The mentor who became my friend

Ella Smith and her role model Lisa Bowles
Ella Smith and her role model Lisa Bowles
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Turn over your papers and begin.’ Six words which have just filled tens of thousands of young people with trepidation, if not downright fear.

But for Ella Smith they prompted a disaster – a nosebleed which lasted two hours, the duration of her first GCSE paper.

Overwhelmed by the stress of the exam season, she soldiered on dabbing her bleeding nose with tissues.

‘What made it worse,’ says the 15-year-old, ‘was that I was at the back of the hall. That panic attack happened because I could see everyone else in front of me writing away while I was still reading the questions.’

Then she was sick in her history exam. ‘I had to be pulled out. I could sense everyone laughing at me,’ she says without a hint of embarrassment.

It was the same in her mock English oral exam in which she had to speak for seven minutes on the theme ‘If I ruled the world’.

She had written 800 words and memorised them on subjects as wide-ranging as animal cruelty, the justice system and euthanasia. As she stood to speak in front of the class and the examiners, the blood poured out again.

But Ella, a student at King Richard School, Paulsgrove, Portsmouth, has largely beaten those all-consuming nerves. She has just sat 24 papers in nine GCSEs, including the real English oral which she says went ‘just fine, even the bit about child soldiers’.

When I first met Ella I would not have believed this young woman had so recently suffered such excruciating levels of anxiety that it made her physically and mentally sick.

She’s lively, funny with an inquiring mind.

‘There was a time not long ago when I couldn’t have spoken to you,’ she says.

What changed? ‘I loved my English teacher. We got on really well and she knew I was finding it hard to cope with all my subjects.

‘I sat down with her at the beginning of the school year and told her I was not looking forward to it because of all the stress that would be involved. She knows I don’t deal with stress very well. So she suggested getting a mentor to help me.’

And that’s how Lisa Bowles, the human resources manager at the Marriott Hotel, North Harbour, entered Ella’s life and gently taught her how to cope with the stress of exams. To start with she managed to get her to the front of the exam hall for the rest of her papers which made a big difference.

Ella adds, sitting beside a nodding Lisa: ‘Before I met Lisa I wasn’t in a fit state to sit any exams let alone 24 papers in nine subjects.

‘She’s been absolutely brilliant for me. I couldn’t have got through them all without her.

‘She’s become so much more than a mentor. She’s become a friend and we have such a laugh together. I can tell her everything.’

Ella now hopes the grades she gets will be good enough to take her to Havant College in September to study A-levels in law, psychology, sociology and health and social care.

She has ambitions to become a lawyer but ‘probably’ a social worker. ‘I want to help families who are going through difficult times. I’ve had difficult times in my family. I’ve seen what social workers do. They do a fantastic job.’

Lisa is beaming as her protégé eloquently maps out her dreamed-of career path.

She says: ‘Who would have thought a year ago this girl had absolutely no confidence about speaking in public?

There’s no doubt that Ella will do what she sets her mind to. She’s incredibly determined to succeed and that was the problem really, she was too disciplined when I first met her. She didn’t know how to relax.’

Lisa explains that Ella’s problems were largely self-induced.

‘She was too obsessed with studying, too rigid, too disciplined. She was coming home from school and working right up to the time she went to bed.’

Ella looks back: ‘She’s right. I’d revise all night – lots of different subjects. Then I couldn’t sleep because my brain was too active. I was burning myself out. I had no structure to my life.’

And that is what Lisa brought to Ella – structure. During her exams Lisa made sure Ella revised only for the subject she was sitting the following day. It worked.

She has been part of Ella’s life since last summer when the pair chose each other at a meet-your-mentor event. There are 16 King Richard pupils on the pilot programme with the same number of mentors.

Lisa adds: ‘In the beginning some of the other mentors were struggling to get their young people to study, but I had the exact opposite. I needed to rein Ella back because all she was doing was studying.

‘I had to drum into her how important it was for her to have down time, time with her family, time when she must learn to relax.’

Officially they meet for an hour every Monday to discuss any problems and make a study plan for the coming week. Unofficially they text and e-mail each other all the time.

The pairing has been so successful that although it should officially conclude at the end of the school year, both want it to continue when Ella moves on to Havant College.

‘Who knows how long it will last,’ says Lisa, who plans to continue with the scheme at King Richard with another pupil in September.

‘It’s a double-edged sword. I’ll always be there for Ella, but the day she says ‘‘You know what, I don’t think I need you any more’’ I will feel proud I’ve done what I set out to do.

‘But the other side of it will be the sadness at seeing her go. We’ve become such good friends. I’ll miss her.’

Soaring confidence

Lisa Bowles has worked for the Marriott at North Harbour for 20 years.

For 15 of those, the 47-year-old head of human resources from Portchester has worked closely with the firm that set up the pilot scheme with King Richard School.

EBP, the Portsmouth and South East Hampshire Education Business Partnership, approached the Marriott to ask if the hotel would take King Richard students for work experience during the summer.

She says: ‘They were paid a bit of pocket money. They had to clock in and out and it got them into the work ethic.

‘I have a son who’s now 21 and at the time I was looking at what was available for young people in the area.’

Lisa so enjoyed the experience that when, last year, EBP approached her again and asked if she would consider being a mentor, she jumped at the opportunity.

‘I’ve loved every minute of it and I’ve been very lucky to have had Ella to work with.

‘When we first met last summer I immediately felt very comfortable with her and she says she felt the same way about me.

‘I’ve watched her blossom and her confidence, which was non-existent, soar.

‘And I’ve learned an awful lot too.’