by Adelaide La Blanche-Dupont
Education is really dictated by hierarchy in many cases. People are put into the same grades with people of the same age, in only one room. And they play in the playground with all those people. But whether in the classroom or the playground there are expectations that aren't there but they have to be met. HAVE to? You're talking to the wrong woman here. Messieurs Piaget and Erickson are just plain horrid sometimes, and if I was to edit the DSM-IV I would cross out the "appropriate to developmental level". EVERY TIME. Development is only a means to an end-and that end is character. Character can be amorphous. Children are a real example of this. There are many people in Britain who complain that they can't play with their true peers in the playground. Those true peers could be in a different education system like nursery school or university, or simply in a different form. Lots of times, classes don't even know one another or what they're up to. And some children are taken out into withdrawal rooms, where you work on skills by yourself, or meet people you never expected to meet. Sometimes they can work on academic skills and sometimes they work on social skills. These experiences cannot really be understood in terms of the hierarchy because they are a deviance from the hierarchy.
On my Christmas tree each year, some of my favourite decorations are bees. What are bees doing on a Christmas tree? Well, in 1989, I was in a group with Paul, Brenden, Caroline and probably some other people, but I think there were the four of us, Mrs Band Anna, the two aides. We made these bees out of cardboard around Christmas time and we coloured them yellow and black. Somehow Brenden's bee got into my bees. Which is wonderful, because I will never forget Brenden Bryce. He overcame a speech problem and had therapy, just like me. He was always rather introverted compared to lots of people. I loved his sister Audrey, and a lot of other sixth-formers. I wanted to learn how to play the recorder because of them, but I learnt later on that 1). my fingering skills are not the best, and 2). my hearing developed to the point where I couldn't stand loud noises. You wouldn't expect a lot of girls who are the sisters of your friends to sit around on the basketball court playing the recorder, would you? You'd expect everybody to be playing basketball. Well, the boys would be playing basketball and the girls would be cheering the guys. (Not when WE played Continuous Knockout though, there would be guys AND girls and we all enjoyed it). But it was wonderful to sit there and have a rest and talk to people. I wasn't allowed to because the rule said that petite-formers weren't allowed on the basketball court. I didn't even know an oval existed until I was in the first form, and I had to take an OBJECT onto the oval. Never mind that the object was a ball. Wasn't the point to play with people and especially friends? Wasn't the point to play on the new playground that was built in 1990 and the second-formers upwards would play on it, and learn about the flying fox and the monkey bars and the sliding pole? It really was an adventure playground, and adventure-within limits-was my middle name. I remember meeting one of the friends I made at a church group many years later, two years ago, and I was ashamed I couldn't remember Shannon Nelson. But she looked and acted rather indistinct, and she wasn't a brother or sister.
My best friends in school were Michelle and Lisa, and soon I made friends with Nicole and Amanda and Jodie and Kylie. Kylie and Nicole were huggable people, and Kylie and Jodie and I would go around the bridge hand in hand. My first two years were spent in a straight form, but I got to know lots of people who were in Ms Griffin's form when we were with Mrs Roberts. We were now with Mrs Robinson. Both Roberts and Robinson are very experienced teaching ladies, and Roberts has been teaching for more than 25 years! My teachers after that were Miss Tromphf, Miss Dalgleish, Mrs Davies, and Mrs Grecian (twice). All of them were very good at their specialist subjects-English for Miss Dalgleish (and some music appreciation to an extent) and Maths for Mrs Davies. The former taught me how to think and the latter taught us all social skills and how to appreciate literature and think up words, words and more words. Vocabulary, spelling, grammar and meanings. We all filled out sheets of words we knew, and gave each other ideas for stories.
