It’s like a prison. They lock you in at eight thirty in the morning and you lose your freedom till three fifteen every day. Five days a week. Year after year.
Holidays? Don’t talk to me about holidays. They’re never long enough, and you spend most of them dreading the ordeal of the term to come. Will everyone hate you? Will anyone talk to you? Will they all have spread some kind of rumour about you, given you an unbearable nickname that you’ll have to live with until the bullies go elsewhere for entertainment.
Sunday nights are the worst. That sick feeling in your stomach when you know that it’s all over. Your freedom curtailed for another five days. Five days which stretch ahead in front of you like eternity.
And have you done your homework? Are you prepared for the week? Prepared. How can you prepare for that?
Monday morning finds you shut up in a classroom of thirty kids – any sense of individuality is stamped out. Even the noise of thirty kids breathing is oppressively loud. Maths. Always maths first thing on a Monday, like a punishment for daring to dream over the weekend. For daring to think you have a life outside this classroom.
Maths, then English, then break. Break is all too short – barely time for all out with shoes changed before it’s back in again – all noise and confusion and the scraping of thirty chairs against thirty desks.
Then History, or Geography, or Music. It doesn’t matter what the subject is, you’re looking out the window wishing you were anywhere but here. Wondering who imagined individuality could survive this, much less imagination. Who can call this education? Who can learn anything when the herd mentality prevails, when Key Stages are all that count.
The bell for lunch. Forty five minutes respite. Grey roast beef and soggy cabbage. Something unrecognisable and custard before being launched out into the playground. And no one wants to play with me. I stand alone. By the wall. If anyone approaches me, it’s not to be friendly, but to ridicule. To whisper that nickname I’m trying to pretend isn’t mine. You know how cruel kids can be. And I can never get in with the “in” crowd.
The afternoon drags by, shouting, spelling, drawing – even drawing turns into a bun fight – a confrontation “my mum says I can’t lend my pencils”.
Anything good turns to rubbish by two thirty as the class unites in our disillusion of another day – begging for the escape that only a burst pipe or fire drill or major national emergency can bring. Looking for someone to blame, anyone to blame for this boring prison. Wanting to rebel but lacking any meaningful means of protest. How can ten year olds protest in a meaningful way? Isn’t that the problem. Ten year olds can’t seem to do anything in a meaningful way.
The spirits lift slightly as the clock idles its way towards three, but even as the bell sounds at three fifteen, you start counting the hours till eight thirty, and wish no one had taught you to tell the time, and realise how little life there is left in between this daily grind.
And I’m the teacher. Imagine how the kids feel.
Today's date dictates something 'funny' should be on the cards. But 'funny' is in short supply these days.
Recycled from the 'never made it' pile of short screenplays, Millennium Cowboys is a film script from circa 1999 which takes a humorous view of the Millennium Bug (remember that?) Read it and weep... or laugh remembering how life used to be... and reflect on what has changed - and what has not. And ask yourself what Dave and Gary would be doing now? Bounce back loan anyone?
Download the FREE STORY in pdf format.
The skweel in the photae wiz Shand Street in Macduff and it looks affa dark an foreboding. For playin though it wiz a cracker o a place. It hid big dykes like a fort an ye could see the Hill o' Doune and the hail o Banff bey an mony's the time me an my mates steed there repellin boarders or firin oor 25 pounders at the Jerry ships as they attempted a landin in the bey. There wiz even a wee covered entrance intae the bilerhoose that acted as oor submarine an mony a time I've spent playtime bein shut doon for depth-charges. Jist a brilliant place for an active imagination. That wiz the gweed bit!
The bad bit wiz gan ower the threshold intae the skweel proper that fan the problems started.
