‘I regret wasting the most important years’

John Wilson (46) who has turned his life around and is now teaching people to read and write
John Wilson (46) who has turned his life around and is now teaching people to read and write
Portsmouth & Southsea railway station by Andy Cooper

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Chris Owen talks to John Wilson who has turned his life round since coming to live in Portsmouth

It was the maths books under the bush which sealed John Wilson’s fate.

He had just started at secondary school and was given the text and exercise books for his course work.

‘I didn’t know what to do with them,’ he says. ‘So, on the way home I put them in a bush. They meant nothing to me and I didn’t think I’d need them again.’

The next day his teacher asked where his books were. John told him he had dumped them under a bush and was ordered to retrieve them.

‘When I went back they’d all been torn up. I told the teacher and got sent to the headmaster. I sat outside his office for half-an-hour. Nobody came, so I thought, that’s it, I don’t want to be here and walked out.’

John was 12. He’s now 47 and living in Southsea.

He says he had already been strapped for forgetting to take a towel so he could shower after PE.

‘I’d had enough. Couldn’t see the point of it so I disappeared.

‘I loved primary school and hated secondary school. I couldn’t cope with it. There were too many of us in the class and I hated having to move classrooms all the time for different lessons.’

He spent the next four years in two children’s homes and, not surprisingly, left his sparse education at 16 with no qualifications.

This all happened in Glasgow, John’s home city. His father walked out when he was four leaving his mother to try to bring up John, his two brothers and a sister.

He got involved in petty crime. ‘I was hanging around street corners with my mates, drinking mainly and getting into a bit of trouble.

‘There was nothing to do. For nine years, until I was 25, I never had a job.

‘I got involved in petty crime and went to prison twice – 21 days and 14 days both for non-payment of fines.

‘I eventually did a bit of painting and decorating and got some work as an insulation engineer, but I had wasted the most important years of my life and I really regret it now.’

In 1994 John moved to a hostel in Portsmouth. Glaswegian friends of his recommended life on the south coast and particularly Portsmouth and Southampton. ‘They said the life here was great and there was plenty of work. I’ve never regretted it.’

John went from job to job – work which included, shifting bananas around on fork lifts for Fyffes and some landscape gardening.

He met a girl got married and started a family. They’ve now been together for 16 years.

‘Life was much better but I knew I had this big gap. I wanted to learn. I could read and write, I’d enjoyed that at primary school, but I wanted more.

‘Then one day a leaflet came through the door advertising courses run by the Workers’ Educational Association at the Omega Centre in Southsea.

‘I went along and loved it. I’m studying maths and English and I especially like the creative writing side of English. I’ve also done computer studies and British Sign Language courses.’

As a result of his new-found confidence he also works in prisons with the Prince’s Trust, the charity set up in 1976 by the Prince of Wales to help young people fulfil their potential.

‘I saw an advert in The News looking for people to do this kind of work and it sounded just like the kind of thing I wanted to do. Because of the experiences I had as a teenager and young man, I want to help and work with young people.

‘I go into prisons like Winchester, Portland, Reading and Bristol and work with young offenders trying to convince them that doing what I did really isn’t an option.’

He says that teaching them literacy skills and basic maths was very rewarding, but not always. There was one young lad who really was enthusiastic, was determined to turn his life around and wanted to learn.

‘He was out on licence but they found drugs in his room at his bail hostel and he was recalled to prison. Very frustrating, but they warn you when you sign up that things like that can happen.

‘Still, you don’t give up. It’s too important. I want young people to realise that bunking off school, getting no qualifications and drifting into a life of crime is really not the thing to do. What good did it do me? Nothing.

‘It took me a long, long time, but I got there in the end thanks to the Omega Centre.’

And his ambitions now? ‘I really want to work with young people and particularly those in children’s homes. The two homes I was in weren’t too bad and I did get some education there – at least more than if I had been at school. I lost out. It was nobody’s fault but my own. I accept that, but now I have a chance to help others who might go that way.’