I took my children swimming the other day. They have been desperate to go for a while, because, during half term, our new swimming pool finally opened. Not our personal swimming pool, you understand, we aren’t the sort of family to devote a large part of our garden to a large child drowning device, but the one that belongs to our town. It’s all shiny and sparkling and brand new, and it was the first opportunity they have had to go for a dip. We have been driving past it for weeks, wondering what it was like inside, so, when I had finally consumed my lunch (I’d been out, my lunch was late) and I suggested an outing, they jumped at the chance.
I particularly enjoy taking them swimming these days because, joy of joys, I don’t have to go in the water myself. There is far too much holding in of the mid-section and dodging of other people’s slowly sinking plasters for my liking at the swimming baths. They, thank heavens, have reached the age where they are allowed to take themselves into the pool and I am confident enough in them to let them. And it was very nice. Up until recently, taking them swimming had either involved a dip in the people soup myself, or a stay in a sort of cross between a sauna and an assault on the ears in the observation area.
At the new pool, there is none of that. There is a pleasant seating area behind large glass doors, so it is nice and cool and nice and quiet. Perhaps fortunately, there is no reception for my phone and no data signal, so I was able to read my current Very Interesting Book in relative peace. As there was no way to the pool side from my very comfortable arm chair, I was forced (forced, yes, forced) to watch my children making their own way, without any help from me at all, other than the odd encouraging smile and thumbs up.
The only fly in the ointment was the locker key. Usually, when I take them swimming, I sit and nod and smile, and they give me the locker keys, on their plastic wristy-ankley things, to look after, which usually involve me putting them in a pile and hoping they remember which is which. Which is fine if there is only a couple of metal bars between you and your offspring, and not so much if you are on one side of a double-glazed, floor to ceiling locked glass door and your child, the one who can’t quite manage the buckle is on the other.
Only here’s the thing. When the pool opened, all the staff at the old, falling down, holes in the roof one transferred to the brand spanking new leisure centre up the road. All of my children have been swimming there, pretty much every week, during term time, with school, since they were four years old. Sam, because his school has their own mini-maxi-buses (they are bigger than minibuses and not as big as coaches, they must have a special name) has already been to the new pool twice, without us. When he couldn’t manage his key-buckle-thing, and he couldn’t get to me for help, the lifeguard stepped up.
Now, I know that lifeguards are supposed to do this sort of thing, but experience has shown me that not everyone, despite their position, are comfortable with Down’s syndrome, or disability or difference of any sort of kind. Only last week, when we were eating out, everyone got a menu – except Sam. We handed them round and when L rather pointedly asked, ‘where’s mine?’, the waiter hurried off to fetch another, embarrassed and unsure.
Sometimes I think that I deliberately ignore the stares and uncomfortable glances. That I have become so used to a defensive mode of being that it has become a way of life. Until there really are funny looks, and then I know that I wasn’t pretending after all. Most times, especially at home, it’s fine. It’s really fine. Sam knows people, and people know Sam. When Sam is in trouble, when he can’t manage his key, or he needs help with his locker, or coming to terms with the fact that public swimming has finished for the day, there are other people, other people who aren’t me or his dad, who can help. He is included.
Inclusion is a funny thing. It’s like a shadow. You know it’s there, following you along, but, when you want to, you can’t seem to grasp it. You can reach out, touch the things it touches, feel its effect, but it isn’t the sort of thing you can pick up in your hands and examine. It doesn’t work like that. Unlike shadows or rainbows, there isn’t a set recipe, or defined set of instructions and BOOM, there it is, sitting in your hand; instead it, like the shadow and the rainbow, slips further away with each attempt to capture it. You only really know it when you see it, when you feel it.
I used to think that for Sam to be included he needed to go to his local mainstream school. I broke my heart for years, worrying about where he would go to secondary school. I worried about it until the moment I stepped through the doors of the special school and I realised that here was a place where Sam could belong, where he could be included.
You see, I didn’t understand about the process of ‘othering’. I didn’t know that the practices that no one thought to question, not really, not enough to change, because they can’t be changed really, can they? he can’t keep up, he isn’t the same, would make Sam feel as different as others felt about him. I thought that putting Sam in the mainstream would be enough. I didn’t realise that, in the million subtle ways that a person or a child can be excluded from the group they find themselves in, there are an equal number of bringing someone in.
I went to a very interesting talk the other day about bullying. And one of the things we talked about was how, as educators, in the same way as many other issues that affect us and the children we teach, from mental health to poverty, the things we wish we could change, things that would make our students’ lives better, are beyond our reach.
As educators we can, if we know how, make our schools inclusive spaces, safe ones, oases of calm, or all the other sorts of definors we use when we explain our ethos; but we cannot do the same for the rest of the world. Our sphere of influence, authority, control, whatever you want to call it, while strong, only reaches so far.
But here’s the thing. I don’t exist, in an inclusive fashion, if you like, only in the world of the school. As Sam’s mother, I see inclusion reaching far beyond the school gate. I, and he, straddle two, three worlds, and as we move between them, my son and I, I see how they impact upon each other. Inclusive education is important. It’s a game changer for many, many children and for many, many adults. It does not sit purely in the world of the mainstream school. It isn’t something that is fixed, in one place, or in one way, the same way for each child. It’s a moonbeam. It is no more fixed than the wave upon the sand.