Being an only child is hard enough, but with an absent father and a lack of relatives in close proximity my family unit, comprising of just me and my mother, was compact. To make up for the lack of a father figure, my mother took on the role of two parents. Needless to say, she made a lot of sacrifices for me – for that I’m truly grateful. However, in the process there was a tendency for her to overcompensate – leading me to have a slightly more cosseted life than others. 

Having said that, when around friends I couldn’t help but compare and contrast my life against what appeared to be a perfect family setup. I had the chance to experience such a structure when, during my early teens, my mother entered into a lengthy relationship (which is now over). Although the positives outweighed the negatives, it took time for me to adjust to a domestic framework that until then had been exclusively me and her.  

Looking back, I’ve no idea what was going on in my head, but by Year 9 of senior school my mother was lucky if she could get me to school – let alone remain there for the duration of the day. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I was only in one or two days a week. I wasn’t disruptive – just anti-education full stop. My mother was in an unenviable position: she knew I needed to attend school, but at the same time didn’t want to upset the relationship we had.

With my pitiful attendance record, teachers devoted their attention towards students who were more likely to be in class the following day. In hindsight I can’t blame them, but a teacher remarking that I’d never amount to anything in life was a harsh thing to hear. I was despondent – what little enthusiasm I had left for education went right out the window. Having said that, I did better than anyone (myself included) expected in my exams. 

Therefore, I went to college and, true to form, lasted for the duration of one day before never returning. Maybe it was the environment of controlled learning that repelled me – who knows. But what I do know is that since I started working at the CAB (Citizens Advice Bureau – now just called Citizens Advice), my thirst for learning hasn’t stopped. It’s strange … although I didn’t strive to study when it was for my own self-improvement, it’s an altogether different matter when the results of my hard work benefit others.

I came to be working at the CAB after being accepted on an apprenticeship training scheme. I wasn’t thrown in at the deep end – receptionist was my introduction. However, some staff members were concerned how I, as a naive seventeen-year-old, would cope with being exposed to issues that I might not fully comprehend, especially when clients often vocalise their issues in an emotionally charged manner. But, contrary to what they assumed, I surprised them by defusing many situations with empathy and a reassuring smile.

It must have come as a relief to my mother when I returned to work after my first day and thereafter. Until then my lack of commitment must have been eating her up inside. At the end of my apprenticeship I was offered a permanent position and with further training began to deal with clients from start to finish. To this day I’m so grateful they had faith in me. 

I love Harlow; I was born here – so despite its problems I respect it as anyone would their home town. Yes, I could do this or a similar job elsewhere, but it’s unlikely I’d get the same job satisfaction that I get from directly helping of the people of the Harlow area. 

I couldn’t say whether people are being more or less judgemental of others nowadays. I can appreciate why some, when not fully aware of the circumstances that surround an issue, could feel that many people have brought their troubles upon themselves. Speaking from experience, though, the advice clients often seek isn’t necessarily due to a fault of their own. Life is tough, so for that reason alone I reserve judgement and show compassion.

Although you’re encouraged not to dwell upon issues outside of work, in honesty it’s not quite that simple. Once you’ve experienced gratitude from those you help, you just can’t help wanting to do more. Problems with debt, benefits, housing and homelessness are among the common threads in Harlow. But many, if not all, of these issues are replicated across the country. It’s a challenge working in Harlow – but I love my job and for now I’ve no plans to leave. 

Despite our few hiccups while I was growing up, Mum and I are very close – best friends, I’d say. I guess to date one of the proudest moments for myself (and Mum) was being nominated for and winning the Heart 4 Harlow award for young businessperson of the year. I don’t think it’s being smug to think that if only those who doubted me could see me now.

© 2018 CHRIS HADDON

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