Longest day is over... for now

9th July 2004 at 01:00
Danny Smith revisits a marathon charity teaching stint.

I took my family to school recently. Not only three sons, but also a wife, a sister, two granddads, two grandmas, two aunties and a niece.

It was Friday, June 18, 2004, and time to deliver on the Longest Day project and my crazy notion of a 24-hour teaching marathon at Ryton comprehensive school on Tyneside.

In Friday magazine that day I had written a Talkback article which began by telling the teaching world my son Sam was dying, and I needed their help.

My son remains under mortal threat as a sufferer of Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), but the help has started to arrive. The Longest Day project has so far raised more than pound;38,000 to aid research into DMD, and thousands of teachers, pupils and members of the public have taken up the fight to find a treatment for this fatal muscle wasting disease.

Scientists in Newcastle upon Tyne, London and around the globe believe a life-saving therapy could be three to five years away and a cure could be found in the next decade - in time to save Sam's life. As Sam's dad, and as an English teacher, I am raising money and awareness to remove the modality from the situation: to make the "could" into a "will".

It was a simple idea. A week of lessons in a day. It worked brilliantly because every member of my other family - my school family - was up for it.

We had politics, followed by science, followed by PE and so on, into the night. With the help of some inspirational colleagues and the support of the pupils, we put on a show that included pastoral staff and parents, cleaners and caretakers, as well as a few well-known faces.

Local headlines proclaimed the generous support of footballer Peter Beardsley, rugby player Rob Andrew, Olympic athlete Jonathan Edwards and Alan Milburn MP, among others. But the real story is, perhaps, that the project somehow galvanised 1,400 staff and students, in the middle of the exam season, and reminded everyone involved just how much you learn at school that is not examined.

For a day at least, the Longest Day put citizenship into a real context for our students. Along with many people reading this article, I have just spent a significant portion of my waking hours completing reports. Our citizenship self-assessment sheet asks pupils to consider their progress in "using imagination to consider other people's experiences", then "taking part in school and community-based activities", and, of course, "reflecting on the process of participating". The pupils have certainly been reflecting. I've never had so many emails and cards, suggestions and requests, all saying we should do it all again. Soon. Ideally next week.

Not next week I'm afraid, but perhaps next year. My son will still be dying, and I'll still need your help. For now, I need a rest - don't we all by July? - but it has already been suggested that the Longest Day project, or some close relation, could be rolled out beyond the north-east in 2005.

We are putting together a DVD of the show, and will send it free of charge to any school interested in receiving a copy.

I know the help is out there because more than 50 schools have contributed with events of their own, because I have received cash, cheques, emails and telephone calls from TES readers across the land, and because we are teachers: we are committed to helping.

Pupils are committed to helping too; they have reminded me of that in the past couple of months in a way that I hope I never forget. I, like many teachers, have always tried to keep my home and school lives separate. It's orderly, organised, and typical teacher psyche. But on June 18, 2004, the lines were blurred, the barriers down, and the two communities in which I exist became one. It was an uplifting experience.

It remains to thank everyone who helped put on the show and who gave money to the fund. The pound;38,000 should not be viewed in isolation. It's more than just one chunk of money, one lump sum to hand over to scientists involved in DMD research.

I see it as 38,000 people giving pound;1. That represents an audience; that represents a support base; that means we have created a "profile" for the disease that is killing my son. That is help and I thank you all.

To follow the progress of the Longest Day project and future plans, enquire about a DVD of June 18 or to contact Danny Smith, log on to: www.thelongestday.co.uk.Danny Smith teaches English at Ryton comprehensive

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