Gerry Farrell: Don’t let status dictate success

Did your school help you get where you wanted to be in life? The Debrett’s 500 is out today. It’s a list of the 500 most influential people in the UK and it’s proof yet again that social mobility in this country is shockingly low.

Edinburghs Rockstar North is responsible for Grand Theft Auto. Picture: comp

Over 40 per cent of people on the list went to private or independent schools. As a young person growing up in Britain, you’ve a much better chance of succeeding if you come from a privileged background.

I went to Scotland’s first big comprehensive, St Augustine’s. We spent lunch hours hurling half-bricks at our neighbours, Forrester High School. Dennis Canavan was our maths teacher. Whenever he turned his back the whole class silently lifted their desks forward so that every time he turned round again, we were a little closer. When the bell rang at the end of the lesson we had him pinned up against the blackboard. Maybe that’s why he went into politics.

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Our most “famous” pupil was Stewart “Woody” Wood who was expelled and went on to play guitar in the Bay City Rollers. Across the way at Forrester, Rollers frontman Les McKeown was kicked out of school too. You could say that’s a kind of social mobility.

There’s no rule that says your upbringing has to determine your future. Film director Steve McQueen, pictured, of Oscar-winning 12 Years A Slave, went to a west London comprehensive where he was told he would never be more than a plumber – as if there’s anything wrong with being a plumber.

But the story that’s currently snowballing across the internet is about a school in New York that’s determined its scholars (their word) won’t be held back by their background. Mott Hall Bridges Academy sits in the middle of Brownville, the neighbourhood with the worst crime rate in New York, where it’s hard to even walk to the library without getting a gun pulled on you.

One of their pupils, a black kid called Vidal was interviewed by Brandon Stanton, the photographer whose Humans Of New York Facebook page has nearly 12 million followers.

Stanton asked him: “Who’s influenced you most in your life?”. “My headteacher Miss Nadia Lopez,” said Vidal. “She made every one of us stand up one at a time and told us we matter. She told us that each time somebody drops out of school a new jail cell gets built.”

The photographer wanted to meet Miss Lopez. When he did, her words struck him hard. She said: “I want my scholars to know there’s not a single place on earth they don’t belong.”

Three days ago, the two of them launched a fund to raise enough to send each new sixth grade class to visit the famous Harvard University. Inside three days they had thousands of $5 and $10 dollar donations. As I write, the fund stands at $711,620.

That sum of money, which is 
growing by the minute, 
is worth more than any of the millions paid out in school fees by wealthy parents because it was raised, dollar by dollar, to fight inequality not 
perpetuate it.

Real adventures take place outside

Right you, if you think you’re still young, stop reading now because I’m about to flick my Grumpy Old Man switch.

I can’t believe so many young folk want to sit indoors glued to a screen. Even when they do slouch out to the corner shop for a half pound of Percy Pigs and Jelly Worms, they walk there and back still glued to an even smaller screen.

Brace yourself... when I was young... all the most exciting things happened to me OUTSIDE. Twenty-seven-aside, jumpers-for-goalposts football matches that went on till we couldn’t see the ball any more because it was nighttime. Climbing into Pillans and Wilson’s yard and getting hunted by the security guard. Tormenting the parkie. Lying on the grass smeared with mud, feeling for trout under the overhanging banks of the Braid Burn where water-rats lurked. Sliding down Blackford Hill in the snow on a tin tray. Flinging a bare hook into the sea off Granton Pier and catching a twisting, kicking, silvery saithe every cast.

That was before I hit my teens or rather, my teens hit me. Then it got even more exciting. Girls! In the park. In the dark. My first kiss on a bench just beneath Castle Rock. Longer kisses in backstreets, streets blacked out by ‘70s power cuts. Even getting stood up was exciting. Loitering outside Bruce’s Record Shop in Rose Street with my mate, in gingham Ben Shermans and two-tone Sta-prest, talking about what we were going to do with these two miraculous creatures who’d promised us their Saturday afternoon – but never turned up.

Violence in the air as well as sex. Gangs of Clockwork Orange copycats in white boiler suits with bowler hats and sharpened umbrellas ready to chase you. Jumping on to a moving bus just before they caught up.

I’ll admit, charging a Hummer down Sunset Boulevard in LA, emptying your machine pistol into anybody that looks at you, commandeering helicopters and shooting up shopping malls is fun.

We’ve got Edinburgh’s own Rockstar North to thank for the Grand Theft Auto franchise that’s locked our young people up inside their own heads. But for adventures you never forget, you need to get out more.

Happy meal time

Some girls think the secret of being happy forever is meeting the right man. It’s not. It’s eating as much as you want without getting fat.

Nudge nudge, wink wink . .

Have you ever been a member of a secret society? It sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? I don’t mean the Masons or the board of Standard Life. I mean a real secret society. One so secret you don’t even know what they do unless you join. Edinburgh’s got one. The Edinburgh Secret Society. I can’t tell you any more. It’s a secret.