On 21 July, HEPI published a guest blog by Alison Baverstock detailing Kingston University’s Big Read initiative. Earlier this summer, Alison kindly gave me a copy of Kit de Waal’s My Name is Leon – the book being sent out to all Kingston freshers starting university this term. Having just had the luxury of reading it on a much-needed summer holiday, I thought I would share my reactions to the book with all those getting ready for the academic year ahead – both at Kingston and beyond.
Not wanting to give away too much about the plot, My Name is Leon follows the journey of nine-year-old Leon, who finds himself in foster care after his mother suffers a breakdown following the birth of her second son, Jake. Leon and Jake are half brothers. Leon’s mother is white yet Leon is black after his black father. His brother Jake is also white having been born, as we learn, in 1980 as a result of his mother’s affair with an already married white man.
Almost immediately after Jake is born, Leon becomes Jake’s main carer as his mother becomes increasingly preoccupied with trying in vain to rekindle her relationship with Jake’s father and eventually succumbing to the grief of rejection. Leon and Jake both end up in foster care together, taken in by an older carer called Maureen. Yet, Jake is soon adopted by another family because, as Maureen explains to Leon, ‘life isn’t fair’ and ‘he’s a baby, a white baby. And you’re not.’
The main story is told through the eyes of young Leon as he struggles to make sense of the unfairness of the card life has dealt him. We are privy to his thoughts and actions as he struggles to come to terms with his seeming insignificance in the world, with his separation from his baby brother and with the growing physical and emotional distance between him and his mother. Leon’s personal battles are also emphasised by the dual backstories of the 1981 race riots, which saw black communities fighting against state racism and unfair criminalisation, and preparations for the Royal Wedding of Charles and Diana, which serve to distract those around him from the harsh realities of life in socially-segregated Britain.
At first, one might wonder why those in charge of The KU Big Read chose to send students a book about a child growing up in foster care in the 1980s – almost 20 years before the majority of this year’s freshers were born! However, on closer consideration, My Name is Leon holds some important lessons for those in higher education today and I am sure many of us will be able to relate to the main issues in Leon’s life.
Sharp learning curves
Going to university for the first time can be a daunting experience. As recent research by HEPI and Unite Students shows, freshers are as anxious about their new lives as they are excited. Although going to university should in no way be seen as comparable with being removed into care – and is hopefully, for most, a much more pleasant experience – reading about Leon’s experiences with his new homes, schools, social workers and carers reassures us that these mixed emotions are normal as he attempts to make sense of his new surroundings. As adults, it can sometimes seem we are not meant to reveal our naivety about the world around us so openly, so watching Leon settle into his new realities can be comforting for those embarking on new adventures this coming term.
The whole reason Leon finds himself in care and split from his brother is due to his mother’s mental illness. In the 1980s, suffering from mental health issues was still a taboo subject but today, thankfully, it is increasingly recognised as a serious illness and support networks are growing, especially in universities and colleges. The plight of Leon’s mother warns us against the perils of suffering in silence and encourages us to seek help fast, either for ourselves or for those who we suspect may be suffering around us. Increasing awareness of symptoms of mental health issues and providing effective support mechanisms, as suggested in a recent HEPI report into improving students’ mental health can help to ensure we build a community that is dedicated to the wellbeing of all those within it.
Leon’s story reminds us that not all students entering university this year have come from ‘traditional’ family backgrounds. Based on the timeline in the book, we know that Leon would have reached university age in 1989, however we can assume from people’s reactions in the book that it would have been difficult for him to go on to higher education then, what with his consistently poor performance at school and social disadvantage. Leon’s story is, therefore, a reminder to us all to continue creating an open and inclusive higher education sector which facilitates achievement and progression for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
For those in positions of leadership, it is imperative we continue to devise ways to widen access and participation to ensure those like Leon are not locked out the university system. A recent HEPI report produced alongside the social mobility charity Brightside details just some of the ongoing efforts being made in this area. For staff and students about to embark on the new academic year ahead, it is also important to recognise that people may have taken different routes to reach the same destination as us, so we should create a climate in our universities and colleges that embraces this diversity, not represses it. Our society has come a long way since Leon’s time and so the book serves as impetus to keep building on these social successes not regress from them.
Above all, for staff and students at Kingston University, I trust My Name is Leon will form the cornerstone of much conversation and institutional cohesion this coming term, and I thank you for including me in this experience. For those at other institutions, I urge you to consider the book for some extra-curricular reading, as I believe My Name is Leon holds some important lessons for us all.
For further information on The KU Big Read, please contact Alison Baverstock at [email protected] or via Twitter @alisonbav