We all know how it is. You are accepted into Oxford and you cannot quite believe it! That magic, academic world with its dreaming spires, autumnal leaves and stony fortresses that you aspired to be in is now your home. It is easy to become indifferent, however, with the wonderful opportunity that Oxford has to offer. Not only are we lucky enough to be in a safe city in which grand gates protect us from the outside world, with porters to fend off harm for further security, but we are able to spend our days learning and accumulating knowledge to equip us for the world beyond.
Sadly, not many are as fortunate as us. Despite the fact that this University has admission issues, I would say that most people, even when from a lower socio-economic background, have been given opportunity and some sort of aid to get them to where they are now – sitting in an Oxford JCR, reading this article. It pains me, then, that many students complain about being here – bemoaning the set tasks and the challenges of daily life in Oxford. It frustrates me purely because so many people in this world do not get a third of the opportunity that you, the person reading this, have enjoyed.
I turn now towards a dear, dear friend of mine who is currently in prison. My friend was not as fortunate as me. Despite the fact that he certainly was from a lower socio-economic background than me, he did not have a supportive family or school, a motivation to get out of the gang culture that perpetuates the environment he has been born into. Not one person turned to him and told him he could do it. Not one person encouraged him to realise his potential, to soar high and aim for the best. I cannot speak on behalf of all the individual experiences of students here. I would risk vocalising that most individuals here have been given some sort of support network, whether family, school or other. This is not, however, the premise of my article. Instead, I want students to realise how unbelievably lucky they are every day here and how our incredible experiences are at a light year’s distance for people like my friend. Whenever I complain about the work here, the stress, the frustration, I think of my friend sat in a prison cell, waiting day in day out until his five years are up and he can finally be free again – and so should you.
I sent my friend a poem when he was first sent down. It is named ‘The Man in the Glass’ by Peter Dale Wimbrow, and it reads as follows:
When you get what you want in your struggle for self
And the world makes you king for a day
Just go to the mirror and look at yourself
And see what that man has to say.
For it isn’t your father, or mother, or wife
Whose judgment upon you must pass
The fellow whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the one staring back from the glass.
He’s the fellow to please – never mind all the rest
For he’s with you, clear to the end
And you’ve passed your most difficult, dangerous test
If the man in the glass is your friend.
You may fool the whole world down the pathway of years
And get pats on the back as you pass
But your final reward will be heartache and tears
If you’ve cheated the man in the glass.
I sent this poem to my friend so that he could think and contemplate – as if he didn’t have enough time to do so already. I wanted him to see that he had cheated himself, but that it also wasn’t too late to transform his life. No longer should he crave the acceptance of those corruptible influences in his life but see that, despite his lack of encouragement, he had a chance to redeem himself. I wasn’t expecting this truly beautiful and insightful response. From a young man with no GCSEs to his name and a criminal record, my friend will find it near impossible to get a job; to work in a creative industry. Yet, his response was touching. He entitled it ‘The Brudda Pon di Glass’.
Thank you so much for my card and my lovely poem,
But the man in the glass- it feels like I hardly know him
In jail, because I didn’t chose the cab to where I was going,
I’ve been banged up. Only shreds of sunlight flowing in.
I heard what the man in the glass has to say-
All day I’m bored, so here in my bed I lay,
He said: ‘Use your time wisely, and get up and pray-
At least it will take up most of your day.”
The man in the glass I think is my friend,
But I don’t know if he’s lying and it’s just for pretend,
He stares at me hard and gets in my head
But I don’t know if I can accept him, will he be there till the end?
The man in the glass makes me feel down,
He’s all I’ve got left now – but he stares with a frown.
I break the glass, what is the point? Judgment will pass upon me
To the end of my days, I’m sure you would agree.
Now I’m writing these letters, hoping time will go fast;
Because I’m very upset about my present and my past.
Now I’m just sitting down all day, doing time on my arse,
But there is one question that your poem really asked….
And now you understand why I can never be happy with the man in the glass.
Reading his poem made me shiver. All his emotional heartache, his sense of failure, his realisation that the world would no longer treat him in the same way, fell into every word that he used, into every line of poetry he wrote. What a travesty it is that such potential, such magic, such imagination is wasting away in a prison cell. The fundamental reason being that the world has not given my friend any other option; the world has hidden his potential and locked it away from the moment he was born. To construct such an inspirational poem with no educational aid, with no support to pursue his creativity, made me stop and look at the setting in which I am now.
I have shown you all this poem because I just wish that students here could channel their energies into realising how lucky they are. Yes, of course, it is stressful here. You are pushed to your very limit with tight deadlines, a demand to use your brain power intensely every day with the obligation of sitting in the library for many hours in the week.
But, think of my friend. He is currently dreaming of being in another world, out of the cage he inhabits for twenty-three hours a day. Having to sit in a library, having to meet deadlines is not as miserable as we think. Some people, like my friend, have had no opportunity to read and learn all day, to write their thoughts on paper and have it read and acknowledged by others. We are blessed to live and breathe Oxford. In fact, we are lucky to be able to breathe in the open space of the world. It is our duty to equip ourselves with knowledge so that we can put on our armour and fight for people like my friend. The next time you feel like the pressure of Oxford is eating away at you and that you can’t cope with the stress anymore, you too should look at the (wo)man in the glass.
Not only is she able to explore the intricate beauties of the world, through text and knowledge, to dance in the green fields and free air, but she too can help those who look in the glass and are not happy with their reflection: a reflection forged through fate. Let us aim to do something for those people, the people that need us. When you stop and think, there is a world that needs us all beyond the dreaming spires.