Exclusion, Inclusion, Sectarianism, and Football.
A wonderful, insightful example of inclusion recently appeared on my timeline. It radiated such hope and positivity, in the midst of dark times, that it might as well have powered my heating and electricity bill - such was the lightness and warmth I felt whilst watching, and every second afterwards. If you've not seen @TeamUnitedSco's interview with Steve Clarke, then please have a watch. Don't be fooled however, this might be a great example of inclusion, but it is, more importantly, a fine example of journalism, and they got more 'scoops' and honest answers than the finest reporters might have.
What this led to, was me typing the most personal article yet, and one I'm hesitant to publish. I think I will because I think it might help someone, somewhere, and that's good enough for me. So without, further rambling, and with much thanks for @TeamUnitedSco's inspiration, here's the piece. Hope you're well, Andy
Since becoming an uncle to a beautiful little baby at 10 years old, people with disabilities and their families have been very important to me.
I didn't, and don't, ever think of my niece as 'a person with disabilities' - she's always just been who she is.
I guess, growing up, we were more like siblings than an uncle/niece and I was just desperately proud, protective and loving, of this little person. She was for many years my favourite person, in fact, until my wife and kids arrived, and now that's a moniker she has to share.
She phones me most days and we chat nonsense about things and about how boring lockdown is. She's a dafty, but she knows her uncle is a bigger one, so she often gives me pelters, which are mostly deserved.
She's someone I think about a lot because we have a special relationship, way before Bush and Blair coined the phrase.
Quite honestly, this relationship quite directly affected who I 'became', in a career-sense, as over the next two and a bit decades, both personally and professionally, I have worked with children and adults who have what the Scottish government defines as 'additional support needs' (ASN).
Initially, this looked like playing the guitar at an after-school club for children with ASN, which grew into working across a range of voluntary settings and placements, eventually leading to a career in the field, before then most recently returning (quite sheepishly) to University to grow and better my practice as an educator.
To my immense surprise, and that's an understatement, I really enjoyed academic reading, learning, practising and writing. I saw the benefit of good research and how this could inform policy and practice, which could better meet the needs of young people and families. It meant something, and I enjoyed it, so I worked hard at it.
This passion is what got me 'back into' writing, as my confidence had taken a real kick from a high school teacher sometime before, and if you don't mind, here's a wee story.
I recall sitting in a Standard Grade English class when I was about 13 or 14. It was the top set. If you knew me at all, you'd realise that this distinction doesn't hold any importance to me now, but I only say it to make sense of what happened next.
The teacher looked at me finishing my book, 'I Am David' by Anne Holm, which remains one of my favourite novels. It tells the story of a young boy who escapes a concentration camp before travelling across Europe on his own. As the boy travels, Holm comments on society through his innocent, young eyes. As a result - and because of the type of learner I was, and am - I read it very slowly, taking everything in and thinking about it deeply. I still do read very slowly, and I pause to think, a lot, leading to my English report card saying 'needs to stop dreaming out the window'. Over time, I've learnt that my Dad is the same and it must look like we're not paying attention - away somewhere... dreaming.
I sat in front of this teacher, and she watched me finish my book, which was a labour of love and quite difficult to read at times. It also has a very beautiful ending. I remember sitting there, genuinely touched but also aware that I was a West of Scotland male in a Glaswegian high school, and tears probably weren't advisable if I wanted to protect my generally inoffensive anonymity. If I were Charlie Nicholas, I might've said, 'Am jus' sitting there thinkin'.... a want to read that again'... so I did.
At this point, the teacher, who thought me a bit 'dim' and clearly in the wrong class, made me a very public laughing stock for 'being so lazy - *eye roll* 'the other books are just over there'. Not the worst thing to say to a kid, but not the best. The main fact was that this wasn't an isolated incident; I was the butt of a lot of her jokes and found her class, and teaching style, incredibly tedious.
I remember her look of astonishment as we were reading the works of Edwin Morgan and she asked some awkward leading question about his poem, 'Strawberries', concerning what he was getting at.
I knew Morgan. My mum and I loved him, so I said after a suitable silence, 'it's because he's gay'. She nearly fell over and couldn't hide it, eventually saying, 'well.... yes.... yes, that's right', but she just couldn't resist a look of feigned shock that I'd answered, which, again, got a few laughs.
