What is the longest word? If you look this up on Google, you will be presented with a confusing mass of multi syllabled nonsense. At school I liked antidisestablishmentarianism. I still love that train station in Anglesey: Llanfairpwllgogerychwyndrobwlllantysiliogogogoch. (Phew, that took ages.) Well I just love Anglesey really. There is also a Maori word:
But let’s not go into that. The longest word is smiles. Why? Because there is a mile between the first and last letter. If you think beyond the pun, smiles go a long way for many reasons.
A lot of people smile at me. It’s usually when I’m tramping the usual mile up the road to the supermarket. Passers-by smile and people in the supermarket smile. It cheers me up. It makes the whole experience of setting up the travel wheelchair, manipulating it by means of my walking stick and joystick to put it into a position of convenience, hence reducing any walking distance, getting into my travel chair and subsequently manoeuvring my indoor chair for the same reason, doing the start stop procedure of getting out of the front door, rolling down to the Tramper, transferring onto the Tramper and storing the joystick of the chair in the front box, then realising I’d forgotten my extra special Waitrose bag for life and having to re-open the front door, shuffle the eternity of three meters to get the bag, finally get back onto the Tramper and start my journey.
You’d think I’d remember the bag in the first place. Brain fog be damned. When doing such a routine, my main concern is not falling over.
I fell over on Saturday morning. I had placed a nice big fat juicy cup of tea onto the side-table and attempted to sit down on the sofa. My left knee collapsed with its usual spontaneity. The para-medics eventually arrived, I had a numb bum but they smiled. Then they hoiked me back into the chair and we had a conversation about the Rock Choir. One of them made me another cup of tea as my original was sitting all sad, out of reach, feeling the onset of cold and neglect. (Yes, I actually feel sorry for cups on tea.)
On my trips to the supermarket I feel a similar sort of warmth. At the checkout, I receive VIP treatment as someone will always pack my much forgotten bag and load it onto the Tramper for me. But why do people smile? Do they admire me for my super-human courage? Are they desperate for someone like me to feel some sense of inclusion in the rat-race that is the weekly shop? Are they smiles of compassion or sympathy? (No they are not. I know those sort of smiles.)
I think a lot of people have real experience with others who might feel disadvantaged. Almost everyone I meet will know or be related to someone who has become burdened by some form of illness; a stroke, Parkinson’s or some nasty form of cancer. I know a lot of people who have experience of dementia; that day I sat with my mum at the doctor’s and he asked her who I was. She replied:
“I know his name begins with S.”
Dementia is the nastiest of all. It robs you of everything.
So I am glad to receive the smile of a stranger. They are not patronising, they are encouraging. They are giving me support because they understand how hard it can be if you are deprived of the ability to walk. And it is not just in my lovely little town on the hill. I have found this to be a national thing. I know that when I go out it will be a positive experience.
When I used to cycle everywhere in the early eighties, I always sang “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”. I received many strange looks for belting out this rather cheesy Sinatra standard. But now I refrain from that-unless it’s raining:
As I mosey on, saturated by the heaven’s offerings, I burst into the very same refrain. It brings more than smiles. And it still gives me a smile when I get home and have to pile into the shower and stick my clothes into the washing machine; plus doing the going out routine in reverse and putting the shopping away. The smiles linger.
Thank-you for reading.
Crowborough is my adopted home town. I’ve lived here for eighteen years. In the winter it can sometimes be a cold windswept unforgiving place. It is a town on a hill. With height comes extra special weather. It’s never not windy, there is an eclectic mix of rain and there is always the Crowborough Cloud. The Cloud is a frequent visitor, enshrouding the town in grey hazy mist. Sometimes it’s a wet cloud. You may be happy to go around in this cloud under the impression that you’re staying dry. Then you touch your head and realise it’s soaking. It’s just like the fine rain of the north.
But in the summer, it can be a glorious place. We are surrounded by fantastic countryside.
Then there are the little things. Firstly my town is a small town and people are mostly happy. I feel privileged to live here because I was lucky enough to have a job I loved with reasonable pay. But people are just so nice to me. I often go up to town on my super macho Tramper mobility scooter. Pedestrians say hello. Some even compliment me on my dashing steed. I make jokes about gridlock on Crowborough’s pavements and I can see it helps brighten up people’s mood. I wave to other scooter drivers.
I usually go up to town to shop in the local supermarket. Now that is full of little things. As I gently glide from aisle to aisle, I observe the other shoppers. At two o’clock in the afternoon, these people are not in a hurry. It’s not like the frantic frenzy of Sainsbury’s on a busy Saturday. People drift about looking a bit like Godfrey from Dad’s Army. Time does not matter. I can ask someone to pass me something from the top shelf. They are delighted to do it whilst we share an observation about gratitude and helpfulness. A passing shopper may comment about the contents of my basket balanced precariously on the front of my scooter. It always raises a smile.
