Monthly Archives: September 2017

Sunday Best

I had the oddest experience the other day. As you (probably don’t) know, I moved house recently and, as the nights are drawing in and I have reached the conclusion of my hemming and hawing, I thought it was about time I sorted out some sitting room (the hubs calls it the lounge, which I tease him by declaring that that name is horribly bourgeois) curtains. I found a nearby branch of a fabric place I have used before (I’m not what you might call skilled in the matter of sewing), and off I trotted, measurements in hand – and they refused to sell me any. Not in so many words, you understand, we ran out of time and I had to make a dash for it (slave to the school-and-college run that I am), but still. I got the distinct impression that something was…off.

I thought about it afterwards as I scratched my head and googled around to see if there was anywhere else I could get hold of something to keep the darkness at bay, and I came to a depressing conclusion. I think it was something to do with me. Not that I barged in to the shop and demanded to be served, not that sort of thing (people who do that never seem to have any trouble getting what they want, after all), but that I didn’t look like someone who could afford to spend the kind of money that the curtains are going to cost (don’t worry, I have saved up – I’ve bought curtains before, I know they are costly things). Seeing as I had been cleaning the house (the other treadmill of my life), and the fact that it was raining, I had not considered dressing up a necessity – rather, I was considerably dressed down. Outward appearances did not tell the truth of the matter.

I’ve come a cropper in this way before, you see. I went through a phase of dressing up for church, when the kids were little. In an unconscious echo of my teenage years, when I dressed up (or down, depending on which way you looked at it) for the evening service, it was my one opportunity of the week to wear something swish, after a week of anonymous dressing in the ubiquitous uniform of early motherhood.  I’d even do my hair (well, sometimes) and put on makeup. I knew I wasn’t presenting the right kind of image after I had one very difficult conversation with someone or other (I had done something wrong, spoken the wrong way or asked for the wrong thing – in the wrong way) and I had to point out that I, as the mother of a disabled child, was the very person that, perhaps, they were seeking to reach.

Sometimes I think it was the same when  Sam was at primary school too (although we never had the same full and frank exchange of views about it). I didn’t fit the mould of the person who might need a hand, every now and again. Some people get all the help in the world, the cups of tea, the signposting to official people who you can ask for help, some people get the sickly sweet patronage of the welfare state and others, those hampered by their membership of privilege, instead of helped, are pathologised. Demanding. Fussy. Pushy. Difficult. Asking in the wrong way and at the wrong time, not following the plan, or being the right kind of mother.

I don’t know, maybe I should just suck it up. Maybe I should dress up for shopping and dress down for church, just so people know I mean business. Maybe I should cry in school playgrounds, not save my tears for the washing up or when I’m cutting onions; maybe I should publicly broadcast a somehow acceptable disability story so that everyone can feel sorry for me, and good about themselves for helping. Maybe I should hide who I really am, don the cloak of hypocrisy so that they don’t get defensive and I get…I don’t know what I get, a relief from disappointment, perhaps.

I’ll go back and get my curtains. I’ll screw up my courage, flick my hair over my shoulder, put on my sunglasses (even if it’s raining) and remind myself that I don’t have to care what other people think, or appear to think of me, that it’s the results (in this case, curtains) that matter. One day, I’ll transfer the lesson and I’ll stop being phased by the criticism of wrongness and then we’ll see.

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That September Feeling

Today was the first day I noticed the morning mist. It hangs, golden, over stubbled fields heavy with dew, slowly disappearing, soaked up by the still-warm, late-summer sunshine of September. We are entering the final third of the last act of summer, and I am surprised that it has taken this long. It’s usually the first week back, the shock of the first INSET morning after the long rest that has me noticing it, curled around the valley floor, but not this year.

This year, September has been, not the delicious irony of glorious settled Indian Summer, but wet. Muddy, wet and cold and an unaccustomed early start to the wearing of long trousers. Instead of sunglasses, I have shivered, donned a raincoat and sadly abandoned my summer shoes. They sit, with the t-shirt I wore only once, on the floor of my bedroom, ever hopeful that warmth will return before they must be put away, hibernating in a dusty box beneath the bed.

