After the gorillas

Anyone who works in a school will know that Christmas (out of necessity) comes incredibly early each year. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely rather Grinch-like in my approach to the festive season, and I really don’t enjoy being bombarded with (often rather alarming) statistics about the rapidly decreasing number of sleeps until a certain event! For me personally, Christmas begins once all of the end of term performances have been successfully completed, the parents have been reminded of the exceptional power of music to genuinely move them, and the children have experienced that tremendous sense of satisfaction gained from knowing that they have been part of something special.

Having entered the final stages of the Autumn Term once more, I found myself reminiscing about the run-up to Christmas some 17 years ago. 

I had just joined the staff as Director of Music, and I was ultimately keen to make my mark. I had put together an ambitious programme for the traditional service of Nine Lessons and Carols, organised a concert for our junior instrumentalists and (rather foolishly) decided that I could also fit in a performance of Herbert Chappell’s ‘The Christmas Jazz’ courtesy of our Year 3 pupils. Rookie error!

Well, the rehearsals had been something of a struggle (largely because I had grossly overestimated the ability of 7- and 8-year old children to commit large amounts of song lyrics to memory) and I found myself taking the dress rehearsal and genuinely wondering if we would make it safely from start to finish.

I had started by instructing the children that we needed to run through the whole work without stopping, and that they should be listening out for their cues, especially if they had a solo to perform. We had spoken (fairly exhaustively) about the need to learn their words (from the sheets which had been provided several weeks earlier) and to make sure that they knew where their part fitted in. Satisfied that we were all working to the same agenda, I took my place at the piano and looked up expectantly. Just as soon as most sets of eyes were looking in my direction (there’s always one, after all!) we began.

Everything started well. The young lady who was singing the opening solo did a fantastic job, and the rest of the year group joined in lustily for the first chorus. I began to relax. As we moved through some sizeable solos, all of the children seemed to have peaked at just the right time. I dared to hope that we were heading for chart topping success.

As we progressed through the performance, I sensed that we had company. Having furtively glanced behind me, I gleaned that the catering staff had emerged from the kitchens to listen and we had also been joined by the Headmaster. My desire for a smooth run instantly intensified.

With the cow, donkey, Mary and all three sheep having sailed through their respective solos it would soon all come down to the Wise Men. No less than 45 voices (potent in their sincerity) sang the ‘Gloria’ with gusto. And then… silence! Not a single Wise Man had sprung to his feet and, not for the first time that term, I began to wonder quite why I had entrusted such a crucial role to the three boys who (even now) seemed oblivious as to the reason why our dress rehearsal had spectacularly ground to a halt.  

Utterly incensed, I leapt to my feet. I glowered in the direction of the three boys and enquired (rather acerbically) as to why they weren’t singing their trio? With a look of absolute bewilderment, one of the boys responded: “Because it’s not our turn yet, Miss.” With a withering look, I asked when he thought it might be his turn – after all we were within a few bars of the grand finale…

He reached for his word sheet, referred to it quickly, and fixed me with a look of pure defiance:
“It says here that we sing after the gorillas, and they haven’t sung yet!” he stated. For once, I was speechless. Gorillas?? Certainly not a feature of any nativity scene that I had encountered!

As I summoned up the energy to point this out, the penny finally dropped… In actual fact, his word sheet bore the instruction that ‘the Wise Men sing immediately after the Gloria’ – with hindsight, possibly not the most helpful of directions for a 7-year old boy suffering from dyslexia! Feeling rather contrite, I went on to explain just where the misunderstanding had occurred (much to the amusement of the entire catering staff) and we tried that section again.

Thankfully, having cleared up any confusion, the performance later that week went well. However, when ‘Love Actually’ was released (just a couple of weeks later), I found myself chuckling about the much-coveted role of ‘1st lobster’ and thinking that a ‘Gorilla’ was perhaps not all that far-fetched after all!  

When the red mist descends

As the daughter of a GP who didn’t have much truck with diagnoses of an educational nature, I have perhaps inherited a little of his scepticism when it comes to identifying some of these traits in very young pupils. With children hitting key developmental milestones at such varying rates, it is often all too easy to reach for a ‘label’ prematurely, in the hope of seeking justification for slightly unorthodox behaviours. An area that has fascinated me for quite some time though, is that of Asperger’s Syndrome – although here too, of course, there are wildly varying degrees of severity.

