Me and my bad character

Recently, two years after my last author-in-school visit, a teacher from a comprehensive asked if she could book me for a Diversity and Inclusion Day. There was a time when I would have been delighted to raise awareness about alopecia as well as the power of stories, but that’s changed. For a start, having read widely through lockdown about racism, white privilege and fragility, and having protested against a bill that criminalises the Romany and traveller community (and reported Jimmy Carr to Twitter) I can’t help feeling that challenging as it is, alopecia is rather low on the disadvantage and discrimination list. I volunteered for six years with a refugee charity, I have a Deaf friend and others with transgender children. My beloved husband is non-binary. So while I haven’t forgotten how diminished and fearful alopecia made me for nearly three decades, as an ambassador for diversity I’d feel something of a fraud as a middle-class white woman who no longer minds being bald and blames a superficial consumer and celebrity culture. But of course, the education was always about respect and empathy rather than hair. So I would have accepted the booking, except that the teacher who made contact believed me to be an Ambassador for Alopecia UK and I’m not, not any more, by mutual agreement, to spare the charity grief, because I’m a “person of bad character” according to the Crown Prosecution Service. The government’s endless climate crimes have made a criminal of me.

I have an XR sweatshirt with FREE THE TRUTH on the back, thanks to the action at Newsprinters in Broxbourne that led to my name being printed among others in the Daily Mail and Telegraph. Before that last pre-Covid school visit I emailed about my convictions, the Head never replied to the teacher concerned and the staff apparently cheered my lawbreaking at their morning briefing, but I couldn’t assume another blind eye being turned and a UKIP candidate once made such an abusive media fuss about me talking for the refugee charity in assembly at his child’s primary that the Head had to involve the governors and finally let the parents decide whether my invitation stood. Which it did, although I watched the door in the hall. But in later life I have shifted identity from ex-Head Girl once nominated for Teacher of the Year (while pretending to be normal under a wig), to an author booked by some 600 schools to a persona non grata, and now to a troublemaker likely to stir up controversy as a climate and peace activist. For the first time in my life, I’m in a minority that is more than merely hated by some and ridiculed by others. If only schools would let me, I’d rather focus on the greatest crisis in history. Yet a friend was accused by a Deputy Head of radicalising her daughter by accompanying her to the first Rebellion. And it’s not so long since Prevent listed XR as a terrorist organisation and asked teachers to report such ‘cases’. It’s all bonkers – especially when Greta graces hundreds of school walls. But the fact is, the facts about climate change are not taught as they should be, even at a time when pupils’ lives will according to the science be overwhelmed and threatened by the crisis around which the curriculum only skirts. Our right wing media has ensured that attempts to teach the truth about Britain’s colonial history are considered political and ‘woke’ and Black Lives Matter can’t be presented in class as valid protest. The government, it seems, wants the reality we all need to live by kept conveniently out of our classrooms as well as the headlines.

So I freed the truth about my arrests in my reply to this school’s enquiry, using words like love and conscience as well as nonviolence. My email was passed on to the Head who declined to take the risk I represent, or have to manage complications. I wasn’t surprised. When activism became my priority I knew writing must come second and that without paid bookings I would be left with a lot of stock on my shelves. I feel a little sadness, and I don’t deny the buzz when kids were excited to see me – “Sue Hampton’s here!” – or the ego boost of a long queue at the signing table after school. I hope I made an impact when I shared my themes of love, understanding, courage and freedom and made reading and writing fun. I did some writer-in-residence projects that felt truly worthwhile. I tell myself I’m also spared the humiliation served up on those infrequent but memorable occasions when no student knew I was coming, teachers worked on laptops during my presentations, no one spoke to me at lunchtime and I prepared my author table only to pack up again with the vegan ice cream money tub weighing pretty much the same.

You may be aware that I recently decided to donate all my earnings to Extinction Rebellion – at a point when those earnings have plummeted with no hope of recovery. I no longer expect to be booked for World Book Day two or three years ahead but I’ll never stop writing completely. My name is Sue Hampton, I’ve written over forty books and I’m a Rebel for life.

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