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Life and death of a south London schoolboy

magazine article | Published in TES Newspaper on 20 April, 2001 | By: Harvey McGavin

He was an ordinary, decent young man whose extraordinary, indecent death made his life into history. Now the story of Stephen Lawrence has been turned into a book for young people. Harvey McGavin talks to the author, and returns to the schools Stephen attended and the neighbourhood he grew up in

He was just a child. The eldest of three, with a younger brother and sister. Encouraged by his parents, he was doing well at school, hoping to turn his talent for maths and art into a career as an architect. He loved hip-hop and sport, especially running. He had been to Cubs camp and Sunday school, broken his arm, and got a Saturday job in a record shop. One night eight years ago something happened to end this ordinary, happy life. As he waited at a bus stop in south east London, Stephen Lawrence was stabbed and killed by a racist gang. He was 18.

Anybody who watches television or reads newspapers knows what Stephen Lawrence looked like. There is a photograph etched on our collective consciousness from repeated use in the media. He wears a black and white striped jumper, his hair cut short and the beginnings of a moustache on his upper lip. His face is handsome, half smiling, looking straight into the camera, head tilted to one side, right fist raised in a rather diffident Black Power salute.

We know the story of what happened in the minutes leading up to that brutal, unprovoked attack. We know the details of the messy fallout. We know all about the botched police investigation, the collapse of the case against his alleged killers, the skirmishes outside the inquiry, and the Macpherson report into the tragedy. But what do we know about his life?

Stephen Lawrence was born at Greenwich district hospital on September 13 1974, the first child of Neville and Doreen Lawrence. He went to play group, nursery school and, aged four-and-a-half, to Eglinton primary in Plumstead. Eglinton school is a 15-minute walk uphill from Woolwich Arsenal station. This is old London. Above the entrance to the market a sign records the establishment of Woolwich by royal charter in 1619. The area's military history lingers in the street names - Ordnance Road, Gunner Lane and Garrison Close.

Eglinton school sits in a shallow vale, surrounded by streets of small Victorian villas, many pebble dashed, the paintwork peeling. Some still retain the original ornate ironwork and tiled pathways. Others are untended, the front gardens accumulating junk among the wheelie bins.

There are rough flourishes of graffiti on gable ends and garden walls. No messages, just tags, barely decipherable names spray-painted by kids who probably learned to write here. The school has a modern single-storey building for the infants, separated by a large playground from a traditional red brick school with high windows. In a richer part of town, the red brick part might have been sold and turned into loft-style apartments by now. On another side, between the school and the green expanse of Woolwich Common, is the council estate where Stephen Lawrence and his family lived.

Lorna Wickes shakes her head in disbelief. "It's nearly 20 years ago," she thinks aloud. "It doesn't seem that long." She has worked at Eglinton for 27 years, and taught Stephen, his brother Stuart and sister Georgina. The first she knew of the murder was the morning a colleague came in and told her that the boy who had been killed the night before was Stephen. "I was shocked, absolutely shocked. I couldn't believe it."

Even now she seems slightly at a loss for words. This is not out of embarrassment or awkwardness - she says she has got used to talking about it. But perhaps it is because what happened to Stephen seems so unreal, so far removed from her own memories of him as a small boy. "You remember certain children, and he was one of them. He was a nice kid. He was no goody two-shoes, but he wasn't any trouble. He worked hard. And he had very supportive parents." She pauses. "Which makes all the difference."

After Stephen left Eglinton, his mother continued to drop off her younger children at school. Lorna was pleased to hear Stephen was doing well. "He was a kid who went through the normal state system and he was doing all right - which is something to be said for the state system." There are 24 children in her class now. Twelve of them speak English as a second language, and more than 20 languages are spoken in the school. Lorna says, jokily, that it's like the United Nations.

The school keeps a book to record racial incidents, but she has never written anything in it. "Everybody gets on with everybody else. Our ethos is that we all get on, we all work together and we all help each other. Pupils come out with inappropriate things sometimes but it's always an adult that's said it to them. It might be about race, it might be about sex. But we squash it so quick they don't say it again. When they are little, they are quite oblivious. Other kids are just other kids.

"I think in the time I have been here we have only had three fatalities, thank God, one child in a house fire and another one who was run over. But you just don't think one of your children is going to get murdered."

Verna Wilkins couldn't understand it either. Like a lot of people, she kept asking herself why. "He was just like the rest of the boys in the classroom - black, white and Asian - but he got killed. Why was he different? He didn't know his killers and his killers didn't know him. What sort of situation creates this sort of murder? What kind of society makes this happen?"

