It’s a Sin — My “Special” School Days
We are told You are supposed to look back
on your school days with pleasure
Yet I remember them with so much pain
Ghosts of my past haunt my present
Threaten to ruin my future
So, I take this journey, revisit my past, put it down on paper
Exercise the spectres, so my spirits may rise
For me it is about putting my past to bed
So I can stride on free of the burden
For you it is about discovering the boy I was
Understanding the man, I went on to be
So you can help me become the best person I can
When Jack Nicholas, Clenton Farquharson, and me, Robert Punton, first came together in 2014 to form Community Navigator Services (CNS as we are collectively known now), we soon discovered that the best way to inform people about a situation was through telling a story, the best way to understand a situation is to hear the story. Individually, we are great at telling stories in our own unique way; when we work together, we are blooming brilliant. So, I decided to put that policy into practice and attempt my most ambitious project: a journal of my journey through my days of Special Education. Little did I realise when I started it would grow into something we now need to serialise into separate chapters which we will publish over six weeks.
I need to say some thank you’s before we finish here. Firstly, Jack who has virtually held my hand throughout this written venture into my past, cajoling and encouraging when I seemed resistant to go on and reining me in when I went off on flights of fancy. Clenton pitched in by reading first draft and suggested ways of presenting it to you the reader.
Now we come to those with whom I shared the first draft and they suggested additions from their own perspective, which resulted in it growing from 7,000 words to 11,000 words. Joy Fenwick, Karen Gillie, John Ian Haley, and Paul Hodgson, who features a lot in this piece — a big thank you to one and all.
Finally, at CNS, we like to engage with people, hopefully educate and entertain them along the way; we hope this does all three. It just leaves me to say ENJOY!
23rd February 2021
Chapter 1: Shipbuilding
If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea. ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
When I look back, reflect upon my life, I often see it as being two separate, very different periods. The first 25 years of my life being controlled and smothered by the Spastics Society (Scope), The second was when I escaped their confines, moved into the main society, discovered, and became involved in the Disabled People’s movement, which helped me flourish and bloom. I would like to say that it was two different people, but honesty will not allow me to get away with that; I am the same person just drastically changed.
This article is a personal exploration, explanation, and a touch of confession.
I have subtitled this “It’s a Sin” because it is a sin how we are/were treated by others, how we did/do treat ourselves. Which some might rightly say is a greater sin!
I could have titled this blog “The Sound of Silence”, as I have placed a wall of silence around that time; I feel society has too. Well, I have blown away that wall of mine here. Maybe it is time for society to do the same.
So, if you’re ready, strap yourself in, it is going to be a journey on rocky roads, a voyage on choppy seas.
This blog-cum-essay is like my life, I know the very beginning, I know the very end, it is how I get from the start to the finish which is the mystery. So, I invite you the reader to join me the writer; together we will discover the journey and fill out the pathways of this map.
Historically, the disabled have faced horrors and terrors yet look for reference of it in any history books and there will be little or nothing to be found. From infant-impaired babies left to starve to death in their cots in a Boston hospital in the early years of the 20th century to horrors done during Akton 4 upon disabled people by Nazi Germany. From housing us in institutions far from civilisation to denying us the basic human rights of intimacy and physical love. These atrocities go on and no one ever seemed to bat an eyelid. His-stories and her-stories such as these seem to be like “gravy stains on your top” easily sponged away and instantly forgotten.
The story of my young life may seem a cake walk by comparison, but I still think it deserves telling. For it mirrors million who have survived “special education”.
As Jack says in his preparatory notes, this is a very private personal story. One so pointed and personal that it has taken me almost 40 years to prise open the lid on this chapter of my life and tentatively take timid glance inside.
Interesting sidebar: I first approached Jack to help me bring this out into the light for an airing on 22nd December 2020, it has taken until today 14th January 2021 to open our first notes and begin writing. This shows my personal trepidation over this piece.
Before I venture further there are two things, I wish to make clear from the onset:
- This story is my story. It is not meant as a judgement on special education especially modern-day special ed. provision.
- This is very much a personal odyssey and although I have a strong understanding of its direction of travel and destination, it may take me on vast detours. So, I ask you the patient reader to bear with me.
Although this is a tale of, from, my childhood, events of 2020 some half a century later has brought the memories long locked away drifting to the surface. They were brought into the light by events following the pandemic lock down, after ten months of not being able to set foot or wheel outside my back yard into the community, sending my mind back to another time, another place of similar restrictions.
Well, that is enough of the aperitif, let us get down to the main course of this particular meal, the meat eaters will say the meat and two veg the vegetarians just the nut roast, the vegan a mushroom wellington. Let us just hope it is not too dry to swallow.
Let me take you to different place a different time. In the life of my planet, it is merely a blink of an eye to little me it seems a lifetime away. In fact, it seems a different life — I sometimes need to pinch myself to remind me it happened to the same person writing this down.
To call this a chapter of my life is simplification, it is several chapters rolled into one. How can one chapter cover three decades?
This is a story which begins in the last year of the swinging sixties. Imagine 1969, the year Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin were making that first lunar walk, one small step… and all that malarkey. A small redhaired boy of five in a wheelchair two sizes too big was being wheeled into oblivion, for that is what it felt for this tiny tiddler.
I know that I may be coming over as melodramatic. But you need to put this in context: at this time, parents were advised to put their children into the care of “charities” such as ‘the Spastics Society’ (Scope) and go and live own their lives, forget their children ever existed, and no-one thought there was anything wrong with that.
I have spoken to a lot of people who have gone through these places who have not just survived but thrived, gone on to achieve Better Lives. They/we have one thing in common: when their parents received their “no expectations” from the medical professionals, they all ignored those remarks, they built into their children a spirit of ambition and determination that took us/them to our goals throughout our lives.
For me, it become part of a family myth. When my parents were given that speech, my father is rumoured to have said “nonsense it is not rocket science and I should know I am a rocket engineer” which he was. Whether true or not, it makes a good story and true to his word my parents supported me, encouraged me to look up beyond my horizons not down at the pavement before my feet. Don’t let them lock you away in the home of the setting sun, reach every day for the house of the rising sun.
They continued to do this for the rest of their lives, even no they are no longer physically with me, their spirit still drives me on.
You must remember this was only 25 years after the Nazis in Germany enacted the horrors of ‘Akton 4’ where disabled people were poisoned, put to death and they called it mercy killing. This is where the phrase “useless eaters” was born a phrase that can be still seen and heard in certain circles today.
There I go, taking you off on a tangent. I warned you this would happen. I am going off piste, yes off piste not going off half pissed. So back we go to my school days.#socialChange #SpecialEducation #Robert