I Am Looking For

Dame Floella's Inspirational Life Story

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Pupils at the Junior Boys’ and Junior Girls’ Schools joined children from 170 schools to hear from Floella Benjamin in a Zoom call that reached 1,000 classrooms. The performer, television presenter, producer and author spoke to the huge virtual gathering about her life, from her earliest memories of her childhood in Trinidad to receiving her Damehood in 2020.

In particular, Floella shared her experience of moving from Trinidad to England when she was 10 years old, which is also the basis of her book ‘Coming to England’. Unfortunately, it was ‘not quite the experience she hoped for’. Although her new home was full of love, at school she faced bullying because of her skin colour. She spoke poignantly about getting into fights with other children who called her names, until one day she realised that if someone had a problem with the colour of her skin it was their problem, not hers. Rather than fighting, she decided to be herself and ‘show the world the real Floella’.

Her advice to pupils was to ‘keep smiling, because winners smile’. She went on to share her mother’s saying: that education is the passport to life. She said that she saw her teachers as ‘like Santa Claus, bringing the gift of education’.

Floella went on to talk about working for a bank after leaving school, and her dream of becoming the first Black woman bank manager. This was impossible at the time, but she looked positively on how much things have changed now! She also shared her move into the theatre and then into television, including her experiences on Playschool. She loved inspiring children on that programme, and campaigning on behalf of children has been a huge passion throughout her life.

Moving on, she recapped just a few of the leaders she has had the opportunity to meet, including Obama during his time as President of the US. She also explained how she became Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham in 2008 and what this means for her: she said that she is now in the House of Lords, making a difference in the same room where, 400 years ago, slave owners and plantation owners were making decisions about her ancestors. This led her to talk about how things have changed for Black people in the UK during her lifetime.

Bringing her talk to a close, Floella spoke about her philosophy of the Three Cs: consideration, contentment and confidence, rounded out by the fourth C, Courage. She told the children to strive to be happy people and to ‘never give up, trust your instincts and be kind’.

The schools had submitted their questions ahead of time, and a small selection were posed to Floella after the main talk. She revealed what it was like to meet the Queen; shared memories of dancing in the rain in Trinidad and how she keeps her Caribbean culture alive through music and food; explained how her mother’s approach to education has meant that she and her five siblings have had very different but successful lives; and spoke about her love of different seasons in England.

Finally, Floella gave an amazing rendition of ‘Smile’ without accompaniment. The song perfectly complemented her final message: ‘You’ve got to believe that things will get better. It will get better. Have hope in your heart.’

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