First of all, sorry for calling you ‘Maria’! I can’t use your real name as people might then be able to identify you, and as the conversation we had this morning was a private one, that wouldn’t be fair. I’m not sure whether or not you’ll get to read this one day, but I hope I’ll be able to find ways and means of communicating it to you over the weeks and months ahead.
People who are reading this probably won’t know who you are, so I suppose I should introduce you. You are a girl who I teach at school. You are a bright, brilliant and kind pupil. Some time ago your family made the difficult decision to move to this country from Romania, where you were born. I know that they’re so proud of you! All of the staff here at school are proud of you as well. You are a credit to yourself, to our school and to your family. I look forward to our little chats every day because I know you’ll make me laugh! When I first started teaching you, I remember thinking that you looked permanently terrified. Now you’re full of confidence, and it’s sometimes hard to get you to stop talking! This is the best thing about my job; getting to see children like you grow, change and become more confident in themselves. Thank you for being you!
I’m sorry that I couldn’t answer your question this morning. I tried to, but I just mumbled and didn’t really say anything very helpful! There were two reasons I couldn’t answer it. The first was that I genuinely don’t know: I don’t think anyone does at the moment. The second is that your question upset me. I know you didn’t mean to! Your question wasn’t bad or unkind. It was a good question and I’m pleased that you felt able to ask me. But it still upset me. After I’d tried to answer it, I had to walk out of the classroom for five minutes because I was so upset. And that’s because it’s not a question you should have felt the need to ask.
I wonder if you remember what it was? I know I’ll remember it. You came up to me quietly, first thing this morning, looking a bit terrified like you always used to! And you asked me this:
“Mr Shepherd, what will happen to me and my family now that Britain has left the EU?”
Now please don’t ask me to remember what I said back to you! I haven’t got a clue. It wasn’t worth remembering anyway. But I’ve thought about it a little bit since and although I still don’t know the answer, these are some of the thoughts that I’ve had.
I don’t think you need to worry too much. I hope and pray that nothing will happen to you and your family and I don’t think anything will. I can’t be certain of this and I’m not going to make any false promises, but I think you’ll be okay. This country should be a welcoming and friendly place for people like you and your family. It probably won’t feel like that any more. It probably won’t be like that any more, at least for a while. I’m so sorry that you and the people you love are probably going to feel insecure, unwanted and maybe even threatened. I really, really hope that it won’t last and I promise you that you’ll always feel secure, wanted and safe in my classroom.
I don’t know why Britain voted to leave the EU but I can make a few guesses. The people who voted for this are not bad or stupid, but for a long time they’ve felt let down and betrayed by the people who are in charge of this country. Promises had been broken and lies were told over a number of years, so lots of people got very angry and they used this vote to show their anger. The really sad thing is that the people who told them to vote to leave the EU are the same people who lied to them! They’ve been told by some very powerful, very rich and very selfish people that the immigrants in this country are to blame for all the problems. People like you! Doesn’t that sound crazy?! They don’t know you and your family. They don’t know that your Dad works really, really hard and that you’re now really scared he’ll lose his job. They don’t realise how much you’ve given to this community, this city and this country. Not just by working hard and paying taxes but by being such lovely people.
I wonder if that might be the problem? They just don’t know you. They believe the things they read and the things they’re told about you, but they’re not lucky enough to get to know you and your family, to work with you every day. They’re mostly good people who love their families and want what’s best for them, but because they don’t know you they see you as a threat. I’m sure they’d change their minds within five minutes of meeting you!
The weeks and months to come – maybe even the years – will not be an easy time for this country, and they probably won’t be an easy time for you. But you know what I think the best way of dealing with it is?
Just keep being you.
I remember reading a book once that said everything human beings do and say is motivated by one of two emotions; either fear or love. And love is stronger. I think that many of the people who voted Leave in this election did so because of fear. I’m sure that you and your family might feel a bit frightened now. But try not to be. Of course you need to be sensible and you need to look after yourself, but try not to let fear tell you what to do, where to go, what to say or even what to think.
Because when people get to know you, they won’t be frightened any more. I was frightened of teaching before I started working with you. Because of some of the experiences I’d had in the past, I was really scared about coming back into the classroom and having to face some of the problems and difficulties again. But you changed that, you and all the other children that I teach now. You stopped me from feeling frightened, and you can do it for other people too.
As your teacher, there’s not a lot I can do to make things easier for you, but I’ll do whatever I can and if ever you need to talk…well, you know exactly where to find me! And the next time you ask me a question (and knowing you you’ll have asked me another seven by nine o’clock on Monday morning) I promise to give a better answer!