He looked as if he were drowning in them, and I can recall that he was adept even at that age at the winning and engaging smile, a talent he never lost. He needed it. Mum was a single parent with a history of dependency that never prevented her from turning out Ian to the best of her often limited circumstances. But it would be foolish to try to deny that to outward appearances Ian had a number of strikes going against him.
Learning did not come easily. It soon became clear that this was going to be an uphill struggle for Ian, a war of attrition. In those days, long before the panacea of early intervention came on the market, every possible managerial ploy and device was used to provide the kind of learning support we felt he needed. When the scrawls and squiggles finally coalesced into recognisable letters, and it became clear that what was on the page was not a number plucked from the ether, but was the result of bonding two other numbers, there was rejoicing in the class and staffroom.
There are children like that. They don't make a play for teachers' affections and they may not have much going for them, yet in spite of being the curricular and organisational burr under the saddle of the class, their willingness to try to keep on coming to terms with "learning" creates an affection for them, one that lasts the whole way through their schooling, and spurs teachers on to even more tiring efforts to build on what has been laboriously founded.
So it was with wee Ian. Of course, he had lapses as he charted his uneven course up the school ladder. After holiday periods, he often gave the impression that he had forgotten everything that he had ever learnt, and required longer and longer injections of support to bring him back to scratch and up to speed.
It became clear that Ian's educational needs required something in addition to what we were struggling to supply. Eventually the question of a record of needs arose, and after long discussions with mum, the procedures for that went through. Clearly Ian needed the smaller numbers and one-to-one that a special needs school can provide, and after a long period he got his place in one. He moved from us last year. I heard recently that mum had died suddenly and that Ian had been the first to find her.
To the outside eye, this account of late 20th-century life in a deprived urban area is just another failure story from a sink estate of broken lives. Such a snap dismissal fails to take into account a whole lot of features that are not immediately obvious.
I can recall Ian's first holy communion to which mum sent him immaculately dressed, with his hair plastered down with God knows what and a razor-sharp parting. What struck me clearly was the family solidarity that stood out like a sore thumb at the celebration. Ian's gran was the queen of a matriarchally ruled hive, and the warmth that existed among family members was clear to see. What struck me then was the strength of the family structure in which he was clearly an important element and which gave him and mum such support.
Biblical scholars grapple with interpreting the expression "poor in spirit". To outward appearances, Ian and mum were members of the lowly classes whose spirit is crushed by their need and by oppression in whatever form it comes. Sure they were street wise and at the same time street broken, yet they had a mutual respect and a family solidarity that people living in more prosperous areas might envy. Ian and mum were ships that pass, not in the night but in the light of day and their memory lingers on.