Updated: Nov 23, 2018
'I always tell my students ‘You can just be you. Your you is enough’. Charlene Clarke
I have known Charlene since she was 3 years old. Over the years, I have watched her become the inspiration she is today. There have been ups and downs, of course. She has had to learn a lot through error but she has taken those lessons on and fought to improve every single time.
Since the interview, Charlene has been dealt even more lessons that, at times, tire her resolve, but she never gives up. She’s always determined to reach her goals.
If I had to choose a word to describe her, it would be tenacious.
I met up with Charlene Ashleey Louise Clarke in February of 2016 for the photoshoot. She was the first person to be interviewed for this project. As per usual, she turned up flustered and bubbly. Her presence completely filled the studio and it was clear that we were going to have a good day.
Q: What’s your best memory?
Charlene: I guess my 21st. Getting my car. I actually knew I was getting a car because I’m an only child, so I’m spoilt. I remember waking up in the morning. My Mum gave me a George Foreman grill and said that’s all I was getting. I tried not to seem disappointed, but I was a little bit annoyed because the deal was, if I passed my test before my 21st, I would get a car. I’d literally just passed my test so obviously I woke up in the morning and looked outside, but there was no car. I just got this George Foreman and I was a little bit miffed, to say the least. I couldn’t look disappointed though because then I’d look ungrateful, so I went upstairs. My Mum was like, ‘Ok well, we’re gonna go out for breakfast!’, so I said ‘Ok, fine’.
We went out for breakfast and when we came out of the hotel, there was a car in the car park. There were balloons all over it and there was a big bow. It was very exciting. I was petrified to drive it home. I think I drove it around with the bow on it for about 3 weeks. So yeah, that’s my best moment.
Q. Which person has had the biggest influence in your life so far?
Charlene: My godmother. Her and my Mum became friends, I think, when my Mum was pregnant with me. They are very close. My godmother has always been there. I think we’ve fallen out once. I did something that I really shouldn’t have and she was very, very, very disappointed in me and didn’t know how to voice her disappointment, so instead of saying, ‘I’m disappointed’, we just didn’t speak for a while.
She’s been there through pretty much everything. When me and my Mum fall out, she always has my back, even if I’m in the wrong. She will always defend me to the point where her and my Mum have fallen out over me, over choice of boyfriends. She’s very much like ‘Well, you known Charlene has to make her own decisions’.
She drove from Wales to see me go to my prom. Pretty much every milestone in my life, she’s been there. For me, she’s been the biggest influence because she’s always been my biggest cheerleader. She tells me, ‘Do it if that’s what you wanna do, just do it, just go for it’. She makes me kinda believe that I can do anything.
Q. What would you say to your godmother if she was here with you now?
Charlene: Aunty Lillie, I wish I could see you a lot more than I do. I love you more than words can even explain. Sometimes I wish that I could do more for you to show you what you mean to me. I love you.
Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Charlene: The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given was by my singing teacher. I remember being really nervous one day and she was like ‘Ok, just sing whatever you wanna sing’. I was feeling really self-conscious but she said, ‘Whatever your fears are, whatever you’re worried about, just let them go because they’re stopping you from being the best or doing what it is you need to do.’.
It doesn’t always work, sometimes it’s a bit hard to let your fears go, but I realise that actually, your fears are what stop you from being the best you can be. Or, stop you from doing whatever it is that you actually want to do, so I try to use that approach in everything I do now. My guard goes up before I’ve even sat down to figure out what I need to do, I panic and I’m like, ‘I can’t, I can’t do it’. But now I say, ‘Ok well, what is it that you can’t do?’, rather than ‘I just can’t do it’.
Q. What is the best piece of advice you’ve given?
Charlene: In my classroom I have transfers on the walls. I have lots of inspirational quotes like, ‘If you reach for the moon, you’ll land on the stars’. All those kinds of things. But, in terms of my students, I tell them, ‘I just want you to do your best’. For me, it’s not really about grades (let’s hope they’re not gonna see this). I want my students to come into my classroom and actually enjoy being there. I want them to feel safe and confident to express whatever it is they’re feeling or thinking. I tell them all the time, ‘You can just be you. Your you is enough’.
Q. Did you plan your career/life?
Charlene: Half and half. My first year at sixth form, I wanted to be a lawyer. I was slightly in love with Ally McBeal and believed that all you needed to do to be a lawyer was wear heels and tot around in the court room saying, ‘I object!’ a lot, until I actually looked into what it was to be a lawyer, then I was like, ‘Hmmmm, I don’t think that’s for me’.
I then decided, ‘Ok, I don’t wanna do law’, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew I loved RE and philosophy so I did those as A levels. Then, I did them as a degree. It wasn’t until I was doing my degree that I thought, ‘Ok, well maybe I’ll do my teaching training, maybe I won’t.’.
