'Old MacDonald' wasn't a favourite any more. It was a school myth that had grown up and we hadn't bothered to check if it was true

18th March 2005 at 00:00

Gemma Chinese whispers can be a dangerous game, especially if you have profound learning difficulties. I was in a senior class the other day, talking about one of the children to a new member of staff, and involving the child, Sidhra, in the conversation (we try not to talk about the children in front of them).

"Oh she loves singing, don't you, Sidhra?" I said blithely.

"And is your favourite song still `Old MacDonald'?" I looked at Sidhra for confirmation; a smile or a widening of the eyes, which usually means assent. Instead, Sidhra looked to the floor, expressionless. So "Old MacDonald" wasn't a favourite any more. I wondered how long it had been since she'd gone off it. Perhaps she hated it now, the way I hate Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights", although it was a favourite of mine for a year or more. I could see how it had happened. I imagined Sidhra as a five-year-old in nursery, sitting in the circle at singing time and clapping and smiling to "Old MacDonald". When she went up to infants the next year, I pictured her teacher wanting some information from the nursery team and asking what made her happy. "Oh Sidhra loves `Old MacDonald'," she'd have been told. "Sing that to her and she'll always cheer up."

And so the myth grew as she moved up through school. In juniors: "Children, we're doing a topic on animals. You should be happy, Sidhra, we'll be singing `Old MacDonald' all the time!" In seniors: "Let's decorate our folders. Jen, apparently Sidhra really likes `Old MacDonald'. Can you help her cut out some farm pictures to decorate her folder with?"

Poor Sidhra may have been seething inside, and screaming: "No, no, no!"

Even in those wonderful whole-school singing sessions, when guitars are played, shakers and bells handed around, and the old favourites are sung from "If You're Happy and You Know It" to "Do Your Ears Hang Low?", someone would always say: "And now a favourite of Sidhra." It was a school myth that had grown up and we hadn't bothered to check if it was true. I spoke to Sidhra's teacher later about how she expresses like and dislike, and asked her to work with Sid on different types of music and songs to ascertain which she likes best.

It's not just through the spoken word that messages can become corrupted.

Thanks to predictive text on my mobile, when I sent a message to my best friend Rachel to tell her, "Rache, met a neat chap today - Ian!", she received "Rabid, net a meat bias today - Ham!", which is why she now thinks I'm a spy and refuses to talk to me. And the spellchecker can be a curse as well as a blessing. A curse because I sent out letters to all of our parents referring to their children as having severe leaning difficulties, which wasn't picked up. And a blessing because when I sent my grumpy Auntie Flo, who was feeling a bit fed up, a recipe for lychees in syrup, the spellchecker helpfully translated it as leeches in syrup. It made Auntie Flo laugh all day. So much for technology.

I was taking a group of parents for a sign language taster session last week. They were very keen, copying my signs for "drink", "more", "biscuit", "toilet" and other essentials. I looked down at my notes, and must have been scratching my nose because as I looked up 30 parents were earnestly scratching their noses, although what they thought the sign was for, I don't know. It just goes to show, you have to be precise with language of all sorts or it will get you into trouble.

It was my birthday last week and I opened a present from my oldest, dearest friend. The Whole Story, a compilation of Kate Bush's hits. "I remembered how much you like her," she said. "Great!" I said enthusiastically, "I love it!" And so the myth goes on.

Maria Corby is deputy head of a special school for pupils with severe and multiple learning difficulties. She writes under a pseudonym

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