notice what he'd done until I got down the stairs.
Turns out, he figured that I was going to tell the bus driver to call the police and followed me down the stairs, standing close to the doors - clearly planning on running off with my phone as soon as the bus stopped.
Yep, he'd stolen my phone. The very phone that was a gift from Sony Ericsson 3 years ago for a job well done. The phone that held recordings of my students singing, pictures of my nephew at 10 hours old, countless phone numbers that are now lost forever, and acted as my alarm clock every morning, photo album, and main method of communication since I've been in this country.
At this point, I'm furious and bellowing "BUS DRIVER! Call the police!! This asshole stole my phone!! GIVE ME MY PHONE BACK!!"
People froze and stared, but nobody made a move until I shouted again "You FUCKING BASTARD GIVE ME THE PHONE NOW!!" Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a trio of large guys stand up. As soon as I looked at them, the bastard with my mobile turned his head and looked at them too. Deciding I was going to beat this jerk over the head with my shoes or anything else in reach, I stepped towards him yelling, the guys in the back finally waking up and coming closer too.
We all watched in amazement as the thief pulled open the bus doors and jumped off the still-moving bus.
It's ironic that 10 days before I was due to leave England, I got robbed. It could have been much worse of course - I could have had my camera stolen (which would have broken my heart even more than losing my beloved phone) or my credit card, or the guy could have hurt me.
I'm still really angry and have repeatedly wished I had somebody to punch in the last couple of days, but nothing will bring back my phone or the things that were lost on it.
So here I am setting alarm clocks I've never used, depending on land lines to make phone calls (very inconvenient), needing to buy a watch, and constantly feeling like I've forgotten something (any woman who goes out without her purse knows this feeling, I'm sure).
Last night I sat in my window, watching groups of teenagers saunter past, talking on phones and making their usual racket, and I started feeling pretty sorry for myself. Fortunately, I've grown up a lot in the last several months, and the melancholy didn't last nearly as long as it would have a year ago.
Yes, my phone was stolen and yes, that sucks and I'm angry and hurt, but I was lucky...
The problems with Inner City London affect so many people. Every person with any kind of connection east of The City knows somebody who's been mugged, robbed, beaten up, threatened, or worse. Gangs of teenage boys prowl the streets of East London looking for other young boys to rob. (My landlady's son has been mugged 8 times this YEAR) Some of these gangs even approach little kids to use as mules to carry drugs or weapons. They think it's cool to get their younger brothers or sisters to fight other little ones or do bad things. Just today a year six boy got his 5 year old brother to beat up another kid for fun in the schoolyard.
I was horrified to hear about a student in MY class, a 7 year old boy, telling people that one of the older kids in the school approached him to join a gang following this new rapper from Walthamstow called Lethal Bizzle. Apparently this guy is pretty typical of what you'd expect an inner city rapper to be, and the children in East London think he's the height of coolness. Sadly, they idolize these performers and seem to believe that becoming part of the gang culture is a good idea. There are stories in the papers about gangs here recruiting children as young as the ones in my class. Imagine a 7 year old child walking through the streets of inner city London with a bunch of kids carrying drugs and weapons.
As the teacher of innocent children who have only been on this planet for 7 years, and who have no idea about the big world that exists outside the limits of their borough (never mind the city of London itself), I'm absolutely heartbroken at the thought that some of these wonderful kids are going to turn to gangs and crime one day.
No, I'm not being dramatic here. Some of them WILL become part of it.
These kids live in a different world. Their parents are uneducated, smoke cigarettes or worse in front of them, have fist fights with other parents, dress inappropriately, feed them terrible, unhealthy food, and basically are struggling to get through each day, so they don't have as much time to look after their kids as they need. At night, the streets are only safe for the kids who roam in gangs - except when other gangs challenge them of course. Litter and graffiti are everywhere, people drive low riders with blaring music, or blast their mobiles on buses. They eat chips and fried chicken 3 times a week and spend hours watching American TV and playing Playstation games like Grand Theft Auto. The kids in this borough are obsessed with their (skewed) viewpoint of American culture, particularly hip hop and urban lifestyles. The swear and shout, refuse to give up their seats for old people or moms with newborns on the buses, and will tell off any person who dares to speak up to them. They wear New York Yankees clothes (even though many of them don't have a clue who the Yankees are), baby backpacks, listen to all of the music from back, home, and even walk and talk how they think people in Detroit, New York, and LA do. If it wasn't so sad, it would be hilarious.
No fucking wonder this part of the city is in trouble.
These adorable, caring little babies in my class will soon realize that kindness doesn't always work, and some of them will very likely one day become a kid who jumps off a moving bus with somebody's stolen mobile so they can buy some drugs. They will need to be street smart in a way that I never will be (despite being 20 years older), to depend on themselves and their connections to avoid gangs and shootings and stabbings - all very real things that kill young kids every day here. (Don't believe me? Search Google for teenage killings in London and see what comes up - we lost a 15 year old East London boy just last month.)
I'd love to sit them down and tell them what happened to me. To explain why I'm so sad about having my phone stolen, and shock them into remembering "the time our teacher got robbed on the bus" so they might avoid such a bleak future.
Just call me Pollyanna...
There's a little boy in my class. His name is C, and he used to have a lot of trouble with his behaviour. He's turned himself around in the last several months, has become a lot more affectionate both with his peers and the adults in the school. He tries really hard to listen, works hard, and seems to be finally enjoying school, although he isn't making much progress academically. His mom works long hours, and his grandmother takes care of him a lot. He's got an older sister who plays the same music I listen to, and he often comes to class singing the same hiphop songs I sing along with as I'm getting ready for school in the morning. His aunt doesn't think he'll amount to anything, and yells at him all the time. His grandmother also shouts at him occasionally, and he's come to school in tears because of it. Very few people think he'll get anywhere in life. At 7 years old, he already has a label to overcome.
What will become of this child? The one who told my adult helpers during our trip to the seaside that he wouldn't have been able to come a few months ago because he "used to be naughty, but he isn't anymore" and smiled so joyfully all day because he was seeing the ocean for the first time. Hell, it was the first time he'd seen field and cows (he and about a third of my class had never been out of Walthamstow). What are the chances that he'll escape the poverty and violence that are woven so tightly into the landscape here? What are the odds that he'll advance in school and not need to work minimum-wage jobs for the rest of his life?
Where will he be in 10 years?
Has his chance of a happy, successful future already been stolen?
If you're the praying kind, please say one or two for the children of Walthamstow - they need it.