Frank Letch was born with no arms, but that didn't stop him from becoming a teacher, nor from driving a car, swimming, and playing tennis. Karen Gold meets him as he visits a primary school to demonstrate that disability does not mean inability
This is a potato peeler," announces Frank Letch, waving it, chest-high, between his toes. "Why did I choose this one?" Pupils at Morchard Bishop primary school in Devon make sensible suggestions: it has a square, non-slip handle. Frank delves his foot into the black holdall on the floor beside him, and produces a newspaper and a potato.
"This is one I grew myself," he says. Gripping the peeler in his right foot, he steadies the newspaper with his left heel, and the potato on it with his left toes. The peel falls from the potato swiftly. The right foot pops into the bag again, and emerges holding a knife. The children gasp.
"Why don't I cut my toes off?" he asks. He slices the potato, crisp and even - one set of toes round the knife handle, the other potato-clenching set curled away from its flashing blade - wraps the newspaper over the slices, knife, peeler and peelings, and deposits the lot into the bag.
If you didn't know it was assembly, you would think it was a circus.
Children are craning forward, eyes wide, mouths wider, their fingers inside them. "I did a job for many years; can you guess what it was?" Frank asks.
He has no arms. He's just sliced a potato with his feet. A boy calls out:
"You were a chef!"
In fact, Frank Letch was a teacher. After persuading Handsworth boys'
grammar in Birmingham to give him his first job - "The headmaster didn't want to interview me. I said, 'if you're a gentleman you'll let me prove I can do it'" - he taught French, Italian and Spanish, his lesson preparations foot-written on overhead projector acetates. He moved to other schools, rising to head of department. Then, in 1992, his wife died, leaving him to bring up their five children single-handed. As it were.
Mr Letch travelled to work on a three-wheeled bike, with a piece of pipe fixed to the handle, so he could put the 10-inch stump of his left arm inside it to steer. (He has no right arm at all.) At home he changed nappies and bred dogs for obedience trials. He learned to drive.
He tells his young audience about his own childhood. Five-year-old Frank, despite proving his toe-power by stealing biscuits out of his mother's shopping bag, was forced to wear prosthetic arms. School forbade him to sit on the floor or feed himself with his feet, but his mother encouraged him to write with his toes, leaving pencils and paper across the floor. And a brave aunt "let me loose in the kitchen and found I could do all kinds of things".
At 19 he dumped the prostheses. Without them, at 61, he plays tennis with a ball tossed from toe to shoulder and swiped with a racket held in his armpit, signs cheques, tucks in his shirt with a coat-hanger, does his buttons up with a button hook, cleans his teeth with a toothbrush in his toes. All of which he demonstrates, in visits to Rotary clubs and schools, on behalf of the limbless charity Reach.
Every year 100 babies are born in Britain with hands or arms missing. Reach supports them and their families, with advice, booklets for parents and teachers, and equipment, (for example, it loans one-handed recorders to primary schools). In particular, its representatives go to schools where a pupil has a missing limb, normalising the experience and offering a positive message.
Frank's aim is to demonstrate that disability does not mean inability. "I have fabulous strength in my toes. I do 100 sits-ups and 100 press-ups every day to keep my tummy muscular and my back strong. I have good balance. You have to practise. You have to learn to get along." His short talk lasts 15 minutes. Then questions, from Years 5 and 6. Can he dust? Carry the shopping? Do the splits? Play in goal? Below the excitement runs some tension. Staff wince at personal questions. "We did worry that the shock of seeing Frank might have a negative impact. We did prepare them,"
says their teacher, Beryl Piper. "Some of the girls were worried the boys might be rude," says Rhianna, 11. "Because they were putting their arms inside their clothes, taking the mick."
Passing the staffroom door, where Frank rests afterwards, a little boy looks in. "Are you the man with no arms?" he asks. "Yes," says Frank.
"Gosh," says the boy, "that must have hurt." "I was born without any,"
Frank replies. "So I'm used to it." Anxiety always hovers, he explains subsequently. "We like people to be normal. We try to make them as normal as we can. If I know a particular child is anxious I won't look directly at them. But what they come to is acceptance."
He sets off for the Years 5 and 6 classroom, where, socks and shoes discarded, 25 children are practising their signatures with their feet: "I say to children, 'if you have no hands but you can pick your nose with your foot, you're all right. Life's OK.'"
Reach speakers visit schools to raise disability awareness and money.
(Frank charges adult groups; schools often fundraise, for example towards the cost of one-handed recorders, which are imported from Japan and cost almost pound;250 each.) For more information, tel 0845 1306 225 or visit www.reach.org.uk. You can email Frank at firstname.lastname@example.org
'How do you clean out your ears?'
"What children really want to know is 'how do you wipe your bum?'," says Frank Letch. "Or 'how do you clean out your ears?'." But the Morchard Bishop children don't get this personal. Their first questions are concrete and problem-oriented. Can he drive? Yes, with an adapted car. Can he swim? Yes, and snorkel. Can he make a cup of tea?
As he rises to each challenge, they set more. The tone is playful and optimistic. Can he bowl in cricket? Can he carry a drink, a hammer, the shopping bags? (All yes, apart from the shopping: "I say to the Reach children: there are no problems, only solutions. The solution to carrying shopping bags is not to carry them. Someone else carries them for me.") "What's the hardest thing you've ever tried to do?" Changing the oil filter in the car took two hours and he'll never do it again, he tells them.
Opening the front door in the dark is hard, because toes and eyes are too far apart, so he can't see if the key is in the keyhole. He can read a book sitting up, using his stump to turn the pages, but not lying down in bed.
Some questions they ask because they want to see with their own eyes. "How do you put your jacket on?" says one. Frank demonstrates: teeth on the collar, stump in the sleeve, a flick round to the other shoulder. All done.
A whispered "wicked" spreads round the room.
Unlike some groups, they don't get intimate (though "How do you get dressed in the mornings?" causes a few raised adult eyebrows. "I put on my clothes," says Frank). Nor, unlike some groups, do they get more philosophical. They start with their own lives, with how they would manage.
"I have been asked, 'Do you wish you had arms?' I say no. Not now. Because if I had arms, would I be here talking to you? If some surgeon said, 'We can give you plastic arms', I'd say 'Don't bother. It's much more fun doing this.'"