In forty odd years of teaching I have come across a few kids with what have been called disabilities. But before I started teaching I was taught.
In my late teens my mother was badly injured in a car accident. She could walk with a four pronged stick, she could stand in the kitchen all day and cook meals and she could inspire people. I’ll talk more about my mother at some later stage. But she taught me to be blind. I was blind to her inability to walk and run and drive a car very quickly or ride a horse very dangerously or leap into a tree to escape a threatening huge male kangaroo. These were things she could do before but no longer. It was her inability that I was blind to. I could still see that she had all the powers in her head and her heart but she just didn’t have the physical ability any more.
So when I started teaching I wasn’t all that sympathetic to students who had a disability. I treated them much as I treated my mother. If my mother was making me a cup of coffee, for example, on a Sunday morning when I was feeling a bit seedy after a late Saturday and she chanced to stumble and fall I would help her to stand again and let her continue to make my coffee.
I remember when I was teaching in the early years I had a student who walked with those elbow crutches. He would hang his school bag on one of the crutch handles and stagger around the school disrupting his classmates by taking up too much room in corridors and by taking up too much time climbing stairs. But most of all he would annoy me by arriving at my classroom about five minutes after the class had started.
The class would begin. I would have marked the roll, collected the homework and introduced the lesson topic.
And then the door would fling open. Tony would take his bag from the handle of his crutch and start swinging it like a pendulum and then, having developed a certain amount of momentum, he would let go of the bag and it would hurtle across the room and land with a crash. He would then make his last gallant ascent of the step into the room and stagger to his desk.
This went on for a few weeks but one day I decided to change things. I had talked to mum about the matter and she had given me a few things to think about so when Tony arrived I decided that enough was enough.
“Tony,” I said with not a little anger and annoyance, “I’ve had enough of you coming late to class and interrupting by hurling your bag at my feet. Any other boy who was late so often would have been on detention well before now. So I am putting you on detention for being late.”
Standing up with all the dignity he could muster and a hell of a lot more anger in his voice than I had in mine, he said, “Can’t you see I can’t walk properly. It takes me longer to get to class than all the others. It’s not fair.”
“You’re right Tony. It’s not fair. It is also not fair on all the other boys in the class who are disrupted every morning when we are getting started with lessons.”
“But it’s not my fault.”
“Yes it is. Not being able to walk properly isn’t your fault but coming to class late and crashing through the door is your fault.”
“But it takes five minutes extra for me to get here.”
“Then leave five minutes earlier. I won’t put you on detention this time but I will from now on.”
The next morning, there was a knock on the door and a lady from the office handed me a note. The Headmaster wanted to see me in his office at the end of the lesson. A parent was with him.
I went to the front office. The Headmaster came out of his room and said, “I have Tony’s mother with me. I believe you have threatened her son with a detention for being late and you don’t appear to have taken into account his disability.”
This was my first confrontation with an angry parent. Until then things had been plain sailing. My heart started to beat a little faster and my kneecaps, of all things, began shaking violently. I walked in. The Headmaster introduced me to a most formidable looking women. She was about an inch taller than me and the heavy fur coat she wore added to her size.
She stood and held out her hand. I stepped forward to shake her hand, but she grabbed mine and dragged me into a most powerful hug.
“I am so glad to meet you”, she said. “You are the first teacher Tony has ever had who treated him as a normal, ordinary boy. Thank you so much.”
She released me and turned to the Headmaster. I turned as well to see the Head with a gentle smile on his face. And my kneecaps stopped shaking.
Tony went on to university and some years later I was invited to witness his admission to the Bar of the Supreme Court of Victoria. He had thrown away his crutches and was now in a wheel chair. But he was very proud and so was his mother. And she hugged me again.