Een o the very ferst things that I learned aboot skweel wiz that if ye didna ask questions ye didna get a row so very quickly at the threshold I'd close aa waterticht doors an close doon for depth-charges and only surface at playtime. Maistly that workit fine but noo an en I'd forget masel an speir something I shouldna. I'm nae gan intae ony details aboot the type o questions I'd speir but let's say they rockit the teacher's boat fyles an ended wi a row or a scud in the lug or fyles baith wi lines thrown in for a special treat. Nae big deal really because I'd jist shut doon an rin silent again for a while. That wiz until ae day the janny and thes young teacher came intae the class and it ended up wi me gan awa wi them. They teen me intae a bit o the skweel I'd nivver been inside afore that lay aneth the music room and aneth that wiz the bilerhoose. It wiz a fair size o a room wi mair or less the same fleerspace as the music room but much lower. At ae corner wiz a pile o fit lookit tae me like timmer fish boxes an apart fae a puckle benches like kirk pews an a couple utility cheers there wisna onything else in the room. The janny wint tae a wee door an opened it leanin in tae switch on the lecht an steed aside tellin ma tae gang in an pull oot some bunting. I could see why I'd been chosen because wee though I wiz even I couldna staan up straacht in it. But michty it wiz an Aladdin's cave tae me stappit wi boxes o dusty cloots an ither stuff that by the looks o some o them must've eence been used for plays an sic like? The janny tellt ma faar tae look so I crawled up tae faar the coils o bunting lay an started draggin it oot amid clouds o styowe. Then! Then! Then in deein at I uncovered a pile o British army soup plate tin hats and at the side o them wiz a puckle dummy Lee Enfield 303 rifles made for bairns tae use. Grabbin een I could see that they even hid a bolt that ye could slide back an forritt an some even hid slings on them so ye could hing them fae yer shooder. Michty me fitna find! The janny lookit in an shouted if I wiz arecht that's fin he saw fit I'd found but he jist smiled an tellt ma tae leave them an get the bunting. (Later on I fun oot that he'd been a prisoner wi the Japs so maybe that's why he smiled fin he'd seen the look on my face?) Onywye I dragged aa the bunting oot an atween me, the janny an the teacher we managed tae uncoil athing. Then athing wiz shut doon an me an the janny teen the coils ootside an shook the styowe aff. I wiz covered fae heed tae fit and the teacher dusted me aff wi some paper tools an sent me back tae ma class. My ain teacher jist glowered at ma throwe lowered broos as usual nae doot takin in the styowie sotter I wiz in but I wisna carin ava the only theng in my mind wiz the soup plate tin hats an the Lee Enfield rifles. I nivver tellt onybody aboot my find but keepit that een tae masel an jist fantasised aboot gettin ma haans on them. Then months later I'd a manna fae Heaven moment that came in the shape o the very teacher that I'd gotten the bunting for. She wiz lookin for fowk tae jyne her new drama class so at thes I jist started my usual shuttin doon process at the very thocht o drama. That wiz until she said the drama class wid be held in the room aneth the music room. The very room that held the tin hats an rifles!! I stoppit mid closin my waterticht doors an shot ma haan up an volunteered on the spot. My ain teacher near wint in a dwam an my mates near fell aff their seats at thes een. Onywye at thes a couple mair pupils volunteered ana. The Drama class wiz tae be held ilka Thursday efter skweel so the drama teacher gave us notes tae oor parents. My mither an father seemed pleased enough that their feel son hid jyned something at last.
The ferst necht we were teen intae the Drama room I checked the wee treasure door but het wiz shut but I could see recht awa that the room hid been cleaned wi the fesh boxes made intae a wee stage wi twa timmer seats on tap in the center o the room. The teacher wiz young compared wi aa the rest o the teachers and hid a spark in her ee as she tellt us aboot actin. Noo afore I gang ony faarer wi the story an in the months since I'd been last in here gettin the bunting I'd seen a film caa'd 'Ice Cold in Alex' I dinna ken if ye've seen it but John Mills and Anthony Quail end up crossin a Jerry minefield as they waakit in front o an ambulance checkin for mines. Onywye it ends up wi Anthony Quail pittin his fit on a mine wi an ominous 'CLICK'. Noo I mind on my faither sayin as we watched the film that that wiz him a deed man. Accordin tae ma faither the ferst click wiz the mine bein armed an as seen as he teen his wecht aff the mine wid explode. Noo John Mills wint doon wi his bayonet an prodded roon aboot the mine while Anthony Quail steed stock stell wi the sywte o terror rinnin doon his face. He wiz a deed man an fine did he ken it. Then John Mills pulled the mine oot an threw it aside sayin it wiz only an teem upside' doon bean tin. The reason I'm tellin ye thes is because aa my adventures that follae on fae here are linked tae that one shot in the film.
Onywye the young teacher wiz really enthusiastic aboot drama an ilka time we'd gang she'd hae us deein various thengs. Some actually interestin like if yer in a group an yer in the background an ye'd tae mackie-on yer spikkin ye jist say 'A little bit o butter, a little bit o butter aneth yer breath an mak the required motions as if yer actually haein a conversation wi the person or persons in front o ye. Wiz quite impressed wi that een. The only problem though wiz the tin hats nor rifles ivver made an appearance only bein stuff aboot some lad caa'd Yorick that he kent or something like at an puckles aboot once more intae the breach. The Kingie an Queenie sat on the mock stage an we the plebes were taught foo tae grovel in their majestic presence. Didna like at bit in the least. The only 'on my knees' bit I wiz gan tae dee wiz fan I got my tin hat an Lee Enfield an use my bayonet tae get the mine fae ablow my mate's fit.
