This is a story about living in two bizarrely different worlds, and gradually learning to be honest about who I am, ‘fitting in’ in neither space but belonging wherever I am accepted as myself.
I grew up on Brixton hill, where prostitutes stood on the corner, and I could see the corner shop getting robbed from my window. In the holidays, we stayed with my Mum’s extended family, who were upper class and wealthy. Conservative MPs. ‘sir this’ ‘lord that’ ‘lady this’. They lived in huge mansions surrounded by ornate gardens and fields.
It was a bizarre double life. No-one at my primary school could even imagine it: sitting up at long, wooden dining tables; playing croquet on the lawn; making cucumber sandwiches and laying out the cutlery correctly; watering the kitchen garden; boating on the lake; racing barefoot to the end of the bowling green. Likewise, none of my great aunts or uncles could possibly have envisioned my school life. Cussing each other and each other’s mums. Standing on the wall singing Spice Girls. Singing gospel music at full volume every morning in assembly. My defensiveness that at times bordered aggression.
To pretend I belonged to either life felt dishonest. Like my classmates, we had no money. Unlike them, we had a house full of paintings that my Dad had inherited; a fall back to sell if times got hard enough. Like my classmates, I dropped my ‘t’s, kissed my teeth and ‘cut my eye’ at people, but my voice always retained a posh, even plumy edge. The swagger never looked quite right on me. I had neither black people’s hair nor the acceptable version of white people’s hair – it wasn’t sleek, it was knotty and curly and unmanageable. I never had Nike trainers or Adidas tracksuits. I had to be honest: I didn’t fit in.
After going to my local primary school, I was sent to a private secondary school because a great aunt left money for school fees in her will.
I’d never heard of netball – at my school we only played basketball, but apparently now that was considered a boys’ sport. I was grade 5 on the recorder, but now I was told that the recorder was not a real instrument and I was put into the beginners’ music class, being taught musical terminology I’d known since year 2. At lunchtime, people actually queued for their lunch! I took full advantage, every day pushing my way past all the other students straight to the front. If no-one was going to push back or tell on me, why would I bother waiting? Attempting to fit in, I left behind my primary school friends, stopped kissing my teeth and learned instead to swear in a posh voice. I took up playing the oboe (paid for by my aunt and uncle) and joined the choir.
Like my classmates, I had relatives who lived in the countryside, but while my classmates talked about their exotic holidays in Australia, I didn’t even know where Australia was. I’d never been out of the UK. They talked about their ‘allowance’, with most of them receiving around £70 a month from their parents. I didn’t even get pocket money! I didn’t shop in Jane Norman or have a Pineapple tracksuit. I had to be honest: I didn’t fit in.
It’s taken me years to realise that fitting in is not the goal. Honesty is more important than fitting in. Tempting as it is for me to reject one world or the other, honesty with myself requires me to be who I am – this in-between-worlds person. Honesty with myself offers other people the opportunity to accept me as I am, and offers me the opportunity to accept others as they are, no matter what worlds they come from. Honesty with myself creates a space for belonging, that is, acceptance that includes difference. This belonging is something I am both learning to find for myself and in turn to offer to all those around me.