Why are these people so nice? I think they are so pleased that someone like me who is obviously disabled can actually interact on a social and witty level. We have so much doom and gloom thrown at us; especially through local media, which portrays the disabled as serial moaners. But most cases are circumstantial. We can laugh at ourselves.
This afternoon, I was touched by people’s kindness. Those of us who are disabled wear badges. These are mostly badges of courage and patience. I think others are genuinely happy to see us just getting on and being happy. And the best little thing of today? Passing me on the pavement was a couple with their little boy being pushed up the hill in a toy car. I just said “cool” and the mum’s face lit up.
Thank-you for reading.
When I was about ten, my mum was taking my brothers and I to see our Uncle George. We were on a bus. It was a Ribble bus. Now if you were on a Ribble or a Crosville bus, your journey was extra special. You were going beyond the limits of your town or city. Indeed, we were going to Maghull. Uncle George lived with his family on Deyes Lane. Now out of the window, I saw a road sign. And it said “Deyes Lane”. I insisted that we should get off as we had arrived. But Mum remained passive. “It’s a long road,” she said in her usual matter-of-fact style. True enough, we waited a bit longer and alighted much nearer to my uncle’s cottage.
I’m thinking of this because my final road in teaching was by no means short. Five years ago, I had just taken on my new year six class.
It was not a smooth start. I needed some time off because of family trauma. When I went back, the class welcomed me with open arms. And what a class it was. It was considered to be a “difficult” class. All classes have their problems but this class seemed to have more than its fair share. But I’m not going to go on about it; it was another year of teaching and I was going to approach it with my usual mixture of discipline, demand and humour.
This was my twenty-second year of teaching and for each of those years, I had been fighting and often denying my increasing physical limitations. Admitting to weakness was out of the question. I had gone into teaching to work my socks off for the great cause of education. As the class teacher, I was king of the castle; a leader to encourage, drive and guide my troops through the jungle of emotions, triumphs and insecurities of the school year. For the year sixes, it’s ten percent of their young lives. So much happens in that time.
But I had a feeling of encroaching darkness. For years, I had been a blue sky thinker. The pride I had gained from consistently doing the teaching, year in year out, was being eroded by the truth. The truth? I had a chronic illness. You can’t hide from chronic illness.
Every day there would be bleak moments. I was running out of excuses. In the run-in to the end of the school day, we would be building up to a positive conclusion. I would be praising the day’s efforts and offering encouragement; today is over, we start afresh tomorrow. A list of jobs would be forming in my head. It would be a mixture of assessment and preparation. I would always be excited by the plans I had.
But as the years went on, I began to crave the peace. Once the children were out the door, I would sit with my head on the desk wondering how on earth I was going to get through the next two hours without the adrenaline hit of leading the class. I felt the clouds silently forming overhead. The limbs wound grow leaden. A searing heat would attack my legs. I would breathe slowly and deliberately, trying to come to terms with becoming a failure.
On any day of the final road, I had to ask for things to be done for me. Bring me some tea, can you pass me that file or can I have that pile of books. That pile of books represented a mountain of intellectual exactitude. I had to mark them. Not only that, I had to write constructive comments and refer to learning objectives. Learning objectives? I was struggling to read anything.
The blurred vision was becoming a problem. I was lucky to get home in one piece. We’ve all seen the special effects in films when the picture goes monochrome but the white becomes dazzling. That was my road ahead. So I had this growing sense of falling. My grip had gone. The effort to just present myself as a normal person was draining me.
As usual, the children were delightful. I have always been determined that the deviant children, despite the causes of their disaffection, would not dominate the class. I focused quietly on the hard workers. I would try to build their confidence and show them what was possible. Most of all, I would inject a regular dose of humour. But even smiling was exhausting.
The most common symptom of Multiple Sclerosis is fatigue. It’s the most common but still the least understood. People would look at me with suspicious disbelief.
Three times a year we had pupils’ progress reviews. The second one of the year was in April of the spring term. Usually, my teaching assistant would carry all my files to the head’s office for me. But on this day she’d been nabbed by a school trip. I managed to carry them to the main entrance. It’s like being wide awake but feeling part of you drift off to sleep. It was the three steps up that killed me. The files and everything else went all over the floor. I heard school life continue around me; the office business, a raised voice in the classroom or the encouragement of a PE lesson. But I felt alone. no-one was going to come to help. Why should they? They had business to do. I struggled down the corridor. And it’s now I can say that one person saw that I was struggling.
The rest of them were too busy with their own importance. They had questions to ask, data to analyse and notes to take. Who cared if I was struggling? Well one teacher did. After the ordeal of the kangaroo court, she helped returned my files back to the classroom. She knew. I still feel honoured by her compassion and understanding. All past differences were cast aside. Respect.
The rest of the school year was a struggle. It was a struggle to keep up the teacher’s face whilst I was being openly criticised and doubted. In truth, I had been deceiving myself. The endgame was fast upon me. After seeing them go on the last day, I staggered to the staff room. I looked round. I knew I wouldn’t be going back. thank-you for reading.