Research and Practice in Adult Literacy – a friendly group

Gillian Lawrence

Gillian Lawrence, Up Your Street

“Up Your Street is a free online sharing service highlighting activities and events for seniors around the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.”

I actively encouraged and motivated three senior women, of average age seventy, to follow a two year course in Visual Art Appreciation. There was Pratibha, Su Wong and Daphne. We all went along to the introductory session in a community art centre in West Ham, east London and the course was directed by a well-established British university in West London.

Su Wong was extremely nervous and refused to sign on the dotted line. She confided in me, “I am scared of failing”. She went away. Now as far as I know these are women who finished formal education a long time ago. Daphne asked me “What is research?”

I badgered Su. “You will get help. This is a course where you will learn loads and how will your grandchildren be proud of you just for thinking about it? And for you, Su? You can do it”. Meanwhile my friend was telling Daphne “You can do this. You can.”

Pratibha had already signed all the papers and bought some new pens and folders.

The three women went together each Tuesday to West Ham and I never saw Pratibha and Daphne for a whole year. I continued to leave messages to let them know I was interested in how they were getting along. At last we all arranged to meet at The Tate Britain for an event about art and debates. We caught up and I heard stories of nightmare essays, and spending time in museums of art and flows about visual appreciation and how some artists they now know very well and that there’s art everywhere and look at that architecture. Su had fallen in love with Doric columns.

I was already proud of the three women after the first year. I was proud that they persevered at it all and chummied along together. They had to travel into central London most evenings in the winter for university lectures. I invited Daphne who was passionate about The Nehru Gallery at The Victoria and Albert Museum, London to do a self-led tour of the exhibition with a group from Up Your Street. She was amazing: She had her notes and her wonderful story-telling ways. In asides, she’d ask me if she were doing okay. All I saw was confidence and her great love of ancient art.

Su was gradually withdrawing. Her emails to me were infrequent. She was incredibly busy with collecting her grandchild from school every day. I could not help but reminded myself that all we women are seniors and have succeeded over many hurdles. I could not worry for her. Pratibha announced that she’d won learner of the year award but hated being in the spotlight so I had to keep her glory close to my heart and glee. Daphne refused to respond to my emails and texts. Her head was in a tunnel.

Another year passed and the results were out but secret from me. The three had become a two and a one. Su and Daphne finally confessed to me on a bus journey that they had failed… by two points. I saw two lifeless depressed women who had nowhere to turn. Su became ill and went into hospital. I phoned the tutor and told her about the doldrums. She emphasised how retakes were possible. Four months later Pratibha told me she’d passed and gone to another level.

In August 2015 Daphne sent up her last essay. No-one was sure whether Su was working on essays or not. The group of three was defunct. Su wasn’t studying. We joined a women’s art group and Su in front of an audience of thirty, gave a glorious appreciation of a classical work. I was happy that her self-esteem was not dented. She went home to make raspberry jam and crochet squares for abuse survivors. Daphne has started texting again. Pratibha goes alone to any free art exhibitions.


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