“Last time I was here I got arrested because I started punching Jack the Ripper”

Kamron casually commented as we were about to enter the London Dungeon for a school trip.

Kamron is a student at the alternative educational provision I currently work at. Kamron along with many of my other students have been arrested or charged for various (normally low level) crimes. Through my conversations, or more often arguments, with Kamron, I’m confronted with the reality that most of his childhood innocence has disappeared. He no longer fits neatly into the legal category of “non-offending young person”, and won’t be able to tick the box that verifies he doesn’t have a criminal record when he starts applying for jobs in a couple years. On paper he is a man who has a shopping list of run ins with the police. In person, he is a 4'10'’ 14 year old boy who barely weighs 80 pounds.

Kamron along with many other kids at my school straddle this fine line between child- and adult-hood. For many of them, this awkward positioning along the path to maturity is obvious by the way their voices crack when they tell the teachers to f**k off. Growing up, these kids weren’t afforded the luxury of knowing they would be fed at home or being able to buy a new pair of trainers when their old ones wore out. Instead many of these kids, too young to be formally employed, took to the streets and started slinging (i.e. drug dealing) or committing petty theft. In popular culture slinging is portrayed as the path out of poverty. A path that allows kids to live the coveted lifestyles of Beckton grime artists who sip smooth bottles of orange Ciroc and smoke endless supplies of weed. A small peek below the surface of this lie reveals the reality that more often drug dealing is a path to jail, violence and in extreme instances death.

Another student I’ve worked closely with is named Rajid. As a child Rajid didn’t get the same support most children get while learning how to read because his parents don’t speak English and worked multiple jobs. As a result, he has the reading age of a 7 year old, so I’m in charge of supporting his reading in English class. Through the clipped conversation we have while waiting for the teacher to assign more work, Rajid hesitantly opens up to me about his life outside of school. He explains that he just turned 16 and is the eldest of 4 brothers and 3 sisters. Since the age of 13 he has helped financially support his family so they can afford to feed, clothe and educate all the children. Although he hasn’t explicitly told me, I assume Rajid’s wage comes from drug dealing. This is evident by the way he whispers into what he calls his ‘money phone’ in the middle of class — a £10 Nokia brick with a cracked screen. Rajid has either been luckier or smarter than Kamron and doesn’t have to worry about not being able to tick the box at the bottom of his next job application, vouching for his clean record.

Alongside Rajid and Kamron, I’ve spent the past few months getting to know other young ‘thugs’, ‘gangsters’ and ‘hustlers’ that politicians and newspapers talk about and I’m here to say that they aren’t any of those. These kids are survivors. Survivors who, at the ages of 14 and 15 have faced more adversity and hardship than I can imagine facing in a lifetime. Although I can’t relate to Kamron’s impulse to beat up Jack the Ripper in the London Dungeon, I refuse to let it taint my view of him. Maybe if we refuse to see these young people as criminals we can begin to comprehend the complex and tragic situations from which they come. Only then, by rejecting the punitive category of criminal can we let them be kids again.