I watched a short film the other day, while I was cooking the tea. (Actually, I watched it in two parts, because if I hadn’t I would have burnt said tea.) It made me cry, just a little bit. It touched me, partly because in it I recognised the heartache of a young mother and father when they received a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome in their baby, as yet unborn, and partly because I recognised something else. A tone of voice, a way of being, in another mother on the screen. The other mother, the one whose daughter was about the same age as my son, and who also had Down’s syndrome, like Sam.
Sometimes I think people must think I am the most hard-hearted person imaginable. I can feel their frowning glances, the pity they direct at my son, every time we go to the supermarket, every time we shop for shoes, or clothes; every time we are anywhere where there might be the temptation to pick up, to try on, to slip something random and unnecessary into the shopping basket. I feel their gazes as we go about our business, pitying and yet accusatory. How can she speak to that poor little disabled boy that way? Can’t she see he’s only having a bit of fun, poor thing?
It is wearing, I admit. Most times we go to the shops we make the same performance, and every time my voice, which started out so kind, so gentle, takes on the note I recognised in the woman in the film. Hard. Clipped. Tired. Lacking in patience. And Sam, he becomes an object of pity. The poor disabled boy with the horrible, cross mother.
In a way, I can relate to how they feel. Years ago I felt the same, the day I sat in a review meeting and we talked about cuddles. As he draped his small body around mine and my arm snaked around his tiny waist, I wondered why a ban was so important. Why shouldn’t he have a cuddle if he needed one? He was only little after all.
What I sense, though, is not the pity extended to all children of harsh, cross parents. You know, those kids we see, out and about at the shops and the park, on the receiving end of shouts and shoves, the hisses of barely contained rage and frustration, or the casual disregard for health or safety. That pity is easy to understand. I feel it myself (and sometimes towards the parents, the ones tiredly traipsing around the supermarket while their tired toddlers throw themselves to the floor over the chocolate biscuit or some other forbidden item).
As teachers we’ve all met those kids we feel sorry for. I remember one young lady, let’s call her Katy. While she was in my class her mummy died. A nice woman, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and died in the holidays. Everyone knew about it. One day, at the beginning of term, most of the parents of the children in my class went to the funeral. For a while there was quiet. A sense of awe at the enormity of what had happened to Katy and her little sister.
Or ‘Luisa’. One day, after school, I found her sitting in my classroom. She hadn’t gone home. Her mum was an alcoholic and, that day, Luisa had flatly refused to go home. She sat there, in her place, reading quietly, while she waited for her gran to pick her up. I could tell you about any number of kids I feel sorry for, whose wounds I would make better of only I could, just as I cure my own babies’ hurts with a kiss.
But you see, those people who pity Sam, they don’t just do it because they see someone being bossed about; they pity him because they fail to take into account the fact that he will not always be young. They have forgotten that learning disabled people, or any kind of person come to that, will eventually grow up. It’s as if they see him in a perpetual state of childhood, a life stuck, like the needle in a scratched record. They, like the me of years ago, do not see the consequences of actions left unchecked.
But I know that, unlike the children in my memory, unlike the illusion of constant childhood that teachers live with, making it difficult to imagine any of them any different than the day they were in our class, one day he will be grown up. And I don’t like to think of Sam, as a fully grown man, cuddling anyone he takes a fancy to, invading their space; acting inappropriately. I don’t like to think of grown up Sam, returning home with a bag of shopping, emptying out baseball hats and bananas, and wondering why he hasn’t enough food for the week, because no one ever told him ‘no’ and used that sharp, tired voice.
Experience has taught me that it takes Sam a while to learn. And learn all sorts of kinds of self-control he has – and will. He may as well start now. There is a difference between sympathy and empathy.