Remembrances of happy days with hedgehogs and a girl in pink
I arrive on supply at a brand-new, purpose-built school for children with physical and mental special needs. It is set in several acres of South Wales countryside and has its own specially heated pool for hydrotherapy. It is my first time teaching in such an institution.
At 8.50am Mr Blackstock, the headteacher, meets me at reception and talks me through some details about the school. There are approximately 200 pupils with varying special needs and disabilities. Each class has its own teacher who is responsible for all subjects, and each teacher has a dedicated team of assistants and carers who assist with lessons and any requirements the children have.
Mr Blackstock introduces me to Class 8J and to Linda, Trish and Eileen, the support workers. I call the register; those who are able answer, those who are not press a large buzzer which is passed around.
"Today is Monday, so what colour is it today?" asks Linda.
"Blue", shouts out Tommy, a small boy with Down's syndrome.
"That's right. Well done Tommy," encourages Eileen.
On a table at the front of the class is a table set up with lots of blue objects, including a large Smurf. So contrary to popular belief, Smurfs are still alive and well and happily residing in South Wales! Eileen puts a tape into a large machine and the song Monday, Monday blares out, followed by I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues. Each day of the week has its own colour and songs associated with it.
The first lesson is art and the children have been doing a project about autumn and woodland animals. We are to make hedgehog collages. I draw a template of a hedgehog and give each child a copy, some materials and glue. They work with varying levels of enthusiasm and dexterity. I help Tommy and Anthony, who are keen to work together, which is fine apart from the fact that Tommy keeps kissing Anthony and wanting to hold his hand, which impedes their progress somewhat. In the end, Trish separates them and Anthony is sent out for a reading lesson elsewhere. Tommy sulks and won't do any more sticking. I continue the work for him and become quite absorbed. I am hugely enjoying sticking bits of coloured material onto my - I mean Tommy's - hedgehog.
Linda is working on Lucy's hedgehog. Lucy has cystic fibrosis and half lies and half sits in one of the full-length wheelchairs. She is shaking a blue rattle and smiling at Linda. Linda pours forth a steady stream of chat so as to include Lucy in the picture-making process and keep her stimulated. Lucy is dressed all in pink, with long, beautifully silky hair tied back in a ponytail.
Later in the afternoon, Lucy has a choking fit and has to be whisked to an adjacent room where Linda administers medical attention. It is quite alarming and I am very grateful that I have fully trained medical support.
After lunch, some of the class experience the sensory area, with its different-textured flooring and cushions. Richard has to wear a special helmet in order to do this as he has a habit of banging his head on the floor. Some of the children play interactive games on the large-keyed computer. Tommy is very good at this and I praise his efforts.
He is delighted. So much so that he insists on holding my hand, very tightly. Every time I try to remove it, he howls belligerently. Trish rescues me by persuading Tommy to hold on to the Smurf's hand instead. Tommy glares at it momentarily before engulfing its entire smiling head in his mouth.
I can't blame him; they have that effect on me, too. Lucy gurgles encouragingly at him as he spits it out and demands a drink of squash.
Before I leave, Mr Blackstock takes me to see the memorial garden. The children are encouraged to help tend the plants. It is beautiful. A wooden shed houses tools and seedlings and a silver wind chime hangs by the doorway. It tinkles prettily in the breeze. I look at the 30 or so little silver cylinders and notice that they are engraved with names. "Former pupils," says Mr Blackstock. "Sadly, a lot of our children don't reach maturity. They are remembered here."
It is six months before I visit the school again. It is then that I see Lucy's name on one of the silver cylinders.
Jo West is a supply teacher based in Cardiff. All names have been changed.