Verna gave up her job teaching English at an FE college 12 years ago to start her own publishing company, Tamarind Books. She was, by her own admission, a "reluctant publisher", driven by a desire to do something about the lack of children's books featuring black role models. She began writing a series of biographies for nine to 12-year-olds - among her subjects were the poet Benjamin Zephaniah and the former parliamentary candidate Lord Taylor of Warwick (reviewed in Friday, April 13).

She also writes stories. The most popular, Dave and the Tooth Fairy, has now sold more than 200,000 copies. Doreen Lawrence bought the book for her niece. That's how Verna first met Doreen, who later asked her to write a children's book about Stephen's life. For Verna, it was an honour, but also "the most difficult task I have ever had to do". Every time Stephen's name was mentioned in the media she was struck by the monotony of the adjectives - "dead", "murdered" - that always came attached to "black teenager" in the blunt shorthand of news reports. Her book emphasises that he was also smart, creative, athletic and kind. Surrounded by family and friends who loved him, he had everything to live for.

The book celebrates his life, and for 11 of its 12 short chapters could be the tale of anybody's son or brother or friend or pupil growing up in a big city. It is an ordinary story made extraordinary by its ending.

Verna Wilkins cannot begin to understand the motives of Stephen's killers - "I gave up trying to get inside the heads of racists a long time ago" - but she can trace the beginnings of racist attitudes to early childhood. "At two they are beginning to notice. At three they are beginning to make assumptions, and at four they are beginning to learn racism. They learn it inadvertently by using material that doesn't include everybody. Children read pictures long before they read words. Take a black child down the high street. Go into the chemist and look at the rows and rows of nappies on the shelves - white boys mainly with little blond curls on top of their heads. The white child learns a confidence that the black child doesn't."

Books have an elevated position in the conditioning of a child, she says. "Every picture of every book has a point of view, a message and values. We have to learn our way round them."

White teachers can "shy away" from the subject of racism, "feel guilty" or even become unwitting or unthinking perpetrators of it. She recalls being invited to show her books to teachers in a London borough. "I went along and put my wares on the table. Ten white teachers walk in, sit down and one of them says, 'I didn't realise it was a multicultural Inset day. What gives with the ethnic books?' "This was a teacher who had been teaching for 10 years. She didn't think. She was not racist per se. But until we get children to the point where they are not asking those questions, we are going to have a lack of respect and inequality perpetuated throughout schools." She is convinced of the value of what she does every time she visits a school. "The black children are so excited they can hardly contain themselves. They have never seen a black author before."

Verna Wilkins's bank manager had trouble grasping the concept too. "When I went to negotiate a loan (to set up Tamarind) I had an appointment at 11 o'clock in the morning. I was outside the manager's office at 10.50, the only person there. At five-to, someone opened the door, looked up and down and shut the door." The same thing happened again. After assuming the smartly dressed black lady couldn't be Mrs V Wilkins, would-be book publisher, the manager realised his mistake. "His face went puce and he said, 'I think I have just made a horrible mistake'. I said, 'I think you have'. He invited me into his office and I said, 'What incentive have I got to go into your office - I am invisible! How do I go from invisible to credible to get you to lend me £25,000?' " She got the loan.

She laughs at the inappropriateness of her own schooling in the Caribbean. "I was reciting 'a host of golden daffodils' when hibiscus and bougainvillea were all around me. I was singing of snow at Christmas when it was 90 degrees in the shade." Her grandson has a "hell of a lot more positive imagery than my children had. I am very optimistic.

"Stephen Lawrence had a balance in his life," she adds. "Stephen had his parents and his family to give him a sense of self and personal value - it was his uncle that he had been to see when he was on his way home that night."

Moira Green, Stephen's form tutor at his secondary school, Blackheath Bluecoats, remembers the scenes at school after the murder. "I found two girls crying by reception, sobbing their hearts out, and I knew something was going on." The school set up a series of assemblies to break the news to the children. Everybody was "in shock, numb".

Teachers remember him as a "good kid", "popular" and a "solid A-level student". Eight years on, the autographed picture of a more recent pupil, the England and Leeds footballer Rio Ferdinand, is pinned to the noticeboard by the reception desk. But Stephen Lawrence is never far from the minds of anyone at the school. A cherry tree planted in his memory stands near the main entrance, fringed with delicate blossom. A bold, brightly coloured portrait of Stephen and the then headteacher John Thurley, painted by a friend, hangs inside. A memorial prize is now given every year to the most promising art and design student. More than one winner has gone on to train as an architect, the career Stephen had set his heart on.

