Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Thank You Felix

Rewind to the summer term 2006 and i'm sat in a warm City of Bristol College classroom at College Green, selecting my options for the final modules of a PGCE post 16 teaching qualification. I could never have known where that the split second decision I made on little more than a quick process of elimination would lead me. I opted to study ‘Embedding ICT into Learning’, which I hoped might bring me some fresh ideas of ways I could use new digital technology with the socially marginalised young people I was working with at the time. I took those ideas and a whole lot more…
I first met you on a Friday morning as a small group of us somewhat reluctantly shuffled into the corner of the College’s Learning Resource Centre (or library as they are perhaps more commonly known) as you introduced yourself as our ‘learning guide’ for this module. In an instant I knew that you was a man with whom I could relate; someone who clearly saw yourself more as a learning-mentor than a traditional ‘teacher’, a great speaker and even better listener. You spoke of your experiences of using ICT as an effective resource for distance learning – where groups of people can connect for educational purposes online and outside of a classroom setting – and gave us fantastic stories about linking up with people on North Sea oil rigs and holding seminars with them using communication tools such as Skype. 
Our task was simple; to go ahead with our usual teaching/mentoring/learning facilitation and report back to the group via a blog that you had created for us. You dished out the log in and password codes to each student and advised us that there was no need to return to the LRC for a physical meeting, our attendance and coursework would be assessed online via the blog – at least one post a week before midnight each Friday for the next 12 weeks.
I was astounded. Here we were studying at degree level, learning to be teachers and lecturers and my new course leader told me there is no need to return to a classroom and that it is perfectly acceptable to create and submit my work via what many people would consider (in 2006 at least) to be little more than a social networking tool. The College at that time was vehemently against the student use of any forms of social networking within the LRC and our task was to use exactly this – and immediately I could see the value of using new forms of media to enrich and encourage an alternative way of teaching and assessing.
I wasted no time in adopting your new approach to embedding ICT into my sessions and almost immediately got a small group of young people (who the education sector would describe as NEET) to create their own blogs and begin to use them as a way of documenting the work they had created a chronological diary fashion. These blogs were shared with you and the rest of my PGCE group, we commented on each others posts and the young people were enthralled by the positive feedback they were receiving to each of their posts. You were always outstanding at encouraging these learners through the words you left for them and although they never met you in person, my learners were greatly encouraged by your remote presence. 
We met a number of times over the course of that term, but my most memorable meeting with you at that time was in the top room of the Bristol Guild – a gallery space where you and a friend (whose name sadly escapes me) were exhibiting their photographic work. This was when my initial respect for you turned to a great admiration – my rebel lecturer was also a gifted photographer! What was supposed to be a student/lecturer 1:1 meeting about embedding ICT into lessons meandered through conversation about art, photography, darkrooms, lenses, techniques, locations, people, countries and just about everything but the college work I had been doing. But it was fine. Through the blogs, you knew I had vastly exceeded the given task - and you surprised me with one more assessment that you asked me to complete. You told me that you were so inspired by the work I had been doing to engage with disaffected young people that you would like me to take your place delivering a seminar on evolving methodologies – to none other than the senior management teams at the City of Bristol College! 
I took the challenge, shared the work of my current students and fairly successfully tackled a tricky question and answer session with some rather baffled looking college VIPs. You later informed me that I had made such an impact on the people who were in that seminar, that the College were to review its strategy for controlling social media in the LRC – and also that my presentation that day would be more than an adequate replacement for the 4000 word reflective paper that I should have written to complete that module. 
What was so important to me was not that I was able to avoid writing yet another lengthy essay (although this was greatly appreciated) but that you saw that it would be more beneficial for me to review and present my work in person and affect change within the College in a way that no end of module evaluation could. You showed me how breaking convention in a considered manner could achieve positive results that reach far further than they may otherwise. 
I completed my PGCE and remained in contact with you through our respective blogs, emails and when our paths crossed in the refectory and corridors at the College. Much of the writing on your blog was highly academic and it often bypassed my understanding, but not all of it. There was, and there still are, countless pages of inspired, thoughtful, and creative writing on your blog and I relished reading your daily updates. This sentiment was reciprocated when you regularly left enthusiastic and encouraging comments on my posts and soon become an avid follower of my artwork and photography. You came to all the exhibitions, bought my prints and lent me bits of photographic equipment that I couldn’t afford to buy myself. You once spent hours carefully repairing a 50mm Canon lens that had jammed after a knock, saving me about £100 in repair costs.
A few years passed and my time at City of Bristol College came to a sharp end. The full story is long and complex, but needless to say it was a turbulent time and I made the decision to leave my job as a lecturer and work as a freelance artist for a period. I used this time to reflect on my personal life and made a body of work I entitled ‘Where is Iron John?’, taking a strong influence from the book by Robert Bly ‘Iron John: A Book About Men’. I'm not sure that I have ever felt what real depression feels like but during this time I was certainly close.
To say that you were well-read would be a gross understatement and, of course, you knew this book well. You were massively supportive of my move into self-employment but to my surprise, reluctant to discuss Bly’s work with me until my all soul searching and painting was done. You later told me that you didn’t want anything to affect or influence the journey I was taking as you understood the importance of what I had to do at that time. 
I completed the work and exhibited the collection in London in October 2012. The show ran for a week and was a great success for me personally, although from a financial point of view it was a disaster. I sold just 1 print – to youself, having travelled in person from Weston Super Mare to Shoreditch just to come and see the show and support me. We spent a couple of hours talking about the work, my journey, the process, the pain – and when the time was right, you got straight back on the train and returned home. This was the last time I saw you…
I returned home with a broken bank balance to a letter from the Arts Council informing me I had been unsuccessful in my application to them to set up a therapeutic arts project for young people in hospital care. My wife told me the fantastic news that we were to be expecting our second child and I immediately knew my painting time was over and I had to return to teaching – freelance artists rarely have the security of a guaranteed monthly wage to support a growing family with. So I applied for a couple of lecturer posts and soon found myself back in the art room of a new College that employed me on the strength of my alternative approach to teaching. The reference that you wrote in support for me leaves me speechless, I could never imagine that anyone could write for me such an accolade.
I thrived in my new role, overwhelmed by the continuous drive to be outstanding, and yet enjoying the daily challenges. My growing family moved house, had our second son and made new friends in a new town. My contact with you became less frequent whilst my new life was still settling, but your influence appeared in my work almost daily. Over the past year I have used blogs to document my new class’s creative projects and built up a dairy of their collective and individual progress and encourage the students to take over the administration of these sites once they begin to show an interest. Some months ago I forwarded a link to you to share some of the work my new students had been doing but unusually for you, I didn’t hear anything back.
I tired to contact you again yesterday and noticed your blog had not been updated since last Christmas. A strange concern passed through me as I Googled your name along with City of Bristol College to check if you were still teaching there but instead I was taken to a page entitled ‘Felix Grant – Sad news’. 
My heart sunk.
Sitting in front of my work computer, my eyes glazed over and my stomach turned as I clicked the link. My worst fears were confirmed; You passed away in January 2014 after a short but fatal illness.
***
The journey of the modern male is a difficult one - that much I know is certain. When others were not able to see the potential in me, Felix gave me a gift. I gratefully received that gift and continue to use it in my professional life as a lecturer, as an artist and as a husband and a father. I recognise that I am not ready to let go of this gift just yet, but the time will come when I am qualified to pass it onto a younger ‘me’, just as Felix was able to.
Thank you Felix, Your friend – Luke

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