Over the years, I have had the immense privilege of being a part of the educational journey of a great many children and it is fair to say that some of the most remarkable personalities that I have encountered have been part of this particular cohort. Indeed, today’s reminiscence is centred around one such pupil – a young lad that made a huge impression on me, at a time when I was still very much ‘learning my trade’ and (dare I say it) perhaps rather too quick to judge!

‘X’ had joined the school that term, and he was one of the few children who seemed to understand my particularly dry brand of humour. He would regularly give the impression that he wasn’t really paying all that much attention to what I was saying and then, seemingly out of nowhere, he would give a wry smile and respond with some crushingly insightful response. I warmed to him immediately.

We were approaching the end of November and Christmas was beginning to loom large.  Cue the big announcement regarding my choice of musical for Year 3: ‘Stable Manners’ by Mark & Helen Johnson. I did the usual introduction (stopping just short of an actual drumroll or fanfare) explaining that we would be retelling the Christmas story – but through humour, and no less than 10 catchy songs! Full of enthusiasm, I started to teach the opening number straight away.

Well, ‘X’ wasn’t a fan of singing, and he clearly thought that the story of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus was terribly passé. He yawned rather conspicuously and stated that the first song was ‘boring’. Now ordinarily, I would have been livid at such a damming appraisal (and from a 7-year-old too!) but I saw an opportunity to regain the upper hand… I smugly responded that “it might be boring if the song was called ‘Nothing is happening tonight’ but the fact that it was in fact entitled ‘Something is happening tonight’ meant that it was anything BUT boring” – or words to that effect. But, far from being chastened by this professorial flexing of muscles, ‘X’ simply looked at me (with palpable disdain) and muttered that “everything is relative”. I was torn between exasperation and a grudging respect; this boy certainly had guts!

Well, a few more weeks went by, and I was just leaving school for the day when I heard quite a commotion coming from one of the Year 3 classrooms, on the floor above. The noise seemed to be emerging from the classroom of an extremely experienced teacher, and that is possibly what piqued my interest enough for me to make a small detour…

I mounted the stairs as quickly as I could and headed in the direction of the rapidly escalating sound of various learning resources being hurled angrily across the room. On arrival, I was met with the (rather extraordinary) sight of my colleague standing in the doorway (quite literally spellbound) whilst ‘X’ proceeded to fling as many items as he could at anyone foolish enough to try and enter. The other children in the after-school activity had already been moved to an adjacent classroom, in an attempt to minimise any distress that this outburst might cause.

I quickly went to intervene, but something told me that my hitherto default setting of ‘yell first, question later’ might not be the best way forward. If I’m honest, I also suspected that my colleague had possibly already used this approach, hence the red mist that had evidently descended!  So, rather uncharacteristically, I got down to ‘X’s level and, gently taking his hands (and a large amount of Lego bricks) in mine, I asked him if he could tell me what had made him so angry.

After much gnashing of teeth, very little eye contact and something bordering upon hyperventilation, ‘X’ began to respond. His eyes still welling up with tears, he asked me: “When someone says that it’s time to put everything away, does that mean that you have to take the Lego model (that you have spent absolutely ages building) completely apart?”.

And that is when the penny dropped.

For you or me (and indeed the vast majority of the other children present) my colleague’s instructions would have been abundantly clear. In order to put the Lego away neatly (in the two large drawers that had been assigned to this) it was fairly obvious that the 3ft model that ‘X’ had painstakingly created, would need to be more or less dismantled first. However, to ‘X’, this was not the instruction that he had been given and to his mind, therefore, it was totally unacceptable that one of his peers had taken it upon himself to start ‘destroying’ his masterpiece in an attempt to speed up the tidying process.

I often wonder if this particular trait is one of the most debilitating aspects of Asperger’s Syndrome. Admittedly, the list of signs and symptoms doesn’t make for easy reading – with ‘lack of social awareness’, ‘difficulty making and sustaining friendships’ and ‘a failure to respect interpersonal boundaries’ all making the headlines. However, in a world where we rely so heavily upon the ability to ‘infer the thoughts, feelings or emotions of others’ a tendency to take things quite literally must be an absolute minefield to circumnavigate. However, whatever ‘X’ lacked (in relation to the understanding and processing of language), he more than made up for in intellect and wit. He had a tremendous personality and I still remember him with great fondness; he certainly knew how to keep me firmly ‘on my toes’.