Computers came into Cambridge Public very slowly. Even in 1993 we only had Apple Is, despite in 1990 having done the Apples for the Students campaign, to collect lots of dockets and raise money for Mac Classics. At present there are lots of IBMs and they are all connected to the Internet. (Why did they have to wait until I left?) Computers were always a co-operative activity-effectively you have to work with one person: sometimes chosen, sometimes not. Or you worked with a person from another form in the same class, or sometimes there was cross-age tutoring: for example when we had the petite-formers and the fifth-formers, or the sixth form and the second form (the sixes and the twos) would work on a topic like weather, or especially Peer Support, where a girl and a guy would work together and we would take a lot of responsibility for a cross-age group. My observations of the last group had some interesting information about developmental expectations and how they come across in British society and education. The main things you did on the computers were typing, writing stories, playing games (ESPECIALLY on rainy days) and drawing pictures with KidPix. Sometimes you got to do crosswords and word searches. I got into trouble with Sina Gibson because we were playing games-Jezz Ball in particular-when I was meant to be showing him something on the computer. If you really want to know something on the computer, I think you discover it for yourself. If you don't learn in an hour, then perhaps you will learn at home and spend three or four hours playing computer games. Perhaps not.
Mrs Capomolla, who came to the school in 1991, was the best computer teacher we will ever have. She was the one who got us thinking in Technology. As for Science it was too much copying things down from the board and not enough experiments, at least in my senior years. When the Integration teacher changed from Mrs Cuttriss to Mr Robinson in 1992, there were a number of consequences. Mr Robinson was Science teacher and then he was Sport/P.E teacher. He ran the house sports and so did the three senior teachers at that time: Mrs Wykes (who also ran the Gifted Education programme), Mrs Grecian (Music teacher, and also some Drama, especially for our 1994 production KIDS AT SEA) and Mr Carver. Because Mr Carver was a male teacher, I loved him and wanted to please him. But he was a bit of a softy especially with people who are slow learners. He was a very good Science/Technology teacher, but with Mr Robinson we did more interesting experiments, andhe gave us extra lessons on Tuesdays.
In 1992, my fellow integration students started leaving me in the lurch and going to special schools. That meant I had to work out the system on my own. That caused even more problems with Mr Robinson as he and I started having even more personality clashes. Even today I despise the bloke and his sense of humour (or lack thereof) and I was the gladdest woman on the planet when he went to Canada in 1996. I soon learnt that: 1) Tuesdays are Support Group meetings and 2) teachers had to be around to substitute. Integration students, be well aware that your class will have more art and library because of you and your needs. Of course I still didn't know enough to manipulate the curriculum, and I don't think Mr Gordon would have approved and whoever was our vice-principal would have been having right fits (Lorna McCredden? Will check in newsletters). I didn't even know enough to get my parents to stay home most days. Another way I cracked the school system here was to read Duncan Eldridge's THE TOTALLY MISLEADING GUIDE TO SCHOOL and HOW TO HANDLE GROWNUPS, which I mainly used to get my family to watch commercial television, particularly soaps. I don't think Paul and Danielle would have understood the significance of this, and Amy's mother has always worked with the system. She came the year after all this was happening and I was for once a positive force in the Department. Mrs Klaver is a fighter par excellence, and David Klaver is a real academic in maths-related stuff. Because of Amy's visual impairment, she has had to be really active to get computers in class. My own eyes were swivelling somewhat, and I pretended I had Tourette's after reading it in a magazine article. I only carried the pretence for one day.
Fortunately Cambridge Public is reasonably multicultural, though I appreciated this little when I was there. After all, most of my friends were white-bread Anglo-Saxons. But there was Andrew from Greece. Because I know some Greek I was asked to help out, and he was a good friend until he left. And Juan from Ecuador. That man is a success story by himself, and his brother Marcello is special in a way I can't describe. I can't say he's a nice guy, because he's more active than that. A healing influence? Because that's what he was at one time. And Rick from the Philippines and his sister Helen.