We live in hope or so they say an ilka Thursday on enterin the drama room my een snappit tae the recht tae see if the wee door wiz open an the rifles an tin hats ready an wytin for me tae show abody foo thes actin cairry on is deen. (John Mills greet yer een oot!) But na na 'Alas poor Yorick!' an 'Breach' eence again. Noo though the teacher hid an aal fitbaa made tae look like a skull an the Royals an lairdies wore cloaks made oot o blackoot blinds. As time gid on I got mair an mair bored wi thes till ae necht we the plebeians actin as servants hid tae waak aboot cairryin aal tin trays o mackie-on mait servin oor betters. I stell get cringe factor ten at thes memory. For some reason I stell canna explain I waakit inaboot tae the fish box stage an started servin them oot o ma tray wi custard pies fair in the physog. Abody wiz millin aboot grovelin an bowin at thes pynt until the teacher shouted for abody tae "STOP!" Abody did thes an there wiz total silence apart fae some fidgitin. The teacher said in an angry voice "Some of us are not taking this seriously?" I kent in that instant that I'd become 'US' an wiz transported intae the plural an seconds later her een tracked roon the room an landed on muggins now 'US'. Her angry eyes were tae me like lookin up the twa barrels o 15 inch cruiser guns and I kent in that instant I wiz gan tae be blasted worse than ivver staanin on a mine in the Libyan desert could dee. But the only theng that did happen wiz her pyntin tae the door sayin loudly "Go away!" So I did. An wi ma heedy fair hingin I left as ordered. Some sniggers follaet ma oot the door. The heedy wisna hingin because I wiz shamed in front o fowk but because I'd nivver noo get ma haans on the tin hats an Lee Enfields. An ken thes I nivver did! An that stell rankles even efter mair than fifty five years.
Story tellt by The Mannie Fae Unco
We have this little group. You might call it a drama group. You might call it an activity group. You might call it therapy. I don’t like the word therapy. It suggests (to me) that there is something wrong. I know some people don’t see therapy like that, but believe me, I’m keen for people to do drama, not drama ‘therapy’. Sure, I know drama can be therapeutic, but for me it’s about being creative, about being alive, about self expression. And above all, about communication.
Heather is in the ‘group’. When I tell you that Heather is a wheelchair user who has incredibly limited movement you may instantly start labelling her. Paraplegic? Quadriplegic? Oh no, it’s much worse than that (someone might whisper to you). Heather’s ‘not all there’. What? What do you mean ‘not all there?’ Whenever I meet Heather and hold her hand (as I do frequently in this group setting) she is certainly all there. She’s not a ghost. She’s real. Visceral. With (I imagine) hopes and dreams and likes and dislikes just like you and me. The only difference is she can’t convey them easily. Which means that she’s stuck with the label of ‘learning disability’. Actually, it’s worse than that. Her label is ‘profound and multiple disabilities’. That means A LOT. We are not using the word profound in terms of ‘intellectual depth’ here (though sometimes I wonder if we might not be better to use it that way and try to plumb the depths to understand rather than to be so quick to label).
Well, the practicalities of this situation mean that for one hour a week Heather and I sit in a circle with a few others – usually between four and eight – and play drama games. Not for therapy. For fun. It’s not even fun therapy. But it is usually fun. I think there’s more to it than fun though. I think it’s about communication. Not communication therapy you understand. Just communication.
Now you may wonder how it can be that Heather can communicate in such a setting. I’ll admit it’s not easy. For any of us. The first problem we face is making sure Heather actually gets wheeled into the group. I am still raging about what happened this morning. That’s why I’m writing this piece. It’s my way of communicating something I find unacceptable. Something I have limited control to do anything about. I’m luckier than Heather. I have ways of communicating, even if people don’t listen to me any more than they do to her. What happened this morning was that Heather wasn’t at the group as we were about to start. Sharp at 10 am. I asked where she was. There was a bit of shuffling and lack of eye contact and eventually I found out that she was ‘still on the bus’. The bus in question is known as the ‘blue’ bus. It’s the one which goes round picking up all the people with learning disabilities who come to the activity centre each day. Why is Heather stuck on the bus? Because the ramp which takes her wheelchair down to ground level had stuck.