After university, I took a year out to work in behavioural units with young people and realised that I really liked working with young people, so I combined that and my love for RE and decided to go into teaching.
Q. What’s the thing in your life that you’re most proud of?
Charlene: I’m proud of things that I am overcoming at the moment. I’m proud of where I’ve gotten to. Yeah, I’ve had help along the way when I could have given up. In terms of my education, it wasn’t easy. Everyone automatically thinks that because I’m a teacher, I have to be very clever and very intelligent. They think that I’m naturally academic, but that’s not my story.
I worked very, very, very hard. I got a 2:2 in my degree, which isn’t the greatest, but it’s a degree. When I was doing my PGCE, I was like ‘Ok, there’re people with masters and firsts here…’. I felt very inferior. I am dyslexic so found it quite hard doing Powerpoints, for students, with spelling mistakes all over them.
Writing on the board has been a challenge, but I tell my students all the time, ‘If I can do it, then you can. It doesn’t matter if you’re not the most intelligent person in the room or if you spell things wrong on the board, it’s about putting your best foot forward and being passionate!’. So yeah, I’d say me, I’m proud of me.
Q. What’s been your biggest disappointment?
Charlene: My biggest disappointment would be allowing my emotions to take control a lot of the time. I do it time and time again so I’m not really learning from that, as such. I comfort eat. I do things out of being happy or being sad. If I’m sad, I’ll go shopping and will spend a lot of money that I don’t have. If I’m sad, I’ll go and eat 10 pieces of fried chicken. I do allow my emotions to control a lot of the things I do. Even though I know that’s what I do and I don’t want to, I still continue to do it over and over again.
Q. Are you a self-starter? What motivates you?
Charlene: No. I’m motivated by other peoples’ disappointment in me rather than wanting to do it for myself. I went to sixth form because it’s what everybody did. My Mum’s good friends with a family of academics, so I felt like I had something to prove. When I got my A level results, they were enough to get me into university but they weren’t great. I got 1 B and 2 Cs. I remember telling my Mum, who then told her friend. He was like ‘What happened to Charlene? I thought she was clever!’. So I think the fear of disappointing other people pushes me to do better.
Q. What do you wish people really knew about you?
Charlene: I wish people knew that I wasn’t as confident as I come across. I wouldn’t say it’s all a façade, but I have perfected acting confident. I can walk into a room and talk to people. However, I don’t like giving people eye contact and I know that is because I’m quite insecure about myself. I feel uncomfortable when people look at me for long periods of time. I feel like they’re looking at my soul. I have a lazy eye so I’m very conscious that if I look at people for a long time, my eye will start to wander off completely. That’s what I want people to know: I’m not as confident as I make out I am.
Q. What inspirational books have you read that have really made a difference?
Charlene: I remember being in high school and reading Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman. I was in a lunch-time detention. I didn’t have any work so my teacher told me to get a book out of the book box. I got this book and by the end of the day, I had read it. I bunked the rest of my lessons and sat in the toilet reading this book. It was absolutely fantastic. I wouldn’t say that it was inspirational, in terms of, it didn’t make me want to do something, but, it made me feel important. It made me feel like I mattered. It made me feel the colour of your skin or what sex you are don’t matter, you are great and you can be great. That’s why it’s always stuck with me. It’s a trilogy, so I’ve read all three of them and every couple of years I read them all again. That’s one book I will continue to go back to. Malorie Blackman’s amazing.
Q. Who’s the person that you think is just incredible – dead or alive?
Charlene: Whitney Houston. I just think she’s just amazing. Obviously, I don’t know her personally and she’s not with us anymore but her voice was just totally awesome and I think that despite the odds, in terms of her drug habit and everything that was going on, she was still awesome.
Q. What do you think the purpose of your existence is?
Charlene: I think the purpose of my existence is to inspire young people. I feel that it is my calling. It’s something I am very passionate about. I take my job very seriously. My purpose is to instil some values into the young people that might not necessarily get that elsewhere. It doesn’t even have to be my values. It’s just for them to understand why it is that people do certain things or to make up their own minds about what values they want, what type of person they want to be, what legacy they want to leave behind.
Q. When did you last cry and why?
Charlene: I cried on Saturday. Me and my Mum are going through some issues at the minute and I broke down and cried because it’s really hard to always be in control. I broke down and cried pretty much all day because I was fed up of always being in control of everything.
Q. What help do you feel you personally need to succeed?
Charlene: I need people around me that encourage me. People that don’t necessarily tell me what I need to hear, I do need criticism at times and if I’m in the wrong, I need to be told, but I need people that believe in me. People that push me to go that step further and to come out of my comfort zone. And also people to lift me up spiritually. It’s important.