What's all this got to do with my niece and inclusion? Well, stay with me...
I think she didn't like me because she didn't like religion, and, by extension, my Dad (he was a minister), and therefore, by association, me.
I can never prove this of course. What I can remember, is the way she presented each jibe and look in the class, and how that felt. She probably thought my Dad judged gay men from an Ivory Tower Pulpit, as she often made reference to 'religious atrocities' whilst throwing a look my way - oblivious to the fact a) I was just a kid, and b) I was just as appalled as she was. They really were atrocious.
What she didn't see, however, much less know or care about, was that my Dad's faith was very different to that of Cromwell. Whilst one rampaged through Ireland, the other was coming home late at night from being the Chaplain to the Aids Ward, where he had multiple good friends who were dying. He took me to their Christmas Party after seeing Goldeneye one year on my birthday, we were met by a lovely guy called Stuart. What was immediately obvious to me was that he loved them dearly, and they loved him in return. He was welcome because they were pals. He treated everyone the same, my Dad. People are people.
It's a shame that not everyone sees the world that way.
Anyway, I had been in the 'top sets' throughout my early years at High School. I didn't think I was particularly clever' (again - 'presumed natural intelligence' is a way of thinking I couldn't be more against now as a Growth Mindset tutor), but I knew that I enjoyed learning, and so I'd work hard at it. That is until I hit a bump in the road.
Presumed natural ability/intelligence or just hard work?
See, this was around the time that the nursery and visiting professionals (of which I am now one) were beginning to say things to my sister. It was around the time that other parents were beginning to say things too, mostly unkind things, in the playground at pick-up and drop-offs, to my sister or to each other. Around the time that my niece's difference became visible, and misunderstood. Around the time she started to be excluded from things, like parties and playdates. This was around the time that tensions, griefs, sadnesses and futures, were also made very visible, requiring immediate and unwelcome emotional, surgical attention and looking quite different from what they had once been. Life changed very rapidly and none of my family knew how to cope if there is indeed a right way of coping. My sister shouldered most of this as a young mum. I know I couldn't have done so as well as she did at 19. I respect her very much.
I loved my niece deeply and our 'special relationship' didn't change. It never changed. It was very precious to me when everything else around it seemed to be up in the air.
I couldn't imagine how people could just simply see this little girl the way I did. How could you treat her, and by extension everyone that loved her, with such stigma?
I know now, of course - ignorance.
People are scared of what is different as it would mean changing a lot if they were to embrace it. I vividly remember using a certain word to describe my brother, after he'd done something daft, before then catching my sister's eye and seeing how this word made her feel - how often she must've heard that word used to describe our favourite wee person. I didn't say it again, or at least, I made a concerted effort not to.
There were beautiful people along the way too, but by and large, society, and people, didn't know how to be kind. They didn't know how to include. Some still don't, which is why when you see a wonderful example, like @TeamUnitedSco's, you praise it, you talk about - you shine as much light on it as possible.
I was too young to understand my own emotions, much less being able to verbalise or articulate them. I just saw all this happening to people I loved, and man... nothing hurts more than when someone you love is being ostracized in front of your eyes.
It wasn't until I became a 'specialist inclusion teacher', that I became aware of the needs of siblings of those with disabilities. I realised that they are, by law, young carers. I remember saying aloud, mid-meeting, as someone was outlining what some of these young people might feel; 'oh man... that was me... that is me.'
Back to my English teacher. She didn't know, didn't want to know, or didn't know how to know, what was going on in my life, much less the life of my niece. Why would she? I was the minister's kid. Life had been handed to me on a plate (and in many ways it had, for which I'm very grateful).
Forget the fact ministers were paid negligible amounts for working every day and most evenings and then again on Sunday - pouring themselves into others to help them. Or that my Mum budgeted every single penny, and I really do mean that. That didn't fit the stereotype. It's fine to bash minister's and their families - fine to bash Christianity - they're the establishment. I learned this growing up, and I was deeply ashamed of going to church and the whole religion thing, so I gave up as soon as I could. I became as bad as those who slagged me and my Dad. I caved in, and in turn, I forgot the fact my Dad was pals with the local priest and the local Muslim community and worked tirelessly for the freedom of thought and expression, and common ground, where it was to be found (which was quite often by the way). I forgot about my Dad who held his friend's hands as they died. I forgot about the schizophrenic man who would phone my Dad every day after dinner, at the end of his day and before his meeting, just to hear a kind word. I threw all that away because I just wanted to be normal. I just wanted to fit in. I hated being different.
