Youth and Me

 

It is early October and the cold air of the last week has been replaced by warmth. The weather forecast has said it’s only temporary. My daughter has a cold so she’s staying in tonight. My wife is working late. She’s dealing with a patient whose house is so messy they have rat traps on the table. She’s trying to sort the frail old lady out with some alternative accomodation so my wife will be late home.

I have looked in my wardrobe. I have more suits than there are days in the week but one look in the mirror to see that, even with my short hair, I’ve still got waves of grey showing through. I have decided to go with an old-school 90s RnB look. A shiny grey collarless shirt (given to me by my mum when she came back from a trip to Canada) and a claret-red jacket with a glossy sheen (picked out by my fashion conscious cousin who used to dress X factor contestants). I’m going with a ‘Boys II Men’ vibe probably because I saw them on a BET special earlier in the week.

I’m off to the Black History Youth Awards. Awards to celebrate black youth achievement in a variety of categories.  Sport, mentoring, resilience, science. A long list.

13 years ago me and a Nigerian woman named Sade thought there wasn’t enough being done for black youth in the area so we started the Taste Of Africa event in a community centre to showcase local talent. This expanded to bringing over international artists to perform and packing out the local Town hall every year. 1500 people watching performers from local colleges performed alongside dancers from Africa is an image that always comes back to my mind. Pictures from these events have been used to promote diversity and cohesiveness in the region but the underlying principle has always been about youth. We needed to find a way of giving young people more opportunities and recognising their efforts so interweaved in with the myriad of mentoring projects, formal and informal work, is this celebration event. This is the fourth year of the Youth Awards and it gets more lavish every year.

Just like Taste Of Africa events, Sade fronts it. She’s one of the few people who has got a bigger mouth than me but we are less and less at the forefront, because this is for the youth and we want them to front it as much as possible.

Jasper is there standing tall at the entrance in a navy blue suit with a dark grey waistcoat. I have never seen him with hair. I have known him for nearly 10 years. He is on my list of successes. We spend 2 minutes talking about his rap career (One video on you tube) and 10 talking over plans for succeeding as a trainee Solicitor.

I bump into another success. He’s wide. He’s got the build of an American football player. He’s got a Law degree. He wants to get into marketing. ‘Talk to the guy behind you,’ I said. Another person on the success list. He’s gone from volunteering with us to booking acts like Tinie Tempah. Maybe he needs his own column marked ‘Junior Masandi Super Success’?

I see a Nigerian woman I know, a writer. She’ll have her PhD done by this time next year. She’s got writers block. No poems no fiction. ‘Write a diary,’ I said. ‘No pressure. The important thing is to keep writing.’  I talk to someone who’s had stress issues. I suggest 2 specific mind exercises to clear out negativity and then refill with positive energy. I check he still has my number. He is on my success list. I have known him for at least 7 years. I know his journey, his resilience. His vibrancy. I do not wake up in the middle of the night thinking about him anymore.

I talk to someone who’s had stress issues. I suggest 2 specific mind exercises to clear out negativity and then refill with positive energy. I check he still has my number. He is on my success list. I have known him for at least 7 years. I know his journey, his resilience. His vibrancy. I do not wake up in the middle of the night thinking about him anymore.

I see a mother. How’s your daughter? She’s on my borderline list. She’s cleverer than my son who’s studying medicine. She did 5 a levels, runs a part time online business, she’s doing a course she’s not that interested in. She’ll be fine but she’s on my list because I don’t think she is maximising her potential. I make a mental note to make more of an effort to have a chat.

Somebody has sent me their CV. I haven’t had time to fully digest it. He’s there. When did all the kids get so tall? I grill him like an interviewer would, tell him what truths and half truths to tell to get through the door for his next career move. Me as a reference? Yes, sure, no problem.

There are more because tonight is a night all about celebrating successes.

I finally get to my seat.

Bernice is on the stage. Still short even though she has high heels on. She has her own fashion line. Most of the stylish African inspired clothing being worn has been designed by her. She is confident. She is a success.

The Youth Awards Patron is on stage. He’s lived in the area for 41 years, used to run the local University and now boss of a local college.He’s on stage saying that being a Patron of the youth awards is the proudest thing he’s done.

Local poet Degna is sitting next to me. She says the event looks expensive. We talk poetry. She loves the words of the Young spoken word artist on the stage and thinks her dress is amazing.

 

I share jokes with people and business owners. Our super success Junior Masandi interviews me on camera. I say why these awards are fantastic. Its not just about the winners, its also about those who get nominated.  He tells me its a great interview but he’s going to cut the part out where I suggest he should marry his girlfriend.

I speak to my croaky-voiced daughter on the phone.

‘When are you coming home? Mum’s not in.’

‘Soon.’

Jasper has made a speech about how people should always put themselves forward for every opportunity.

‘Always put your name in the hat.’

He makes me feel proud. He stands tall, walks tall, owns his own breaths. He has mapped out his path, his trajectory, Sade and I have tested him and he has constantly proven he is ready for the world, ready to carve his own way in it and he knows we are at the end of the telephone to support him and his ilk if ever he needs us – but the thing is, I know he doesnt. He doesn’t need us when he walks into a boardroom or sees a client. I smile. Job done.

There are pictures of the winners on screen next to the text that the compere reads out. Stories of resilience, overcoming the odds, confounding expectations. There are videos from previous winners who couldnt make it thanking the awards for the validation.

I stand at the back with Sade. We chat about the plans for the future. We talk about how we didn’t get enough money to do Taste Of Africa this year. We cancelled it for the first time in 13 years. Not enough money on the table and too close to the deadline for getting things done. Now she get emails asking why there is so little happening in Black History Month.

Me and Sade talk about our plans for the future: How to train up more young people to do the heavy lifting, to create more Junior Masandis, Jaspers and Bernices. How to give young people more of a voice? We talk about who we should get to do the catering next year? Maybe give one of the young people who has started up their own catering business a shot? Will it be too soon? With a year of experience, will they be ready? How can we sort that, formally or informally?

I speak to my croaky-voiced daughter on the phone.

‘When are you coming home? Mum’s not in.’

‘Soon.’

I talk to people about the high stakes poker game of going to meetings, trying to extract money from councils and other institutions for things like this. Its like being a gunslinger with pepper under your nose. Who is going to blink first?

We always lose because they know we’re not going to let our kids fall.

I leave before the end, before the auction, main speaker and the photographs. I phone my daughter and tell her I’ll be home soon.

I meet a successful business man on the way out. He tells me about what’s next for him. A big deal. We laugh. I remember his first venture.

 

I phone my daughter to tell her I’m in the taxi.

I get home.

My daughter is wrapped up in bed.

My wife wants to tell me about the grimy house she’s been in with rat traps on the tables.

‘How was it?’ she asked.

‘It has been a night of successes and the jollof rice was the best yet.’

It’s very easy on a night like this to forget the failures, like the A level student who got in with the wrong crowd in between youth projects then broke into a house with a gun. 7 years Jail time he got for that.  The last time I saw him on youtube, he was spitting bars about how the system wasn’t going to break him.

What went wrong? Were we too slow to react to the danger signs? Were we too slow to blink? Did we do enough? Were we blase? Were there enough role models? Were htere enough positive peers for him?

My wife has gone to bed.

I turn on my computer. Young people from the event are posting pictures, sharing their success.

I smile.

I go upstairs.

I try to go to sleep.

It’s not the victories like Jasper that keep me up at night, its the losses.