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Katriona O'Sullivan's new autobiography, 'Poor' is out now.

Extract 'My teacher gave me power with that small bundle of towel, flannel, and pants'

Dr Katriona O’Sullivan shares an extract from her new autobiography in which she documents the many challenges she faced growing up in poverty in Birmingham.

Dr Katriona O’Sullivan is an award-winning academic whose work explores barriers to education. Katriona’s journey to success is inspiring; she grew up in extreme poverty in the Hillfields, Coventry, as one of five children to Irish parents in a home shaped by her parents’ heroin addiction. Katriona faced incredible challenges from a young age and again when she became a mother aged 15 and ended up homeless on the streets of Birmingham.

Despite this Katriona was able to graduate from Trinity College Dublin via their access program with a first in Psychology, then receiving a scholarship from TCD to pursue her PhD. Today she leads the largest nationally funded project in the Republic of Ireland that aims to ensure all working-class girls have access to STEM education and employment. This is an extract from Katriona’s new autobiography, Poor…

I LOVED MRS Arkinson and I knew she loved me. Her eyes said so. The way she helped me said so. The pat on my head, the hand on my shoulder, the encouragement and rewards.

When Mrs Arkinson was pleased with you, well, you felt like you could survive forever on that small nod or pat on the head. It was like she pushed confidence into you.

One day in Reception she called me up and told me that Miss Hall was going to need to speak to me in the bathroom and that I was to listen to what she had to say and everything would be fine.

I’d seen looks between them already, just before I was called up, and I had my guard raised. I could always sense these things, the shift in the room when there was trouble brewing. My mind had instantly raced with excuses for things I’d done and for things I hadn’t done. I prepared for all eventualities, knew who I would pass the blame to, what I would deny.

picture 1 - Katriona, aged 13, and Tilly, her mam, in Birmingham Katriona aged 13 with her mother, Tilly in Birmingham.

Whatever I was accused of I would reject or ignore, and it would go away eventually. When Miss Hall came to get me, one of the other kids in my class said, ‘You’re for it now, Katriona O’Sullivan, whatever you done.’

Personal hygiene

When we got into the girls’ loos Miss Hall pushed open all the cubicle doors and then pushed the handle back on the main door, locking us in. It was very unusual so I figured I must be in terrible trouble. I stared at the floor and flexed my feet against the lino.

She rummaged in the bag she had brought with her. She took out a pile of white things and laid them out on the tiles. Small, folded girls’ pants, the way they are when you take them out of their plastic packet. She lined them up in a row.

Then I knew exactly what this was all about. Of course, I did.

Pissy pants.

I was wetting the bed every single night – children​ tend to do that when they are in crisis – and​ then going to school without washing or changing my pants. I didn’t know how to wash. There were no towels in our bathroom, barely any toilet paper. Never any soap. None of us owned a toothbrush.

In the toilets with Miss Hall I felt ashamed, as though it wasn’t just the kids who teased and mocked me.

‘Pissy pants, pissy pants.’

‘Smelly bitch.’

‘I don’t want to sit with Katriona, Miss, she smells like wee.’ I knew that Mrs Arkinson and Miss Hall thought I was smelly too.

It was true. I stared at the floor. Couldn’t she just leave me alone? I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to talk to anyone.

Miss Hall crouched down and said, quietly and kindly, ‘Katriona, you’re not in trouble, we are going to help.’ I did need help. I could sense it in the relief I felt from her words and looking at the pants. They had pictures of little girls in tea dresses on the front, and days of the week stamped above the picture.

Picture 2 - Katriona, aged in 8, in a school play in Southfields Katriona in a school play.

‘Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday,’ she said, landing her finger on each one as she said the word.

I looked at Miss Hall and she was looking at me. I wanted to reach out and touch her fluffy hair and silky blouse with the big loose bow at the neck of it. She was so clean and pretty and smelled lovely. I sometimes wondered if she could actually be Princess Diana, they looked the same to me. Maybe it was really her, a princess in our class.

‘When you come into school in the morning, before everyone else, I want you to come to my desk and I will give you a set like this.’ She showed me a white flannel and a white towel and lifted one pair of pants onto the small pile. ‘You take them and come into the loo and lock the door like I just did, okay?’

I didn’t nod or shake my head. I just stared at the floor. ‘Do you wet the bed?’ she asked, hunching to look up at my face. I flinched but didn’t answer. She pushed my hair back.

‘Head up now,’ she said, ‘nothing to be ashamed of, but let’s learn to keep ourselves . . . fresh and clean.’

There were three little sinks and she chose the last one, explained how to run the water warm and then showed me how to wash.

Poor_Jacket Katriona O'Sullivan's new autobiography, 'Poor' is out now.

‘Start on our legs,’ she said after I took off my yellow stained pants. She threw them into the bin straight away. ‘Get the flannel wet in the warm water, then we twist like this so it won’t drip, and now we rub our legs like this.’ She showed me how, up and down from my knees.

The way she kept saying ‘we’ felt nice. I was never part of a ‘we’.

‘Head up, Katriona,’ she reminded me. ‘Nothing to worry about, we are learning how girls wash.’ She wiped across my groin and around my hips and bum.

She showed me again, ‘Up and down, wash wash wash, around and under,’ and asked me to show her how to do it myself. I did, repeating the words as she said them.

‘Then dry like this,’ she said, patting my skin and giving me the towel to repeat the action myself.

‘Now pop on your Monday pants,’ she said, handing them to me.

‘We are going to help’

She repeated my new routine: I was to come in every day and use the girls’ loo to wash like she’d shown me and put on my new pants. She would keep the pants in school and every morning she would give me the bundle of flannel and towel, and a pair of pants.

My used pants went back into the little bag; there was a small stand in front of the cubicles and she showed me where to leave the bag when I was finished.

I never thought about what happened to it after I left with my clean pants on, but of course it was making its way to Mrs Arkinson’s washing machine and back into school for the following week.

I stood there in clean pants, with clean legs.

‘Now,’ she said, ‘what a great girl.’

I felt as though I was standing in a beam of sunlight. She will never know what she did for me, how in that small bundle of towel, flannel and pants, Miss Hall gave me power. In that small bathroom every morning, before the other girls came in, I was in control of one thing.

Today Dr Katriona O’Sullivan is an award-winning lecturer whose work explores barriers to education. Despite her professional success, and happiness in her marriage and as a loving mother, Katriona lives with the indelible legacy of poverty. Her new book, Poor is a stirring argument for the importance of looking out for our kids – on an individual, governmental, and societal level – of giving them hope, practical support and meaningful opportunities. 


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Dr Katriona O'Sullivan
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