It’s used to be that I was invigorated by the September Snap; that first breath of chill as you step out of the front door on the way to school. After a long, boring summer, with nothing to do but read, or hang out with the young people who just happened to be there (as opposed to young people who were actually friends), or, even, reluctantly perform the homework tasks set by teachers who would no doubt forget they ever asked, I was ready for the change, the challenge of a new school year. Now, though, now I am not.

For six long weeks I have them. For six long weeks, my children are mine. Our lives, for a time relive, they ring with the echo of when they were first born, of the time before timetables and bells and detentions and punishments for lateness. For six long weeks (bar the times when I must work, the bills needs paying, after all) we please ourselves. 

You don’t realise the freedom, the release from other people’s expectations, other people’s agendas, until it ends, until the moment when the hamster wheel of packed lunches and school runs, checks for homework and the paying for trips and clubs and music lessons takes up its relentless motion. You thought you were in control – of your own life, of the way your children are brought up – until that moment, and you see again the grey hairs and the burgeoning lines upon your forehead; you feel the pinch of other people’s expectations, etched upon your skin.

Your fingers itch to reach the keyboard, to fill in the blank pages of the home-school diary, to tell the people who don’t know your children all the things, all of the things, to reassure yourself that they know the mountain you are climbing, that they will help, not hinder your progress.

That first breath of September, no longer the chill that rosed the cheeks and quickened the step, must now be held, until you learn to trust.

SEND and the law

A very dear and very old friend of mine (as in, we have known each other since we were girls, not that we are Of Ancient Times, despite what I may be told by my middle child) is a lawyer. While I was teacher training, she was ordering up a wig and gown and hurrying around London carrying large boxes. It’s a very different life. At one time, I too was going to be a barrister; I was rather taken with the idea of wearing said wig (and gown) and arguing the case and saying ‘me lud’. A little bit of work experience, however, soon put paid to that idea. Then, as now, I find that I am unsuited to the law.

My friend A is not the only lawyer of my acquaintance, you see. These days I know several, in both a personal and a professional capacity, and they are almost as different to me as it is possible to be – all perfectly nice and lovely, but very, very different.

For a start, there is their commitment to details. They just love them. They love ferreting them out meticulously. (I’m more of a big picture, grand statement, splodge and mess making kind of person; my teachers used to sigh, as I grandly made pronouncements, and failed to back them up with evidence.) Off they go, burrowing into this, that or the other Act of Parliament, surrounding themselves with stacks of books of case law, with a sense of joyful purpose, finding out.

Then there is the letter writing. OK, so I can do a good letter, but I don’t do lawyer letters. There’s something about them that is spoiling for a fight and they just love it. Me, on the other hand, is more often to be found quaking like a jelly and wringing my hands over appearances and getting along. Lawyers, they just don’t care. Confrontation is their stock in trade. They thrive on it, that and their sense of justice.

Advocating is something they do so well, and so comfortably. Me, I do it all the time, but without the anonymising wig and gown, the creation of an official persona, backed up by years of history, I find myself standing on shifting sands, rather than the solid stage of the courtroom. Where lawyers win their cases through the full force of the law (when my sister and I were children, we were fond of playing the game that involved us banging on closed doors, declaring ‘open up, in the name of the law’ in loud voices), I find myself arguing for the spirit, rather than the letter. I’d much rather people just did the right thing.

The thing is, though, that they don’t. Last November I went to a conference on design for disability, and the point was made, again and again, that the laws exist to protect disabled people, and yet again and again they remain broken. Again and again, in all sorts of fields, from websites to coffee shops, we, as a society, fail to treat disabled people properly. And by that I don’t only mean people in wheelchairs, I mean people with learning differences too.

And, as I watch the debates that swirl in education, the ones that touch special educational needs and disability, about the way that we, as a community of adults, treat children, and disabled children at that, I think that we aren’t any better than the businesses who don’t provide disabled toilets, despite our claims to the moral high ground conferred by public service. Current narratives that speak of giving disadvantaged children opportunities brought through education fail to notice that they speak of disabled children too – the ones who seem so quickly excluded, thrown out, and written off as disruptive influences.

The plain fact is that those disadvantaged children we purport to save are the very same as those protected by Acts of Parliament, such as the Equality Act (2010) and the Children and Families Act (2014), not to mention the Teacher Standards and international agreements such as the UNCRC.

And I can’t help wondering just how much longer they will go on being ignored.