Personal Column: Growing Up Without Family

Young people in care face a grim future, a report said last week. The poet Lemn Sissay managed to build a better life
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The Independent Online

I was in care from nought to 17 and there's not a day I don't wake up knowing it. Christmas is divided into people who look out of their window and ones who glance in. It's like breathing. You don't realise how important breathing is until you stop. You don't realise how important a family is unless you don't have one.

My mother came over from Ethiopia to do a secretarial course and discovered she was pregnant. The college dean advised her to disappear to have the baby. She went to a place run by nuns and asked for me to be short-term fostered. The social worker named me Norman and gave me to a white family. They were Christian and driven by the word of God who'd told them to adopt me. When I was 11, I became a little rebellious and occasionally took a biscuit without asking. They saw this as the Devil working inside me and sent me into care. I was devastated.

A social worker drove me to a small cotton mill town, in Lancashire, and pulled up in front of Woodfield, a massive Victorian home with about 18 children. It had a classic big staircase, polished wooden bannisters and a stained glass window. It smelt of bleach and had linoleum floors. I don't know if I was frightened, all I can recall is the smell of bleach. A child who has been in care will always know that smell. That and the rattling keys that staff have attached to their waists.

Woodfield was a bit like a boarding school and bizarrely I kind of loved it. I slept in a large dormitory with six boys. As a joke we would take the slats out of beds and watch a mate dive in and fall straight through to the floor. A staff member would ring the bell to wake us up and then knock on the door. We'd make our beds with hospital corners (I was taught how to do that on the first day) and we would have a wash - we had a bath once a week, on a Thursday. We all had a specific place at breakfast and every day we had cornflakes, toast and tea in a pot the size of Wigan. The dining room was a horrible lime green colour. When we got back from school in the evening we'd get through the gates and have a cigarette outside. Then we had to go down to the cellar to polish our shoes and look at the rota to see what chore we had that day. Washing up, tidying or sweeping. Supper was served from stainless steel catering dishes.

We would walk to school in a gang. I was popular because I was fun. A middleclass boy told me that I lived in the den of thieves. The children at our school thought it was cool, like Hogwarts with all your friends round. They never knew the hell side of life in care.

I was the only black kid and was nicknamed Chalky White, known as the Smiler. I was the people pleaser. Being in care was like being in the matrix. A trap with nobody to document it. I'd hang around tattooing my arm with a pin and Indian ink and slitting my wrists - I still have a little mark from one of those slits. Next door was a hospital with a massive incinerator with a pipe running into it. We used to sit there sniffing glue and gas. Billy Shepherd was a big glue sniffer and died a few years later.

When I was about 12 a kid called Danny used to beat me senseless. One night I'm lying in bed and he ripped the side of a shelf off and smacked me over the head again and again. A few days later he'd say, "I'm really sorry about what I did, but you remind me of my brother." He'd been terribly beaten by his father. Care was lonely, but loneliness is a privilege and means you have had love. There is no love in care.

I didn't really have more than a formal relationship with staff because they left so often, and I was moved five times before I was 17. A guy who was running one of the homes was a bully. If he got angry then someone got hurt and he took pleasure in inflicting pain. There was an old guy who used to pull kids' trousers down and smack bottoms.

When I was 17, I was given a flat on an estate in Manchester. I was on the dole for six months. Every week out of my money I paid a socialist printer to print my poetry into a teeny little booklet. I sold them to the people on the estate. I got my first gig for the Abasindi Co-op in the heart of Moss Side and I was paid £25. I couldn't believe it. When I was 21, I got a job as the Asian and Afro Caribbean Writers Development Worker. My first book, Tender Fingers in a Clenched Fist, was published at 21.

After I left care, social services gave me my birth certificate, which had my mum's name and mine - Lemn Sissay. That was the only truth I'd ever been told. I was given two letters, written in 1968, from my mother pleading to have me back. I know this off by heart.... "How can I get Lemn back? I want him to be with his own people, with his own colour. I don't want him to face discrimination." I have met her since. She now lives in New York and works for the UN.

I've just bought my first home with my girlfriend. Tomorrow I leave for Arizona University where I'm poet in residence for a fortnight. Then I perform at a 1,000-seat theatre on campus. I won't see my girlfriend for a month so this morning I went out to my garden and clipped eight roses and put them in a vase on the kitchen table. That is an amazing thing when you've been a kid in care.

Lemn Sissay was talking to Alice Douglas. He is performing at the Purcell Room, South Bank, London on 25 October