All throughout my childhood, I can remember struggling on a social front. I attended the Rainbow Guides but left before Brownies and returned only with pressure from my mother to get involved with the Girl Guides. I was hesitant, I hated organised group activities, and I knew it.
With my mother involved, I eventually stuck out Girl Guiding for a while. We would go orienteering, rock climbing and canoeing, and I was in my element. I enjoyed baking, but I could do baking at home. Once outdoor pursuits were on the menu, I couldn’t get my butt to the Guiding hall quick enough.
Sadly, my mother had her Guiding licence revoked on the grounds that she was too strict. I remember the day, being kept up in my bedroom and then hearing my mother run upstairs in tears. She loved the Guides and the Guides loved her. Mum brought fun, adventure, laughter, and more. “Bluebird” was her leader name, but “Slug” was the name given to her. It was a joke between the girls and my Mum. Our Guiding patrols were named after birds, and birds eat slugs. When the banter started, the undertones were always there – “we’ll eat you”. For our cheek, she used to make us row harder, work harder, train harder. It was tough, but amongst the laughs, we always got things done.
I left Guiding not too soon after my mother did. The Guiding handbook changed, and in its place was the ‘Go For It’ badge. To me, the book seemed garish and loud. Gone were the badges for horse riding, camping and folklore. In their place were the badges for make-up, DJing and choreography. There weren’t enough badges that I wanted to earn, and a lot of the badges I wanted to earn weren’t popular with the other girls, anyway.
My mother didn’t pressure me to stay in Guiding, but she did want to make sure that I’d left on my own terms, not because of her. I remember that day, too. I didn’t simply decide not to attend, oh no, I actively snapped the ”Go For It’ badge book shut, tossed it up on the side, and I left. I think it was one of my first-ever examples of becoming self-aware.
The problem with my having left Guiding was that sense of “what next?”. Of course, I could have attended any youth group in existence, but I also didn’t like a lot of them, either. I wanted more than a youth group, I wanted more than somewhere that I could go and maybe (or not) make friends. For me, I needed a sense of purpose.
For a time, I was thrown into the all-girl ‘Saltmarsh Sisterhood’, a name that my mother and I came up with. It was a competition-winner, for which I won a packet of pens. The Saltmarsh Sisterhood ran for about four months but, due to a lack of funding and interest, it disbanded almost as soon as it had begun.
Once again back in the care of social services, I waited for an opportunity to be presented to me. Any time a social group for disabled people was mentioned to me, I snubbed it. Any time a normal youth group was suggested, I snubbed that, too. For me, I was very, very picky. I wanted something that gave me that sense of family, that sense of doing something and that sense of learning something useful, something like Girl Guiding used to be.
Fed up with my stubbornness, my mother reached out to the army and sea cadets. The army cadets refused me over the phone, purely because I’d be a liability for them, because of my disabilities. Sea cadets were a little more open, but we had to sign a waiver to say that if we (my brother narrowly got enrolled too) were injured because of bullying then it was our own fault. Not happy with these preconditions, my mother refused to let us join.
For the longest time, I ended up stuck at home. I felt bad for refusing all of the clubs that I’d been offered, and I even gave some of them a second look. Something wouldn’t be so bad, would it? Maybe I should just give one of them a chance…
A few weeks later, and one of the youth clubs had been damaged by suspected arson.
I wanted somewhere that gave me a sense of purpose, but I also wanted somewhere that could guarantee me a reasonable sense of safety. I was already cautious about ‘normal’ youth clubs because of the increased chance of bullying, and after an arson attack, I realised that this club was probably full of young people who were just waiting for an easy target like me. Rather than putting myself in that position, I closed the idea off again.
And now, enter the Duke of Edinburgh.
In the UK, our beloved Prince Philip set up the Duke of Edinburgh award, a scheme for young people that allowed them to pursue new skills, experiences and more. There is an opportunity to go on adventures, but there is also an opportunity to learn other life skills too: How to make and handle an emergency call, how to fill out a CV, and so on.
I was listening.
My first meeting was nothing like I could have imagined. Held around a small table in the corner of a quiet library, we learned about the scheme, we brainstormed the skills we wanted to learn and we talked about what level we would like to earn. There was no pushing and shoving and fighting over equipment, people talked, people listened, people passed you the marker pen if you asked for it. We also had a bean bag, and the only person who should be talking was the one who had the bean bag. There could be no fighting over the bean bag, either, you put your hand up, and waited to be passed it.
Over time, I found my confidence in community again. I made friends, I laughed, I talked and I joked. Sometimes there were jointly beneficial activities, and other times we’d disband at the end of a meeting and go off to do our own thing. Perhaps the one thing that stands out for a very absurd and funny reason, was the law that stated that groups of young people weren’t allowed to gather in public places, heaven forbid we might commit acts of anti-social behaviour. Any time that friends got too close while we were waiting for parents to pick us up after a meeting, I’d anxiously remind people that we needed to stand apart, heaven forbid the police saw us. For whatever reason, I was terrified that all of my hard work would be over if I so much as got myself spoken to by the law.
Even if a recession ended my hopes of earning a silver award, the fact that I had this opportunity to make friends and learn life skills was something that I shall forever be grateful for. Even if I didn’t have a silver award to add to my CV, I still a first draft of my CV that I could work with and I still knew how to make business and emergency calls. I went from being quiet and shy and terrified of telephones, to interacting with people in a way that would take me far in life. I learned to be polite, confident and assertive and I honed my team leading and team building skills. Even if I’d never pitch a ridge tent again, the skills that the Duke of Edinburgh had given me had been far more valuable.
In the UK, the royal family can be met with a lot of controversy and yet, I believe it pays to be humble. For all of their flaws, esteemed members like Prince Philip have left behind legacies that will do well for generations to come. Even if he had a long-standing reputation for making public-speaking faux pas, I do not believe that these should overshadow the great things that he has achieved. He may have made comments which were arguably racist or sexist in the past and yet, if I can be forgiven as someone who has also had a lot of involvement with elderly people, that happens sometimes and when it comes to generational differences. It does not necessarily make the Duke a bad person, if anything, it just highlights how far we have come from accepting racism and sexism as of our everyday existence.
Of course, as a married woman, I cannot hold back the sympathies that I have been feeling for the Queen herself. As a married woman, it pains me to see any woman go through the loss of her husband. Even if I want to stuff him and put him on display sometimes, I can’t imagine my life without Matt and I cannot imagine what the Queen must be going through after 73 years of marriage. Royal or not, our human emotions are very much the same. Even if grief is a very individual thing, we still all grieve.
I hope that we can continue to remember the Duke and all of his valuable contributions, to the UK and beyond. A soldier, a sailor a Duke and a prince, his presence and his kindness has touched the hearts of millions worldwide. May we now, along with the Monarch, be united in our grief.