I’m glad I asked; because when I did, and okay, maybe I made a bit of a fuss, I discovered that the ‘plan’ such as it was, was to leave Heather on the bus till the end of the day. Okay they’d come and feed her and presumably change her pads or whatever ‘personal’ care she requires, but hey, the plan was just to leave her there. Because it was broken.
Because she was broken? Who else would be left on a bus for eight hours simply because a piece of machinery was stuffed and no one could be bothered to get someone to fix it. I know people get left on trolleys in hospitals for hours on end and maybe, maybe you do think I’m over-reacting here, but I’m sorry, I think it’s profoundly and multiply iniquitous that someone with limited communication and massive ‘needs’ is just going to be left on a bus like so much broken machinery. Not if I have anything to do with it.
I don’t like conflict. I don’t like making a fuss. I don’t like to complain if I get poor service. But sometimes I realise that you have to stand up for what is right. So I did. I made my feelings fairly clearly known. Well, actually I just suggested we might either a) try to get the ramp fixed or b) carry her off the bus or c) we’d move the drama circle to the bus and do our session there. Doing nothing and leaving her on the bus was not one of the options I outlined.
I think it was the third comment that got them. They could see chaos that is our drama circle (which frightens a lot of them though they don’t admit it), moving from the circle out to the bus and that sounded a bit too out of control for the authorities to handle. So they did what I suggested second and managed to lift Heather out of the bus and then lift her chair out of the bus and it was a bit of hard work and some sweat and yes, possibly someone had to fill out a risk assessment form but you know what, in ten minutes Heather was back with the group, in her chair, in the drama circle, holding my hand.
Ready to play the game. The game Heather likes to play is Animal Noises. And since she’d had such a poor start to the day, it seemed only fair to start with that. You may think you see a problem here. Heather can’t make any recognisable noise. And she can hardly move. Note ‘hardly’. It’s all a question of how deeply you look. How profoundly you pay attention. Over time we have noticed that there is some movement. She can hold my hand. She doesn’t squeeze hard but she is doing the holding, it’s not me holding her. She can wave that hand about a bit, for a short time (when she’s not holding mine obviously) and she can stretch her neck and put out her tongue. With effort. Beyond that, like so many people with profound and multiple disabilities, she talks with her eyes. I’m still learning how to read eye-talk, it’s not that easy, but believe me, it can be done. It just takes more effort. Well, you don’t just leave someone on the bus now do you? You don’t just ignore the only way they can communicate? You learn. You try. You go to where they are. If you can’t meet them half way, you go as far as it takes to meet them. Well, that’s what I do. That’s nothing other than common sense and common decency in my book.
So back to the game: animal noises. Colin goes first. He’s a tiger. He roars. Then Chris. He does a mean monkey. Then Bob who is a frog today ‘ribbit ribbit’. No, actually Bob is Kermit the frog so he gives us a rendition of ‘it’s not easy being green’. We are flexible in our interpretation of the rules of this game. Our game. Our rules. Yes, it may scare you, but I have to tell you, largely we make it up as we go along. That’s how life works isn’t it? That’s how our group works anyway. Steven is also in a chair with limited movement but he has one of these Augmented Communication Aids and he can push buttons with his finger and he chooses to be a dog and has a good bark noise on his ‘board’. Then we come to Heather. Heather is a giraffe. Being a giraffe means making no noise at all and just stretching your neck as far as you can and sticking out your tongue. Heather does that. She likes to do it. As much as you can smile with your neck stretched and your tongue out, she smiles. And she smiles with her eyes. Look profoundly enough and that’s easy to see.
So there we are. For one hour a week a group of ‘labelled’ people make their own rules and play their own game and have fun and there’s not a bit of therapy in sight. Heather has had a long journey this morning. From being isolated and stuck on the bus, she’s come into the group and taken her turn at playing ‘animal noises’. When it’s not her turn she holds my hand. When she likes someone else’s noise she does the smallest squeeze, or makes the smallest kind of squeak that she can do, with a lot of effort, if she’s really, really happy – like when Chris does his monkey noises and jumps round the circle like a monkey would do. Heather loves that. She loves to be taking part. I can read eye-talk enough to know that.
We’ve all come a long way in this one small hour. We are all learning to communicate with each other in more meaningful ways. And we are learning to watch each other’s backs as well. Colin tells me that if Heather gets left on the bus again he’s going to roar like a tiger till they let her off. Bob goes close to Heather and despite not liking eye contact, he makes it with her and says: ‘Heather, you are the best giraffe in the world,’ and she smiles with her eyes. I hold her hand. And we speak to each other with our eyes. I’m not telling you what we said. Some things are too private. But I can tell you, it isn’t therapy. It’s friendship.
