It’s a Sin — My “Special” School Days
New to this story? Start here with chapter one
Chapter 6: Sighting New Lands
Do not think that just because you cannot walk, are confined to a wheelchair does not mean you cannot ride roughshod over others deemed physically more able. It is a dog-eat-dog world, inside those walls where were only the strongest rule.
I said earlier that the Spastics Society (Scope) took the motto of the Jesuits as their own. I would like to believe I have broken that rule. I am not the same person now that I was a boy. In fact, I am not the same person I was ten years ago, never mind forty-odd years ago.
So, I ask you: do not judge the man I am today for the actions of the boy I was.
After reading reviewing this journal of my journey through childhood and schoolhood it is amazing that so many of us not only survived but managed to thrive. Thrive as positive contributors to their communities and to society, thrive in their chosen fields of expertise, thrive as part of and head of their families. What we must acknowledge is that overall we thrive despite going to special schools not because we went to those dreadful places.
I would go as far as to suggest that we thrive to spite those institutions, we virtually stick our two fingers up at those who try to oppress us.
This brings me smoothly, if not somewhat belatedly, to mention Mr Paul Hodgson. You will have heard the saying “Brothers from a different mother”, well that sums up me and Paul only we are Brothers with the same Housemother.
We first came into each other’s orbit in 1970. I was six, he was five, and we were put into Miss Elsie’s family and a friendship-cum-relationship was formed that got us through school and continues to this day. I don’t think either of us would have made the most of our lives without the support of the other.
Paul is Darlington through and through. He would never leave his beloved football club. He still lives in the same house that he shared with his mother. But his fame has transcended that house.
Not only has he held down a job in Darlington Council since leaving school. He is an author having had his book “Flippers Side” published in 2000. In 2012 he formed his own film company GTW Production Ltd with childhood friend Ian Carter and film director and actor Sean Cronin; their first film Unfortunate Woman (2013) won an award at the Mosaic Film Festival.
And then in 2021, he published his autobiography Give Them Wings based on the film. See my review of his book for links to the book and his web site.
We are not blood brothers but even if we were, I could not have been prouder of him.
We often said we would love to write a screenplay about our school days, but we doubted anyone would believe us. Who knows maybe this blog could be the catalyst that makes it happen.
When I showed Paul a draft of this, he reminded me of an incident that I think needs telling here. When we were 16, we were sent to see a Careers Officer. It was obvious from the outset that he thought he was waiting his time; after all, boys with such severe disabilities (their words) were destined to end up in the day centre across the road. We both quickly realised he was never going to help us achieve anything more. So, I told him I wanted to be a fireman and Paul opted for an astronaut and we were thrown out with a flea in our ears.
We both agreed on our call recently we would love to meet him now and give him the finger, say to him, look what we have achieved careers, homes and meaningful loving relationships.
You may beat us bruise us, but you will never break us.
I spent a few visits to the Headmaster Mr Johnstone’s office known by all as visiting the green carpet.
One visit stands out though above all. That was when he sent me on work experience across the road to the day centre, where severely disabled people to use their language, people with high support needs to use our language, went straight from classroom to workshop.
Every Friday I would spend mind-numbing time putting toothbrushes and toothpaste into bigger boxes. Needless to say I was f-ing useless at this and more toothbrushes went down my chair. Which meant for years my family and neighbours never went short of dental hygiene equipment.
After a few months of this, he called me into his office and and asked me what I thought of life over there. I told him in no uncertain terms what I thought. Sitting back expecting a telling off, I was surprised and somewhat unnerved when he just smiled. Then the bombshell was delivered. He said “Rob, exactly and if you do not pull your finger out that is your future.” That had a shocking affect on me and I did pull my finger out, as I was determined that was not going to be my existence.
So even though I had little or no education from that place, that is a lesson I will forever be grateful to be taught.
Another thing I picked up from Mr. Johnstone was my addiction to cigars. He used to send me to the newsagents with a note for his Hamlet cigars, we doctored said note and got an extra packet, they never cottoned on.