Q. What makes you feel unsafe?
Charlene: I feel unsafe when people let me down. I feel unsafe when people lie to me. I feel unsafe when I’m not in control. I feel unsafe when I don’t know what to do next.
Q. What makes you feel safe?
Charlene: Being at home in my own space. Being in control of things. I am planner, having a plan makes me feel safe. Having savings, having money makes me feel safe. Having a network of people I can go to who I know I can rely on makes me feel safe.
Q. If a book was written about you, what would it be called and what would the 3 main themes be?
Charlene: If a book was written about me, I think it’d be called, The Pretend Diva, because I do, I pretend I am a diva. I think the three main themes would be love, in terms of the love that I give to other people, dedication and heartbreak.
Q. Name your impossible and why you feel that it is impossible?
Charlene: I think that it would be impossible for me to be a size 0. That would be impossible because I love peanut butter too much.
Q. When you dream about what you want, what is the best scenario you come up with?
Charlene: 2.4 children, being married, living in the suburbs with a lovely lawn. I don’t even like gardening but I want a lawn. Just being happy.
Q. How has music impacted your life?
Charlene: Oh my goodness, it plays a big part in my life. I listen to music every day. I wake up in the morning and I put music on. It’s helps me get dressed quicker. It helps me when I feel sad, it helps me when I feel happy. It brings me closer to God. It helps clear my mind. I think music has a soul to it and it can really conjure up emotions.
Q. What would the soundtrack of your life be?
‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’. I’m really not a morning person. I’ll probably be sleeping so you do need to wake me up in the mornings.
‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’. That’s actually one of my favourite songs. It always makes me feel happy, even when I feel sad.
Ledisi, ‘Shine’, because it talks about being the best that you can be and just shining.
‘All We Ask’, by Donnie McClurkin because it’s a prayer and it’s just asking that all we want is for God to say, ‘You’ve done ok. What you’ve done is good enough’.
I would also say Mary Mary, ‘Thankful’, because that song always makes me look at my life and think, ‘Yeah, do you know what!? I’m thankful. I’m just so thankful’.
Q. Have you ever felt invisible?
Charlene: Yes, at sixth form. I went to an all-white sixth form in Harpenden, so not only was I black, I came from Luton and I came from a single-parent family. In Harpenden, all three of those make you, like, the scum of the earth, pretty much. It was like a scene out of mean girls, I ate my lunch in the toilet a lot of the time because I just didn’t want to sit around people. They all had money, while I worked at weekends wiping bums as a home-carer. They were going horse-riding with ‘my daddy’ at the weekend. It was a lot of ‘my daddy, my daddy, my daddy.’ When actually in reality, now I look back, their daddies just paid. Their daddies weren’t actually there, so it wasn’t any different to my life, but you know, at the time, that’s how I felt.
Q. How did you overcome it?
Charlene: I got to the end of my studies and moved on. I just learnt to tolerate it.
Q. If money was no object, what would your life look like now?
Charlene: To be honest, I don’t think it would look any different. I probably would just have some nicer things. I’d still teach full-time. I’d probably still live in Bedfordshire. I’d probably own a house, but I wouldn’t go crazy. I wouldn’t get private jets or have a limo driver. Those things actually don’t interest me. I would put down roots. I’d put down roots for my kids.
Q. Have you met an angel?
Charlene: I believe my godmother is an angel because she’s just always been there and has always been so kind and so gentle. I’ve never actually heard her shout. No, that’s a lie. I heard her shout once (that’s when I was living with her). Anyway, I would say she’s my angel.
Q. What are you doing to improve humanity?
Charlene: I’m teaching the future generation! What is more important than that. I don’t think there is anything else more important.
Q. What do you love about yourself?
Charlene: I love my lips. I actually love the fact that I am so emotional. Although I think that it’s a flaw, I love the fact that I care. I care a lot and it is my caring a lot that actually allows me to be my best in the classroom. It allows me to reach those students who may not necessarily enjoy school, because I do care.
Q. What do others love about you?
Charlene: My friends would say I love hard and when you’re my friend, I will do everything that I can to make sure that you are ok. They would say I am generous with my time.
Q. Is there anything you didn’t think you’d overcome?
Charlene: I don’t know. I’ll let you know because I haven’t overcome it yet.
Q. Do you know how to love yourself?
Charlene: I would say it’s a learning curve, I’m still learning to love myself. I feel a lot more confident and comfortable in my skin. But, do I love myself completely yet? No. At the minute there are just some identity issues that I’m going through in terms of knowing, if you take something away, are you still who you are? I feel that maybe I rely on things that I can see to determine who I am, rather than actually just being me.
Well, Char, to that I say, ‘Your you is enough!’.