Mother and daughter who faced homelessness, dyslexia and bereavement triumph as they graduate together

Jessica, Tayah and Maria

Maria Phillips this week graduated with a degree in history while her daughter Jessica graduated with a degree in theatre and drama studies.

When Jessica finished her BTEC in Performing Arts she thought that she would go on to study an acting degree at university. However, aged 19 she found out that she was pregnant and her plans went on hold. In 2012, when her daughter was three years old, Jessica decided that the time had come to return to education, inspired by her mother, Maria, who had just completed the first year of a history degree at Birkbeck.

Being a single mother and worried about how she would find childcare for Tayah and how she could fit studying into her life, Jessica was delighted when she discovered that Birkbeck’s Theatre and Drama degree was taught in the evenings; and that, as Jessica was on a low income, she qualified for a bursary to cover the cost of Tayah’s nursery care at the nursery five doors away from where her classes were.

Maria, meanwhile, had found out about Birkbeck from a woman who worked at a historic house where she was volunteering, helping with tours for visitors, who would be shown around the building by an actress in costume. She explains: “I went to quite a few different schools and ended up leaving without any qualifications. I had my first two children when I was very young and although I did try to go back to education – studying for a GCSE and a City & Guilds qualification in 1990 – I was struggling with homelessness at the time, living in one room with my two girls, and I wasn’t able to take it any further.

“By the time I enrolled on a distance-learning degree a few years after that, I’d been out of education for so long that I struggled a lot and ended up dropping out and almost completely giving up on the idea of education. When I applied to Birkbeck, I was really surprised to get a place.”

Overcoming hurdles

“The first year was difficult,” Maria adds. “It took me that long to understand my way around the library and how to write essays. I remember going to see a tutor for advice. The tutor’s advice was helpful for managing to get my essays in on time, but I still struggled with organisation all the way through my studies and even when it came to the day I handed in my dissertation, Jessica got a taxi with me and we had to run down the corridor to get there in time!”

“Once it had been handed in and I was walking away it felt unreal – I couldn’t believe that I’d finally made it to the end of the course.”

In her second year, Jessica discovered that she had dyslexia but wasn’t going to let that stop her either and, with the help of her learning development tutor, managed to continue with her course. A major flood left Maria homeless and sleeping on Jessica’s couch for seven months at one point, and when Maria’s close friend died just as she was meant to be finishing her dissertation, it nearly all fell apart.

“We both really struggled at times, and both came really close to giving up,” Maria remembers. “I had many problems with housing, including the flood in my home, which took months of battling with my landlord to fix, including at one point getting my MP involved.”

However, her voluntary work, and her studies at Birkbeck, kept her going.  “I became a volunteer at the Shakespeare’s Globe and the Rose Playhouse in Bankside the same year I started at Birkbeck. Being able to escape to the two theatres was one of the most important reasons why I kept going with my studies and why I didn’t give up – it allowed me to step out of the reality of my situation, to step inside another world of theatre and get away from the bad things that were happening in my life.”

“But even though there were times we would weep or argue, it was a real benefit to have someone to talk to who understood what you were going through,” Maria adds. “Support from a sympathetic tutor in the School of Arts – even though my degree was in history, my voluntary work and support from Jess got me through.”

Jessica describes how her confidence in her own abilities has grown during the course: “At first I was really shy in class but as I started to speak to tutors more and get a feel for what was required for the course I found myself doing things I wouldn’t have contemplated before – I went to theatre productions on my own, in all sorts of different locations. One production was as far as Richmond. When I began studying I didn’t even like getting the tube as I never used to be able to work out the different lines.”

“I even took part in The Rose Theatre Bankside’s two Readathon events for the Rose Revealed project in 2014 and 2015. Before studying at Birkbeck I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do that after a huge gap in acting on stage.”

Inspiration

“For my final year project I developed a solo performance piece based on my own experiences as a single mother. It was a tragicomedy about the shame of the single mother on benefits and it expressed this shame through transformation, using makeup and costume as a means to mask the self.

“I also used clowning techniques; my performance depicted the everyday life of a single mother on benefits against the stereotype of the single mother. I used a clown character to show this stereotype. Throughout my intensive research I was greatly inspired by the amazing regency actor and clown, Joseph Grimaldi, who performed in theatres such as Sadler’s Wells, Convent Garden, and Drury Lane.

“I was also inspired by an amazing kind-hearted man and contemporary clown Mattie, who I visited in Dalston at the clown gallery-museum and Archives, located at the Holy Trinity church in Hackney. I went on a few occasions for my research on clowning and on Grimaldi.

“For my solo performance in April this year, I got a first and when I finished performing it everyone was clapping loudly and I literally stood there in shock as I couldn’t believe they were clapping for me. My tutors after the performance were saying how good it was and how much content I had in the piece – one tutor hugged me. When I was collecting my daughter from the Birkbeck crèche I was crying from happiness. That feeling was just overwhelming; I had worked eight months on my own piece of theatre and it was successful, and well-received.”

“I remember when I had to rehearse my solo performance piece at The School of Arts every Monday evening, and I was lucky Tayah was allowed to be in the Birkbeck crèche for the three hours I rehearsed. Throughout those eight weeks I had to devise a performance; I had carrier bags of props and confetti and a baby doll I was carrying on the buses back and forth between Birkbeck and home.