Our past does not determine our present and future, but it can shape and shade it from the shadows. We must not leave our past lingering in the back of our minds, but bring it out into the light. As individuals if we do not reflect on our past and present selves then as a collective how can we ever move forward to a brighter better future?
To improve the world, make a positive difference, you must first live in the world, to create a better life you must first experience the troubles and tribulations of life.
My life mirrors in some ways the life of many disabled people throughout history, it differs in only I achieved freedom. Many more did not and will not achieve that ultimate goal.
I and we fought for many years to escape the chains of institutional imprisonment, now we ask you to join and help us ensure we never return to those darkest of days .
The only box I want to be put in is the coffin they place me in when I am dead, the only label I’ll accept now is plaque on said same coffin and believe me when I say I am far from ready for either of them.
Chapter 7: Reefs and Rocks
I graduated in 1981, by that I mean screeched out of there like a Bat Out of Hell. The tyres of my ancient electric chair, (which resembled more a WW1 tank than a wheelchair) left burn marks on the exit of the building.
They had a school reunion on 13th July !985. You may wonder after all this time how I could possibly remember the date so clearly. Well, it was the day of Band-Aid and I was devastated to miss it all for such a callous waste of time.
It took me another 30 years to pass through those gates and go back. I would like to thank Sheila Coltman who helped me lay some of the ghosts to rest in 2015.
I enquired over some of those mentioned earlier in this journal. I learned that Mrs Moore had passed away, Mr O’Dowd had sadly died of cancer. Mrs Gunn had recently retired having spent many years doing her duty.
Mrs Miller, the fresh-faced physiotherapist who took me swimming, was still there and was retiring at the end of the term. We spent some time reminiscing. I don’t know if it was my addled memory or my overactive imagination but to my myopic ageing eyes, she appeared no different.
It became even more apparent that while we were trapped there for childhood the staff got life sentences. Saying that I imagine they have witness tremendous changes for the better over their years there.
Whilst I was there, I went to visit some old haunts. I also revisited the day centre: even in that place things had changed immeasurably for the better but I still give praise to Mr Johnstone for his intervention that day all those years ago.
So as the opening poem puts it so poetically, I hope this piece lets me put these childhood ghosts to bed and let them rest in peace.
When I first spoke to Jack about this just before Christmas, I thought 2,000 words should get it done weeks later it now numbers over 7,000 words.
This has taken me both three weeks and forty years to write.
Whilst writing this I have been watching on the History Channel programmes making the release of the Nazi concentration camps, and whilst I am not equating my experiences with the horrors faced by those exposed to the Holocaust. (that would be wrong on so many levels), we must remember that recalling our past is not just about ensuring we do not repeat our atrocities, it is about understanding our situations, understanding ourselves. I honestly think if we can do these things, then we can face whatever our present and future brings.
As I bring this to a close, I thank you for staying with me on this very personal journey, it is no longer private as I have shared it with you.
I hope this helps you face your past, so we can all look to our present and future together, whatever it throws at us.
I close with misquoting a quote from the Russell Crowe film Gladiator, “What we do in life echoes throughout eternity”
And, so to my closing poem as the curtain finally falls.
I was a boy, then a boxer, now I am a fighter
The Spastics Society (aka SS) turned me into a boxer
No not what you are thinking,
I have you foxed, not that kind of boxer
They put me in a room along with my peers
Told me taught me, to put toothbrush boxes together
Into bigger boxes, this I and we, did all day
They did not have robots for such mundane tasks
So they made defective Roberts do it
You see back in those days they thought people like me
Incapable of achieving anything creative or productive
Then one day something within me awoke
I realised I was better than that,
I could achieve more than that
It took a lot of strength, spirit, and courage
Support from my ally’s family and friends
To break free of the confines of that cardboard coffin
Now I spend most of my energy and time fighting for
Independence and a better life for me and people like me
Still alongside those same allies
To paraphrase the word of those great poets
Paul and Art, to pinch their artistry
The boxer has left the building, but
The fighter will forever remain
Until independence and better lives are gained
New to this story? Start here with chapter one
For another view of those school days, see Rob’s review of Paul Hodgson’s autobiography Give Them WingsPosted on June 18, 2021 #socialChange #SpecialEducation #Robert