A man was walking on a remote beach. He came across a girl cooking fish on an open fire. The fish smelt beautiful and he was overcome with desire to taste it. The girl, seeing his longing, offered him a bowl of the fish. It was moist and tender and quite unlike any fish he had ever tasted before, even though he had eaten at all the best restaurants and could afford all the most expensive dishes. When his bowl was empty he said to the girl, ‘I have never tasted fish like that before.’
She smiled and said nothing.
From that moment on, the man could think of nothing else but tasting the fish again. The next day he woke with an intense hunger. It was less a hunger of the belly than a hunger of the spirit. His hunger was for the fish, cooked by the girl over an open fire. He walked down to the beach and in the distance he saw the girl fishing. He stood and watched as she cast and played the large sea-rod. His anticipation grew along with her struggle, as she reeled the fish in. He watched her deftly gut and fillet the fish and place it on the fire to cook. His nostrils were filled once more with the delicious aroma. His whole body craved to taste the fish again.
He sat beside the girl as the fish cooked. ‘I would love to taste your fish again,’ he said. ‘What can I pay you for it?’
The girl smiled. ‘I do not pay the sea,’ she said and handed him a bowl of the freshly cooked fish.
Meal after meal the man came back to taste the wonderful fish, cooked over an open fire by the strangely beautiful girl who seemed to spend all her time fishing, cooking and tending her fire. No matter how many times he ate the fish, his hunger never abated and his thirst grew for understanding of the girl. He wanted to find a way to repay her, but he did not know how to.
One day as they ate their fish together he said, ‘Your fish is so delicious I am sure it would fetch the highest price at the markets and would grace the tables of all the fashionable restaurants throughout the world. If you caught twenty or thirty a day instead of two or three…’
‘Why would I want to catch twenty or thirty fish a day?’ she asked.
‘With the money that you made from catching the fish you could buy things to make your life easier,’ he continued.
The girl looked at the man and smiled.
‘Two or three fish a day,’ she said, ‘is all I need. You suggest I should spend all my days fishing. How would that make life easier?’
‘Ah,’ the man replied, ‘but with the money you made you could employ other people to catch the fish for you. You wouldn’t have to work. You could take it easy, enjoy life.’
‘And how should I enjoy life?’ she asked.
‘Money buys freedom,’ he said. ‘You could go to the city, travel, do whatever you wanted.’
She smiled. ‘Eat fish at one of your expensive restaurants?’
The man felt that she was laughing at him. He was trying to help her and she did not seem to appreciate his advice. He looked at her, saddened. Then he noticed that her face had lost its smile and had become serious.
‘So your advice is that I catch more fish, make money by selling the fish, with the money I make employ other people to do the fishing for me, leaving myself enough time to do whatever I want to with my life?’
‘Exactly,’ he replied. Finally, she had understood him.
‘But I do what I want now,’ she said. ‘I catch fish, I cook fish, I tend my fire. I can sit all day thinking, and all night looking at the stars. I do not have to bother with money or employees or profit, or whether I can afford to eat fish in a fancy restaurant. If I do all the things you say I will only end up where I already am. At best with more effort at worst less happy. What is the point of that?’
The man had no answer to her question. As he licked the rest of the fish from his fingers he realised that far from showing the girl a way that she could improve her life, she had perhaps shown him a way to improve his. He looked around the beach.
‘Let me stay here with you,’ he said. ‘Teach me to catch fish so that I too can sit by the fire and live as you do.’
The girl held silence for a time.
‘I catch fish, I cook fish and I eat fish,’ she said. ‘That is enough for me. But you crave fish, you dream of tasting fish, you want more and more and more. It is not the same. You would not be happy with this life.’
As she spoke, the aftertaste of the fish turned sour in the man’s mouth and he realised that she spoke the truth. As long as he stayed on the beach he would have an obsession, a craving which he could not fulfil. He would never be able to taste enough of the delicious fish and his life would become more and more miserable. He realised that the only thing for him to do was to leave the beach, leave the girl and never taste the fish again. He stood up, sad but somewhat wiser.
‘Think of me when you eat fish in one of your fancy restaurants,’ the girl said.
‘I will never eat fish in a restaurant again,’ he replied. ‘But I will think of you all the same.’
The man left the beach and only when the fire was a speck in the distance did he turn round to allow himself a last look at the girl with the perfect life.