“People on the bus were looking in bewilderment at how many empty food boxes I had – I was laughing to myself as they didn’t know I was rehearsing for my solo performance; I literally got off the bus with my Tesco bags with many props in one hand and little Tayah in the other hand.”

Jessica’s daughter Tayah, who is now seven, was really proud of her mum for getting her assignments in on time. Jessica said: “It’s made her want to do better at school herself and to make me proud. She has even said she will go to Birkbeck when she is older.”

As they prepare for their graduation ceremonies at Senate House on 8 and 9 November, Maria reflects: “I didn’t expect to get to this stage. There were so many obstacles that almost stopped me, but eventually I did it. It has increased my confidence and I will be able to apply for jobs that I couldn’t have before. I’m so proud of Jessica as well. She might not have done it straight after college like she planned to, but now she’s picking up where she left off.”

Jessica was awarded a Harold and Jean Brooks Prize from the Department of English and Humanities to celebrate her academic progress during the course of her BA Theatre and Drama Studies degree. Jessica said: “Now that I’m coming to graduate, I can’t believe it’s happening. But I got through four hard years and now I get to walk away with something huge.”

Jessica is planning to develop further her final year solo performance piece into a longer version and hopes to perform it in the future.

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Where We’re From, Who We Are

How do our backgrounds – where we were born, where our parents and grandparents were born and where we live – shape our sense of ourselves and how we express that sense of self? Birkbeck creative writing lecturers Anthony Joseph and Liane Strauss explored these questions at two free events hosted by Islington Central Library as part of Islington’s Word2013 Festival.

Anthony Joseph’s inspiring writing workshop encouraged Islington residents to think about their ancestors by focusing on voices from the past and family ‘black sheep.’ A week later, workshop participants read their work alongside Birkbeck students at Liane Strauss’ exciting performance event.

Liane said “The theme of the Islington event: Where We’re From, Who We Are, fit right into themes we had been exploring on the course. On the evening, our creative writing students were joined by some of the participants on Anthony’s workshop. It was a wonderful mix of poems and poets, a great opportunity for potential students to meet current students and hear their work. A brilliant evening and a great success!”

WE WERE BORN ON A SUNDAY

1.
[Saltpond, Ghana 1681]

My name is Eresi Mebrabrabio
I’m tall like palm wine tree
My husband calls me Odo
Yes, Odo, for he loves me like the smooth
Arabi coffee I warm for him at break of day
But few know me.
I am Mami Wata.
I hide my wares in Egyaa number two
And sell them in Kormantse,
I come home with beads.

2.
[Jos, Nigeria, 1979]

Sister Esi Panyin; now she is a marvel to behold
Hair like crown of Frangipani tree; body
Tall like Araba; skin smooth like
Clay, Rayfield laterite; and eyes,
Eyes wide like Bush-Baby.
Many fear the lash of her tongue,
Bulala tongue that fells Baobab tree
Faster than a Kwado-frog catches flies.
But her smile, when it comes, is the cool, cool of
Rain after a season of punishing dry.

3.
[London, England, 2013]

Eresi I wanted to have your name
But mother said no,
I wanted to bear your tribal mark
But mother said no,
Sister Panyin did not care.  She smoked
Her spliff and she laughed: “Let’s go to the
Niger Bend and bury bare feet in the dust!”
My name is Esi Kakraba and
That is how it was.

 Juanita Cox Westmaas

 Black Sheep

I am alone. Sitting in a room with my husband who no longer speaks to me,
And the two remaining children that I was allowed to have back
I am alone.

They scream for me externally and I scream for her internally
The one they took away from me.
I try to see her face, but it’s fading.
I try to hear her voice but its fading.
My now-babies scream louder.
‘Aren’t you going to see to them?’ my husband says.
It’s the first time he’s spoken to me today, yet he still doesn’t look at me.

I pick up the first baby and jiggle him on my knee.
I’ve forgotten how to be a mother.
I coo and sing until he’s settled, and pick up the second baby.
The only daughter I have left.

I try to see my child that was taken; the one I used to cradle so tightly.
The one whose hair had that sweet cotton candy smell.
The one who looked nothing like her father.

When I gave birth to her I was sick;
Not through sickness, but through knowing.
My husband held my hand through the birth, and told me that he loved me.
I just cried.
I knew when I saw her face that those dark eyes belonged to another man.

In the following weeks my husband cooed over me and her and bought us both presents.
He stayed up and read the now-babies bedtime stories before tucking them in,
And then he’d sit by her cot and he’d watch her.
‘She’s so beautiful,’ he’d say, ‘Just like her mother’.
Bile rose in my throat – I began to resent her.
She was a constant reminder of my mistakes, of my lies, of my shame.
Her eyes gave her away.
I knew that when she grew older, she would reveal our secret.

When my husband went to work, I looked at those eyes that would soon betray me.
I didn’t feel love nor hate, as I snaked the fingers of my right hand around her neck, cradling her head with my left.
Her skin felt so soft.
My heart danced as if it was on fire.
I had no choice.
I felt for her windpipe and started to squeeze.
‘What are you doing?’
He was at the door holding flowers.
He left work early as a surprise.
He caught me strangling my youngest child.
That was the beginning.

 Kim Fraser

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