School should prepare us for bittersweet reality

Nobody is 'normal', but have schools gone too far to accommodate everyone's differences?


When I was in standard three, I was in class with… well, let’s call him Philip. Philip was a nice chap if a bit wild. A lot wild.

“Philip, did you take your tablet this morning?” became a weekly refrain from the teacher as he kicked up yet again. I presume that tablet was Ritalin.

He was the only “hyperactive” person I ever knew in all my years of school. No-one had dyslexia, dyspraxia, attention-deficit disorder, autism, or was otherwise neurodivergent. However, some people were just plain weird.

Funny now, looking back, how many “neurodiverse” people there likely were, all largely left to get on with it by themselves: the boy who wanted to be left alone to mumble over his maths books; the loud, funny girl who repeatedly failed the year; the child who talked to themselves in two-way conversations; the few oddballs who went to a designated classroom at break, quietly getting on with whatever obsessive things pleased them.

I’m sure there were loads more. I’m sorry that they struggled, that there wasn’t more help for them.

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School can be tough enough even when you’re normal, because everyone is a little bit crazy in their own way. I spent more than one break hiding all alone, friendless, but too proud to reach out.

So I was delighted when I enrolled my youngest son (now 26) in school and there was a Down Syndrome child in the class above. Soon he brought home a new friend, a strange little chap who was obsessed by maps, and clearly “on the spectrum”.

How normal to learn that everyone is not “normal” from the get-go; how wonderful to learn to accommodate difference early on. It makes for a better, warmer world.

And yet… has the pendulum swung too far?

My friend is a university lecturer and every semester she deals with more and more divergence, from generalised “anxiety” to utter insanity, for all of which she must make “reasonable accommodations”.

This term it includes a student who cannot be nagged about unsubmitted assignments, who must be allowed to move around freely during class, coming and going on a whim, who may record my friend’s lectures, who must not fail – who may fail badly in the real world.

Yet surely that is what school is ultimately for – to prepare us for bittersweet reality.

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