In the course of a long and peripatetic life I've had a great many different jobs which ranged from the humdrum to the frankly bizarre. None, however, stretched the boundaries of the last category so far as my stint as an Art teacher.
As some of you may know, my son developed severe Autism about the age of two, and when my wife and I moved to Wales he was enrolled in the local school for Children with what has come to be called 'Special Needs.'
At the time I was studying in the evenings for a long-delayed teaching certificate and we were required to do a certain number of hours doing what we used to call 'practice teaching': generally unpaid and experimental forays into the world of education. At the college where the course was held there was a department of Special Needs Learning, where some of the students in my son's school went after graduation. I had already made the acquaintance of the Head of the department in the course of inquiring about opportunities for my son when he became older, so when I applied for some practice sessions I was awarded a post teaching a new course titled ' Art and Communication.'
On the first day of the class I nervously awaited my first real pupils. I had a range of materials and media laid out, on the principle that letting the students choose what they wished to do would be an innovative approach.
On the hour, more or less, they all trooped in; that is, stumbled, were wheeled or more or less dragged in. Each student was accompanied by a Carer- one burly lady had two. The range of medical conditions baffled me, but they were, one and all, the sort of folks you don't look at directly in the street. None of them were verbal, and they stared up at me with a sort of wary hostility.
Communication therefore was obviously going to be a problem, but the Carers took care of that. Each one picked out a set of materials, and with a half-hearted attempt to interest their charges , began a project of their own. I was somewhat at a loss; moving around from one pupil to the next in the way I would later employ as a teacher of adult art students, I tried to make tactful suggestions as to the possibilities for using the materials creatively. The students glanced at me and I read confusion and resentment. The Carers treated me with the sort of amused condescension usually reserved for the social director at a summer resort.
The burly lady with the two Carers became angry and threw her materials across the room with a feral growl. The two no less burly Carers restrained her with the ease of long practice. A slim young lady stood up and began to remove her shirt, and was tactfully removed from the room by her Carer. The other students with what I can only describe as an air of desperation fiddled with the materials in front of them, as often as not pushing them from the table to the floor, whereupon the Carers would with indulgent smiles pick them up and replace them.
One gentleman who was minding a Spastic young man in a wheelchair took pity on me and explained that the entire class consisted of adults who had recently been discharged from a nearby Institution, now shut, where they had spent most of their lives. 'You see how they sit?' he pointed out the general posture, elbows close to the sides and hands held near the chest. 'In the Institution each of them had only eighteen inches of personal space on either side of their cot.' I looked with sympathy at the young Spastic and received a look of such concentrated venom that it made my blood run cold.
I determined to try to bring the students out of their stupor. If they had lived in such conditions, I reasoned, perhaps unrestrained movement and making a mess of the room would reach them. Accordingly I secured a large bag of scrap material from a factory that made dance costumes. The scraps were Lycra, brightly colored and elastic. I built a large, simple loom, and at the next class I managed to get the students all around several tables pushed together. Then I dumped the sack of craps in the middle and set up the loom. Knotting a number of scraps together produced a long elastic rope, and I set the carers to doing that.
The success of the lesson was mixed. We did manage to produce a strangely colored rag rug in the end, and most of the students seemed to enjoy pulling the rope through the weft and banging it down with the heddle. Some refused to participate, others seemed fascinated with the bright colors but in most I sensed a kind of gleeful rebellion at throwing the scraps around.
The revelation came as I was rushing from one end of the tables to the other and in my haste tripped, staggered, and nearly fell. The entire class erupted in a roar of laughter. It was the gleeful, malicious laughter of a gang of street urchins seeing a policeman slip on a banana peel.
In the years since, I've often thought about the incident. What, after all, were were we, the professionals, to them, the inmates? We gave the orders, restricted their movements, told them when to go to bed, when to get up, what to eat and what they would be doing with their days. More, we lived lives they could only look at from afar, we talked among ourselves in confident complicated language quite unlike the simple one syllable way we spoke to them, we came and went seemingly as we pleased. We were hated and resented in equal measure for precisely those reasons, I believe.
We know that our prison system does nothing to transform offenders into saints; quite the reverse is true as anyone who is even slightly familiar with conditions there can attest. Why then should it be any different for those imprisoned in their own minds, in their own bodies, surrounded at all times by a world they can never reach or really be a part of?