I’M 13 years old and have spent the lunch break avoiding the school bullies. I’m good at finding hiding places – but most of all at keeping moving, along corridors, ducking in an out of foyer areas, moving from the science block into the perimeter road, then into the metal working area, and then round the foyer to the music rooms.

The music rooms are my sanctuary. I can pick up my instrument and book a room in the breaks. I have a plastic Chinese-made imitation bassoon. It’s all the local authority can afford. But my lessons, snatched also in breaks, lunch times and some gym classes, are a haven too. I can still smell the grease I used to make the ill-fitting pieces of the instrument fit together over the impoverished cotton-wrapped joints.

The smell still fills me with the sense of safety that all survivors of violence feel, in certain contexts, viscerally, sensually.

There is uproar in the form room. It’s a science lab and the high metal stools are scattered. There has been a fight, I assume, again. It’s familiar. But the tension is higher than usual. I’ve been safe in my ghost-walking round the school, but someone else hasn’t been.

The back door to the form room opens and the deputy head mistress walks in, next to our form tutor and biology teacher. As unremarkable as it was to me at the time, the fact that my form tutor was black, was remarkable, in South Yorkshire, in the 1980s.

But on this occasion, she was black and blue, and her face was swelling deep red and purple. There had not been a fight. The arch school bully and her pack of hunters, the one I fled into the corridors to avoid every day, had violently assaulted our form tutor – and, done so, it was clear now, in a torrent of racist abuse.

This had happened in the last hour and now I realise I was a 13-year-old witness to the incredible courage of my tutor and the act of deliberate solidarity between women, as the deputy head mistress announced the suspension of the perpetrator of the violence and stood calmly by as our tutor took the register.

My tutor was then signed off for a while. I remember we sent her flowers and wrote cards. She returned and continued her work before leaving to take up a promotion in another school, in another city. It was then that she began a correspondence with me that lasted nearly a decade.

When I went to university she wrote a letter that I still have, carefully wrapped away in my treasure box. I don’t need to take it down as the words entered my heart as advice.

“Alison,” she wrote. “When you are at university, don’t follow what the in-crowd or the rich crowd do. Take your time, watch, and wait to find the people of integrity. It’s often those on the margins or those who are a bit odd or different who will offer the greatest friendship and the greatest insight. Use your time well.”

Well, it’s 25 years this month since I began working at the University of Glasgow. As the human resource system CORE inauspiciously marks this with a reminder via last month’s payslip, I’ve been filling up with memories of her advice and of the ways in which her courage and influence have been touch stones through the good days and the bad.

Usually in response to the question “have you ever thought of leaving? Of moving somewhere else?” I’ll quip “Better the devil you know!” or “I live a mile’s walk away from my beloved allotment and there is a 12-year waiting list, so no.” Deep down, though, a scholar of the movement and interstices of people and things, I believe intensely in commitment, in the entanglements of people in places over time.

Whilst my work spans the globe and, most especially these days, the displaced populations and dispossessed indigenous peoples of the global south, it’s Glasgow that I come home to.

It’s in Glasgow that I’ve sought for ways to repair the ruptures that the devastating effects of clearance and industrial revolution, the fuelling of the greeds and gains of the Empire wrought on an ordinary peasant-class ancestry and the indentured, slum dwelling labour of the cotton mills. Home from home.

The thick violence of Sheffield under Margaret Thatcher’s severing of community and identity swapped for the tenacity and solidarity of spirit, that opens up in all the messy ways that Glasgow makes itself a city.

Beautiful, undoubtedly, but in a raw and heart-open way, like it’s adopted sister La Pasionara, down by the Clyde.

Universities are not what they once were, and the Covid campus crisis exposes this. The experiences students across the country are having in halls of residence are both predictable and avoidable – if ... if ... if only we lived in the Utopia that is not present-day landlordism or decades-long systematic hostile takeover of higher education.

The virus, to quote Arundati Roy, “is a portal” laying bare most everything. In the very act of putting on the mask, the mask has slipped. And yet the words of my teacher have been as true today as they were when I was 18.

A message reaches me this week from my colleague in Gaza. He is sending a message of support to staff and students at the University of Glasgow.

“As a senior academic living in besieged Gaza for about 14 years, I and all my colleagues at the Islamic University of Gaza stand with you always in full solidarity with your efforts and encourage you to retain the spirit of resilience, patience and creativity. We’re in this together.”

No platitudes. The words “we’re in this together” sound very different coming from a place formed from a decades-old “refugee” crisis, that of the Palestinian Occupied Territories. And there is nothing hollow or gloating here.

The margins. The odd places. The places where suffering is known, lived through and endured with patience and creativity. The places offering the greatest friendships in times of trouble.

Another message from a refugee student I was recently able to pass on a small donation to: “Thanks so much for the gift. I was able to add £5 and top up pay-as-you go credits for an asylum seeker in G4S accommodation in England, a young lady who lost her mother recently and needs credits to call her bereaved family.”

It’s the students and colleagues over the decades who have been of and from these margins, the colleagues who move with the beat of humour and heartsoreness, and who have stuck with me. I have had moments of actually running for the hills, but thankfully the city makes that easy.

No story worth its salt of 25 years of a relationship with an institution is going to be some smooth, linear trajectory. All the big questions I was searching for in my teaching and research are still with me: what is justice; how do we live together such that we might flourish with one another? And within the Unesco chair team at University of Glasgow, a glorious rag bag of human spiritedness from around the world, how do we stay faithful to the task of “holding the bowl of tears and expanding the space for joy?”

“Alison,” she wrote. “Take your time, watch, and wait to find the people of integrity. It’s often those on the margins or those who are a bit odd or different who will offer the greatest friendship and the greatest insight. Use your time well.”

Alison Phipps is Unesco Chair for Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts at the University of Glasgow