Yesterday I got on the Central Line tube at Oxford Circus, one of the busiest parts of London, just minutes after a downpour started.
The carriage was sticky and warm, and quiet. I sat on a mostly empty row of seats. As the tube doors closed two figures dashed through the narrowing gap.
The first man looked old. Not because of his skin, although it was wrinkled, and not because of his frame, though it was stooped. It was more that he looked as if he had lived forever. As if he had swept through deserts in Biblical times and fought in bygone wars. His coat was black and long, his hair wild and matted, his trousers tattered to ruin. His nose bent forward, growing down, while his chin curled up. It was as if the two had been growing slowly towards each other in a facial continental drift happening over eons of time. Despite this, his eyes sparkled.
The other man was younger but more downcast. It looked as if he was in his 30s and his face was dirty in the way of an extra playing a peasant in films of olde England: it had a sort of greasy caked-on all-over grimness. His teeth were yellowed, his hair short, his clothes blackened, and dripping from the rain. He did not wear a coat.
The old man’s voice emulated Fagan from Oliver! – raspy, bright, cockneyed, charming.
“‘Ere you go,” he said to the young man as he pulled him through the squeezing door, “we can stay ‘ere for as long as we need.”
He threw his hands in the air and skipped into our palace of warm seats. The young man went to sit on one. Fagan looked alarmed.
“No, no. Don’t frighten the people,” he said, grabbing his protege by the elbow and guiding him to the small ‘perching’ seats at the end of carriage.
With his other hand he scooped up two abandoned freebie newspapers.
“‘Ere,” he said, thrusting the newspaper into the young man’s hands, “read this.”
The young man took it from him gingerly. The old man nodded at him encouragingly to open the front page.
“And afterward, it can keep you warm,” he said, patting his hand on a heavy black record bag hanging from his neck where the paper was destined to go next.
“I’m not much of a reader,” came the quiet reply from the young man.
His accent was difficult to place over the clanking of the tube. A home counties accent? A hint of well-to-do-ness, perhaps?
Fagan was not put off. “Al-wight,” he said, rolling his r sounds, “if you don’t wanna read, you can fink abaaart what flaava coffee you like.”
“Coffee?” asked the young man.
“Yeah. When you sit outside coffee shops, people are gonna arsk you ‘what flavour coffee do you want?'” – he laboured on the word flavour – “and you gotta know what you want, cause they won’t wait for ya.”
The young man looked baffled. “Flavours?”
The old man put down his paper and started counting out on his hand.
“Well, you got your exsspressos, your americanos, your flat whites….”
The young man looked more perplexed.
“Look, don’t worry about it,” the old man said, lifting the newspaper back up again. “I always say there’s nothing wrong with an Americano. Get one of those. You’ll be fine.”
He went back to reading. The young man mouthed the word “Americano” as if to check he was getting it right.
Having been told not to stand and stare as a child, I felt terrible for my part in this conversation. By now I was pretty much gawping at the two – possibly open-mouthed – across the carriage.
I was watching learning. I was watching a person learn how to be homeless. It was not something I had seen before, or ever really thought about.
It was the most chi-chi, bourgeois, middle class thing to sit and marvel at it, but there was something amazingly calm and spiriting about the old man. This was proper mentorship. Guiding his learner to safety, encouraging him to read, encouraging him to think, filling in gaps when needed. He was making it look so easy and compelling I almost wanted to follow him around and learn how to be homeless.
As someone who has obsessively followed teaching for the best part of a decade it was quite something to be reminded that there are many things we don’t prepare children to learn, nor do I think we should (don’t worry, I’m not about to suggest ‘homeslessness lessons’ on the curriculum). But it was a reminder that whether or not we teach collaboration, or peer learning, etc – one of the most basic things humans do is show each other how to do stuff. And if we do it in a calm way, that keeps people’s humility, stops them from walking into too many walls, teaches them specialist vocabulary and skills, then we can make their world easier – even when it is unimaginably difficult, as I expect the life of a homeless person is to anyone who hasn’t experienced it.
There was something else interesting in the exchange. The older man showed a distinct pride in being able to show the younger man the ropes. It clearly gave him an opportunity to be respected. For all I know, though, he could have been buttering the young man up to use him later, in true Fagan style. He would easily have been able to do so. It was obvious the young man was grateful. Which was a reminder of the power that knowledge transfer brings to the teacher. It can make the learner feel indebted, and teachers must work hard not to take advantage of that gratefulness for their own ends but instead encourage the learner to use that energy to go on and teach others. In my ideal world, the old man was simply paying forward a good deed someone once did by showing him the ropes.
It was now getting near to the end of my tube journey and I was quite gutted to have to leave the masterclass.
The older man was now busily reading the paper. The other was still holding his limply.
“Jus’ look at the pictures if you can’t read,” the old man said, flicking his head to one side, encouraging the young man to open the pages. He dutifully did and began staring hard.
Both were soon lost in the pages that would later warm their bones. I stepped off the platform and changed onto another line.