Thursday, 11 June 2009

Back To School

How do I get myself into these situations I thought as I faced a group of ever so slightly surly looking teenagers. It was yesterday morning and I was sat with Polly in a small classroom in a centre that educates teenagers who, for various reasons, can't be taught in mainstream schools. I had been invited to talk to them about 'over-coming disabilities' by a friend, Karen, who heads up the unit but in a previous life had been an actor with whom I had worked with many times. Several weeks earlier it had seemed like a good idea but now the reality was before me in the form of a dozen kids and several support staff.

It was pretty obvious from the start that any dissertation on social constructs and disability models was not going to cut it with this crowd. Instead, with Karen asking leading questions, I embarked on a series of personal anecdotes about my childhood, schooling and early employment, before talking about college and how education gives you wider options and opportunities. To my relief and surprise I could see that the youngsters were engaged and listening. When Karen asked me how I coped with overt discrimination I explained that I took the anger and compressed it into a white hot ball of fury and pushed it way down deep deep inside me and then once in a while I would let it explode as I went mad with a machine gun. The staff all moved back a little but the kids fell about laughing.

Polly told them a potted version of our romantic history. The boys rolled their eyes and the girls went aah. They all liked the fact that I wooed her with fruitcake rather than flowers.

At one point we talked a little about ethics, and after Karen had explained what ethics were, Polly and I told them about the terrible decisions we were faced with whilst having Matthew and Sam. As I explained the 50/50 nature of inheriting FSH Muscular Dystrophy by asking them to imagine flipping a coin you could have heard a pin drop.

We finished with a Q and A session where the questions asked and the ensuing discussions showed that they had taken on board and appreciated the subject-matter. When asked how to approach someone in a wheelchair I told them to look at the person not the chair. It might be that the person in the wheelchair was witty, intelligent, sophisticated and immensely charming like myself, or, just as likely, a complete plonker. But, unless they engaged with them in the first place they would never find out. Hardly ground breaking, barrier smashing stuff, but true nonetheless.

For a bunch of difficult teenagers who can't cope with mainstream education they turned out to be rather nice, interested and interesting people. Who'd have thought it.