Sometimes, being a teacher, especially a primary school teacher is a curse. Education and schools are always in the news, and it’s rarely a good news day. We seem to be responsible for everything, from childhood obesity to the economy, and not in a good way. Apart from that, you’re never off duty, you’re always thinking about it, even at weekends and in the holidays, as you drag your family around some educational haunt or another. There’s always something else you could be doing, something that you are not doing, and there is never, ever, enough time. It’s exhausting. But, and here’s the funny thing, for all its pressures, faults and intensity, primary teaching has been my saviour.
Even before Sam was born, in the early years of my career (such as it is), because of my work I understood something that helped me, I am coming to understand, in a more profound way than I realised at the time. There is no such thing as a normal child. I’ll say that again. I’ll even give it a paragraph of its own.
There is no such thing as a normal child.
I look at my own three children sometimes, and I catch myself pondering how the same two parents could produce such different specimens. Not necessarily in the looks department, you can certainly see the similarities there, but… There is Sam, eating everything in sight, with mayonnaise and salad cream on top, L, who happily tucks into broccoli and sweetcorn, but only broccoli and sweetcorn, and A, for whom food is a matter of extreme suspicion.
And the way they play. A seems to have his parents’ introvert leanings concentrated several-fold as he disappears for hours into intricate Lego railway construction. For L, there’s nothing much more boring than hanging around without some friends to hang with, and Sam, well, he’s somewhere in between. He’ll happily entertain himself, lining and re-lining his cars into complex traffic patterns, chatting away to himself and them, and suddenly switch to attention seeking, to demands for company or trips out.
And the way they learn. Language, for instance. Sam, at thirteen, still struggles to make himself understood with the spoken word. His words are indistinct, and he relies on facial expression, eye contact, gesture and signs to communicate effectively. A sociable child from an early age, thankfully he has never been too frustrated by his flummoxation with speaking, always able to find another way to say what’s going on.
A, on the other hand, has been nattering non-stop since he started pointing at the world and naming all its parts, categorising, making sense of it all. A verbose two year old, his talk was a fascinating insight into the mind of a toddler. L, not quite so interested in nouns, was nevertheless stringing them together in meaningful syntax as soon as she could; her words, not as precise as her brother’s, but a consistent attempt to communicate her needs and desires. For a long time she wanted a turn on the picuter. After Sam’s long, slow journey into language, their own, rapid trajectories have left me with a sense of amazement that anyone would wish that the chatter of their children would cease for just one moment. It’s music to my ears.
And I think about all the innumerable children I have taught over the years. I think of their funny little personalities, their quirks, the things they showed-and-told that told me what was important to them. The way that they are all, every single one of them, scattered at different points upon a man-made scale, how they skitter backwards and forwards upon it, defying our attempts to categorise and measure in a satisfactory manner.
It was a horrible thing, when Sam was first born, to feel that I hadn’t had a real baby. There were tests and scans and tubes and heel pricks galore. There was measuring and tutting and tears and worrying. There were long faces and sad silences where no one seemed to know what to say. And in the middle of it all was the not-quite baby. Maybe I hadn’t actually had one. Maybe I’d had something else entirely. Maybe I wasn’t allowed to be pleased. Maybe I should mourn forever.
But that part of me, that teacher part of me, could never come to terms with this way of looking at him. Physical things like low muscle tone or sleep apnoeia or hearing loss, maybe, but don’t they exist in the ordinary population too? My sister had her adenoids out when she was seven (I remember it well because I was new to school and up to that point had happily sat next to her in the canteen. While she was in the hospital I had to sit next to A Boy, and I cried all the way through grace and people stared.) Despite my lack of natural strength, I didn’t do too badly at gymnastics because I was so flexible. Don’t other babies have reflux, or other children need glasses?
So not long after his arrival that teacher thing kicked in. Down’s Syndrome as a label is useful as far as it goes, but only in as much as it helps me, or helps other people to help him. If it really is more important that he was a baby, a small boy or is a young teen first and foremost then I needed to do something. I needed to remind myself that that normal baby, normal child, normal teen is a made up myth. Before anything else, that individual child comes first.
It would be so easy to put all the bad stuff down to the Down’s. All the funny looks, or the sleepless nights or the early mornings or the mad behaviour, the constant snot. Many times long ago I sat with my friend Meg (she also has a son with Down’s Syndrome of roughly the same age) and we wondered together where the Down’s ended and the boy began. But you know what, you know what all you mothers out there, unknown to me and struggling with the same question? He is more than Down’s Syndrome, way more, just as I am way more than a mother, a teacher, a woman, white, just as all those other children are more than a level 4, 5 or whatever nonsense we will need to measure them by next. The day I decided to put Down’s Syndrome at the bottom of the list and jump on it (hard) with both feet and leave it where it belonged was the day I left the angst behind and started to enjoy the journey.