Trigger warning: this blog contains information about death and grief.
The names and locations in this blog have been changed to protect the identities of the people included.
Susan taught music and drama in a North London school where she had a reputation for helping pupils who are on the verge of being excluded to come back from the brink. I first met her some ten years ago before joining Say-it-With-Your-Chest when I was taking part in a Schools Outreach Support programme jointly sponsored by the Greater London Authority and the Construction Industry Training Board.
Tommy was a 14-year-old Afro Caribbean boy – a real gentle giant, who had come home from school one day to find his mum dead following a brain haemorrhage. His dad had got in from work and found him sobbing and trying to wake her up. Following the immediate shock and despite having a loving and dedicated father who looked after him, Tommy developed some serious behavioural problems that made him aggressive towards any women who tried to help or work with him.
Tommy received support from mental health professionals and from what they could gather, Tommy felt that he was somehow to blame for the tragedy that had happened. His psychologist reported that he had filled his life with anger to keep the other feelings away, he also lost any sense of self-worth and often told his dad that there was no point to his life. This added to his father’s distress so he asked the psychologist what he could do to help.
Tommy’s school work went from slightly above average to very poor and he would truant to avoid some of his peers who would cruelly taunt him, calling him “fatboy” telling him that his mum had died when he sat on her.
After several months, sympathy for Tommy reduced and there grew an attitude in the school that he was a nuisance, destined for exclusion. So, Susan stepped in following a consultation with Tommy’s dad and the psychologist. She invited Tommy to join her music group but not as a musician but to help me – I had been roped in as I had access to a fleet of large vans to transport scenery and instruments around.
Tommy and I drove across London with minimal conversation other than constant requests of the “are we there yet” variety. We finally arrived at our destination – which was a small lock up under a set of railway arches. The man who was looking after the stock took our list of purchases and began stacking them in front of us. Assuring us that he couldn’t help to load the van due to a dodgy back he marked our list “handed to driver” and signed the bottom of the sheet. Tommy, who had been watching procedures suddenly spoke up.
“Why does some of the writing have red crosses against them?” the man looked annoyed, and grudgingly admitted that these were missing from his inventory. On being further questioned he admitted that he had hired out the missing items to a pub on a cash basis and scrawled a note for the landlord.
“That was smart work!” I said as we got back into the van, Tommy replied;
“I’m quite a detective”.
The short drive to the pub was much more relaxed and Tommy began to open up. He spoke of his mother and how he missed her, how the other boys (and some of the girls) taunted him about his size and how he felt that he was useless.
We arrived at the pub and spoke to the landlord who directed us to a large function room at the rear of the bar. There was no mistaking the man who was packing up the kit we had come for.
“Colin!” He began to turn round; this took a while and Tommy stared at him – “Tommy” I said. “This is Colin ‘The Tank’ Thompson, one of the best jazz drummers going.” Tommy took in the six and a half foot, twenty-five stone figure.
“What do you mean ‘one of the best’ who are these others?” he strode over and grabbed my hands, engulfing them. He turned to Tommy “How you doing?” overtaken by shyness Tommy shuffled his feet and, in an effort, to displace attention picked up a drumstick and tapped on of the drums.
“No no” said Colin, not like that and he reached over and showed Tommy the right way to hold the sticks, “now try – that’s better, now try with a stick in each hand – boy’s a natural.” Tommy was not much help in loading the van as he spent the duration of my efforts in an impromptu drum lesson with Colin. Loading completed I went back to find the pair of them in an in-depth conversation.
“He comes from Antigua the same as my mum did,” said Tommy.
On our return I looked for Susan, I told her about Colin and Tommy playing the drums and how he had started to come alive. She looked thoughtful,
“Do you have a phone number for this Colin?” I said I did and Susan told me to leave things with her.
I had to go away to Liverpool for work for three weeks and when I came back it was just in time for the show that Susan had been preparing. She had reserved me a seat and, on the night, I found myself sitting in the back row with Susan on one side and Colin on the other.
“I got you a programme,” said Susan. I opened the programme and on the centre page was a list of the musicians. I recognised some of the names from the support group and there across the middle of the of the double page was:
Timpani – Tommy “The Tank” Charles
“I passed the name onto him,” Colin explained “I told him that he had to promise to be worthy of such a famous name, and he gave me his word.”
The lights went down and a single spotlight shone down on Tommy, dressed in a glittering gold waistcoat. We were treated to a great evening’s entertainment.
This marked a turning point for him. He was something of a local celebrity following the concert and although he still missed his mum, the anger had been defused and now he was knuckling down to try and make his mum proud and of course to be worthy of his inherited name.
His improvement in the standards of his school work and his behaviour enabled him to return to mainstream education. Tommy went on to study percussion and history of music at university. He had found the beat of his own drum and was beating his own path.