The current headteacher, Kay Bickley, arrived at Bluecoats three years ago, knowing that the job brought with it special responsibilities. Half of her pupils are from African or Caribbean backgrounds and their performance is closely monitored "to make sure they are not underachieving". Exclusions among ethnic minority pupils have now been reduced to the lowest in the borough.

The trials, inquest and inquiry have been a strain on the school. But Ms Bickley says that if any good has come out of the experience it is that "we have become better at talking to each other". The school's strong Christian ethos and system of pastoral care sustained them in the aftermath of Stephen's murder. This has evolved into a successful peer counselling group, run by pupils for pupils, called Bionic - Believe It or Not I Care. The school is popular with parents - it is four times oversubscribed.

"We feel as if the eyes of the borough and the country are on us and that we need to demonstrate - actively and proactively - that we can meet the needs of our black students," says Ms Bickley, before adding: "Mind you, any school that tells you they don't have a bullying problem is lying."

Another teacher, Bob Henderson, spoke to Stephen on the day he died. Stephen had come to ask about a plastic mounting for some artwork and arranged to see him the next day. "That always sticks in my mind, that last conversation. To think that six hours later he was dead. Staff would go out of their way to help him, that was the sort of boy he was. He was very calm. I sometimes think if he wasn't so calm he might have run away at the bus stop. I have got this vision of him at the bus stop thinking 'what are those silly boys doing'."

Well Hall Road, where Stephen died, runs straight and wide, bordered by the grey, scaly plane trees typical of London's suburban byways. The houses on either side are large ex-council houses, set back behind neatly kept front gardens. There's a strange kind of Englishness about them, but something not quite right. They are mock Tudor in style, but perhaps only 50 years old.

On the wide pavement there is a single dark stone among the buff-coloured slabs. A plaque bears Stephen Lawrence's name, his dates of birth and death, and a hope that he may rest in peace. A hundred metres to the left is the bus stop where he was stabbed and from where he ran to this spot. Across the road is the wide avenue down which Stephen's killers escaped. A security camera trained on this spot has not deterred someone from attacking the plaque, chipping the smooth surface several times. Stephen Lawrence's killers have never been convicted.

Verna Wilkins's book celebrates Stephen's life, the positive impression he made on those who knew him. At one point in the book, his father Neville remembers how Stephen loved helping people, how so full of life he was: "I remember dancing with him when he was very little. I will not dance until Stephen's killers have been brought to justice. I haven't danced for years. I would really love to dance again."

The Life of Stephen Lawrence by Verna Allette Wilkins, illustrated by Lynne Willey, is published by Tamarind Books (£10.99). Tel: 020 8866 8808. The Stephen Lawrence Memorial Trust can be contacted on 020 7486 2066

HAS MACPHERSON HELPED?

The Macpherson report recommended that "consideration be given" to amending the national curriculum so as to value cultural diversity, prevent racism and "reflect the needs of a diverse society".

It also suggested that local education authorities and school governors should have a duty to "create and implement" strategies to prevent and address racism. All racist incidents should be recorded, reported to the pupils' parents or guardians and LEAs, and published annually on a school-by-school basis, together with numbers and ethnicity of excluded pupils. Ofsted should inspect the implementation of all such strategies.

There is already a duty on schools to record racist incidents under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. The Government did not accept the recommendation on school-by-school publication of racial incidents, which was also opposed by the Commission for Racial Equality, which feared such league tables could be misinterpreted.

Sonya Hall, policy officer at the CRE, says that although many LEAs issued guidance or conducted reviews following the Macpherson report, more needs to be done to analyse data on racial incidents and respond effectively, although Greenwich council is one of those leading developments in this area.

"There is a weakness in terms of having examples of good practice, and at school level it is a real concern," she says. School policy documents sometimes fail to mention racial harassment and disregard "name calling" as a reportable incident. Ancillary staff, such as playground supervisors, who might have to deal with racist behaviour are often left out of training programmes, she says.

"There has been some work at a local authority level to try to engage schools, but clearly more needs to be done - reporting levels are still very low. There is a mismatch between what is being reported to LEAs and reports that go to organisations that are dealing with racial harassment which show that around half the perpetrators are under the age of 16."



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