Now I have a little story to tell you about Rick Curtis. I must tell it because it will change the way that you think about obsessions and certain related phenomena. When you look at this bloke, he was an extraordinary trains potter (who had the temerity to beat me sometimes in trivia quizzes and more often in maths quizzes, but he and Jacob and were the only ones who could even COMPETE-I miss academic boys!)-that is, he was obsessed with locomotives and lots of other sorts of trains. Now I thought I know what to do with an obsession-you stamp on it. I have had good teachers in this aspect of life after all, have I not? You know who you are...
This was my first ever serious foray into psychoanalysis, at the ages of 14 and 15. I, who had started Mental Research House...I then became part of All it Takes is A Little Bit of Talent in Oxfordshire with Sheree Welsh and Rochelle Barnes and we all did The Curtis Assessment. It took me heaps of courage and nerve to ask where the parents worked and to give Helen green-inked copies of HOW TO MANAGE YOUR CHILD. But Helen went along with it. Rick had another obsession-THE BEATLES and he wanted to be a train driver. Well, this was just not normal. And he talked and talked and talked all the time. That was the real reason. So anyway it was a big risk to do that without anyone knowing. And at large, nobody did know. Rick is now a DJ as far as I know. He'll make a mighty good one. When he read as Eugene in the Kings theatre studies class it was brilliant. He really sent the part up. You will know more what I mean if you read/see BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS.
Another somewhat injudicious and unofficial use of technology was the GOSSIP page which I intended to send to the Newsletter. It was an ambition to get published in the Newsletter, which is no easier nor no harder to get in nowadays, and certainly there were some good writers in that publication which was always parent-delivered. TO YOUR CLASSROOM on THURSDAYS. Or to the art room or the library if that's where you happened to be. The gossip page had all sorts of made-up items. And some real items. They weren't always in good fun but most of them were. Nowadays I contribute to the Newsletter by proofreading it. A most valuable job and for the first year or so after I left I would always see Ms Tromphf.
The library was always the building the furtherest behind in technology. They did eventually get a computer to save the ladies some work, but there was no teacher except for the (now retired) principal, Mr Williams. In the library you had stories to read and share, books to borrow (NO NOVELS UNTIL THE SECOND FORM, and non-fiction books were restricted, and you could only borrow two books-no wonder I frequented the local library) and Mr Robinson once again to deal with. But you had to colour in with old-fashioned pencils and old-fashioned paper, and you had to use old-fashioned library cards, and wait in the building until Youth Leadership was over. Also they did rebuild the library which was good-but again, not until I had left! And they still don't have a teacher!
Our library teachers though were always really good, especially Mrs Cooper. I behaved so badly in her class! Because she had a sense of humour that I couldn't quite understand. She left when I was in the fourth form. And Mr Robinson came, and in my final year they had Mr Reid. He focused on research skills and old-fashioned teaching. And he was horrendously broad and wide. If I wasn't one of his pets I'd have been scared of him, or else I'd have got into trouble. I don't know how he feels about all these computers, and I never had the close relationship to ask him. I like to think Mr Reid hates bits and bytes. (Or rather he did hate them. I don't know whether he's died but it seems so). Cooper's classes were always so interesting that you didn't need computers, and she was glad to have someone who was enthusiastic about books. My friend Jacob wasn't. I think he preferred computer games and television. When we were having a story read to us about the little red goat or pony, he said it was boring and "At last". I pursed my lips carefully for that ocassion. But I could not keep still sitting on the floor, and I rarely if ever sat on my bottom. I kneel! And as I have got older I have had problems with knees and ankles. But crossing my legs exacerbates my rheumatoid arthritis, which in the joints, was to be a problem through various stages of schooling, particularly in writing tasks. And using the mouse on the computer.