See, as Christians, I learned an uncomfortable lesson often throughout my childhood. As 'the establishment' we (because, of course, we're all the same) were fair game to be mocked and marginalised. The Kirk had certainly done it for years, so why shouldn't we, my Dad and his young family, as clear descendants of Cromwell, receive our own layers of sectarian abuse and ostracization from many different facets?
To those that hated proddies, my dad was the 'Chief Prod', and I was fair game. Or from the 'Proddies' who hated my Dad for banning the National Anthem and flags during the annual BB Service (which was ironically the only time they came near a church) - he was a 'Tim lover' and therefore, so was I. Fair game. I once went to a friend's house to watch the Scottish Cup Final when Van Hoojdonk scored, against Airdrie. We'd been playing down the park. His dad was a few cans deep and said 'why are you bringing him in here? He's wan of them'. I was 11 but I remember the angry face and the stigma I didn't understand. This type of thing happened all the time. All the time.
Identity politics sure looks different when the boot is on the other foot, or whatever foot you're kicking with. It's almost as if people are just people and not that different - regardless of creed, ethnicity or belief - and that we should find a way to embrace the differences in one another.
Returning to this teacher - this was S3/4, but in S2, I had my best year ever in an English class. It was my favourite year at school, and not just because Scotland played in the World Cup and I had a wee bit more cash as a paperboy. See, my sister's favourite teacher, and someone who she still saw regularly as a friend, was my teacher.
This teacher had met my niece and knew the circumstances. She had a reputation as severe in school, and so you either hated or loved her, the latter aided if you got her humour. Most loved her, I thought she was hysterical. She encouraged me so much in my writing, leading discussions from the front, in a wee state school in Glasgow, and always making us think about next steps or ways to develop... ways to grow. I often think of the kindness she showed towards me. I often think of the kindness she displayed towards my sister; of her compassion... Of her humanity. She was a truly wonderful educator, in the truest sense, in that, she loved what she did, treated it seriously, and managed to transmit that love to her students who were enriched in a way they didn't know existed. Letters and words and punctuation can do that? Wow.
Now, as an educator, I can better understand what happened to both me and my niece. I was ostracized by the association to the man I loved most, and I'm ashamed to say, this made me run as far from that association, and that person, as I could. But, my niece? She was ostracized because of her perceived lack of ability - and that's truly heartbreaking. I honestly can't write too much about this as I've been in tears a few times. It's too close. However, I think the answer to both stigmatisations might be found in someone we both knew much closer to home... in fact, he was at home.
My Dad and I made up some time ago now, and after a heart-scare, a blue-light and a hospital stay last March. I now cherish every second we have together. Whilst we might not agree on everything, he knows he's my hero, at least, I hope he does. If I can love people half as well as he has, well then... I'll be doing something right, because people certainly know that he cares for them.
For, as trite as this might sound, this is the only answer I know; love.
The type of love that holds a dying man's hand. The type of love that stands firm in the face of sectarian slander. The type of unwavering commitment to peace that breaks down barriers and instils hope in the bleakest of moments. My Dad isn't perfect, far from it, but my goodness, it is his very humility and self-awareness in knowing this about himself, that makes his love so powerful. It is a broken yet full love; one that heals and binds together similarly broken people.
Yes, exclusion exists, so do marginalisations and stigmas - but also, so does hope, and the power to include, and we're nothing without it. Whilst I'm still working out certain things about my own faith, I hope I might borrow from the old book without getting pelters;
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
This is why Alba\Matter exists and why our writing aims to bring people together and dismantle barriers of thought, structure or deed. I sincerely hope this finds you well, and that you might learn to love someone perceived as different to you today. It can look as simple as what Stevie does in the video, and you might have fun and learn a bit about yourself, and others, by doing it. All the best, Andy