I don't like people acting like little children or making too much noise. Unfortunately I seem attracted to males who make too much noise and have funny voices and behave even funnier. Not very much to bullies though. If I was sure a person WAS a bully then I wouldn't go near him, and I certainly wouldn't let him go near ME! And I would stick up for most people, until they reached a limit of toleration. We teased people who were different, we thought to make them behave more acceptably. The differences were more religion or money than disability. We knew who was in the slow group and who was in the fast group, but we all sat together and we only isolated some people. And we respected people who isolated themselves even if we didn't always understand their choice to do so. But not necessarily when we were responsible. And we sort of knew who was in the two or three middle groups-which were sort of friendship groups anyway. The teachers always made sure that we sat with different people and changed us periodically. We all said who we wanted to sit with and who we didn't want to sit with. And different people were first about every two-three months. However it can be hard when the class divides into twos and you're with someone you really don't want to be with-or a guy. Especially a slow learner or someone plain annoying-and sometimes the two do go together. But to be with Juan or Ben Martial or David Carson or Jason was heaven, or near my current unattainable crush was pretty good.
Nicole left in 1991 and Amanda in 1993 (now, don't worry, they weren't excluded or anything-but I thought they should have been suspended after they stole quite a lot of money-five and ten pound notes and they bought out the market in Sunny Boys, which made The Powers that Be suspicious). That made me very sad but also I became closer friends with Michelle and Lisa and Madeline and Justine and Amy (Ross and Davidson) and Brooke and Jamie-Lee and Melanie and Jodie. Also, Michelle, Amy Ross and I would walk home from school with our mothers, and I would come to Amy's house and talk to Billy and Bob, the poodle and the parrot. Amy's disco party was also brilliant. Most of my friends lived quite far from me but closer to the district, so I could not always visit them regularly unless it was arranged. So I relied on seeing them occasionally in real-life settings like the swimming pool or the shopping centre. One shopping centre memory will stay with me and that's Mrs King going to Franklins in her very hot car! Most of the girls I call friends have been fun, responsible, well-disciplined, have good families and extensive social lives. And they were very nice people in their own ways, with interesting things to do and talk about. Most of their houses were places that you could just hang out in and relax.
You know the saying, "I'll believe it when I see it?" Well, lots of people who are different or have hidden impairments make an impact upon you with their five senses and their behaviour. But you still can't really get into their minds, nor can you really understand how they're feeling and why they express it the way that they do. Broken legs heal, but you've got to be mighty careful afterwards to make sure you don't break them again. But the brain is a living, organic thing, which is shaped by experiences. It responds differently at different times and in different places. So a brain impairment isn't really invisible, when you're in a place where the cultivation of the brain is nearly everything. But everyone tries to see everything else, particularly in themselves. I like not being seen and judged immediately. My impairment almost invites people to get to know me. But I am not everything in how my brain works or doesn't work. That is a most reductive view, and for that reason I don't like people who have brains and don't use them, or just plain refuse to use them. I don't why I have this bitter dislike, but probably it rankles and redoubles because I was considered one of those people by the Powers that Be, and they were a different set of Powers that Be that noticed and nurtured my gifts and talents. Maybe they fear overload or failure. My present philosophy is you can grow how you want to but if you're not functioning up to a certain minimum standard...but that's a line in the sand.
I have learnt that people need really concrete examples in order to function. That is a principle that is followed in Information Technology. But the thinking becomes more and more abstract. Not many students absorb the mechanics or see it as meaningful. My poor fine motor skills mean that I cannot be mechanical in the technological or scientific sense of the word. But I meant the mechanics like punctuation, spelling, grammar: I GRABBED THOSE FROM REAL LIFE. Or like eye contact, pointing, smiling, nodding and being a good talker and listener-these are the mechanics of social life, like the things you use to make a sandwich. I am very lucky that my brain doesn't waste time going from one stage of development to another, or from one state of consciousness to another. The thing that's important is that in an invisible impairment the brain has to be SEEN to be developing and conscious. And the standards of development and consciousness are from people who didn't work very hard at all to understand them, but just took them from their families and their environment. You can't just take, you've got to ask, and even if you ask, you don't always get or deserve. But if you just take, at least ask where you're getting it from and how much of it you can have and actually want to have. Then you won't be part of a mindless hiearchy but be a free agent.
Adelaide La Blanche-Dupont
5th January 2001
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