Earlier today I tweeted my ‘Show and Tell’ for Scotland’s Learning Disability Week which starts on Monday, 14th May. It’s a book, A Kestrel for a Knave, by Barry Hines. It was turned into a film, Kes, which I was taken to see at the age of nine at our local cinema. Later I studied it for O-Level English Literature; my battered paperback copy has my name and form number inside.
The theme of Learning Disability Week is ‘My Generation’, to coincide with the Year of Young People. ‘Show and Tell’ is the Scottish Commission for Learning Disability’s way of encouraging everyone, including people with learning disabilities, to share something that captures their younger selves. Our aim is to focus the country’s attention on the experiences of young people with learning disabilities in particular.
For me, the choice of a book was easy. More than anything else, learning to read gave me the ability to make sense of the world and find my way in it. Books helped me to escape from a turbulent childhood. They gave me the means to imagine, to understand, to empathise. To see the world through someone else’s eyes. Not just those of the author but those of the characters too.
Kes, the name by which the book is popularly known, did all those things. The life of Billy Casper, its central character, was in many ways a world away from mine. And yet he lived just over the other side of the Pennines from my childhood home. Billy was a working-class kid who lived on a council estate. I was a middle-class kid who lived in a leafy village. He was at a secondary modern school. I was lucky enough to have passed the eleven plus.
But Billy got lost in his own world, like me. He was a scrawny kid who didn’t get picked for the football team, like me. He was bullied, like me. He became, through no fault of his own, a bit of a loner, an outsider. I got that. It got me. So we were different, Billy and I. But I could imagine being him. And there’s the rub. Billy’s life was enough like mine to make the connection. But different enough for me to learn something about another life altogether. To whisk me away from my small world.
You’re probably thinking, but surely the film could do that so why is the book so important? Why did reading the story rather than just watching it matter so much? And don’t get me wrong, the film is a masterpiece. But when you read a story, it’s just yours. It’s you and the words. You get to colour in the narrative. To interpret the words — and the spaces in between them. You own the story.
And that’s how it was as a child. The book, squirrelled away, under the covers when you should have been asleep because you had school tomorrow. Just one more chapter, one more page. The words urging you on and on. Another time, another place. A story of other lives, other adventures. A world beyond the emotional noise of your own childhood.
So for me, a book was the obvious ‘Show and Tell’ object and Kes, a simple choice. But what of its relevance to Learning Disability Week? Billy Casper didn’t have a learning disability. At least that’s not part of the story. But he was rejected by the system, alone in the midst of it. Left to fend for himself by an institution which he couldn’t make sense of and which couldn’t — and wouldn’t — make sense of him. A system which had no expectations of him — or for him. And that’s what still happens to kids with learning disabilities.
But the book gives us a clue or two about what could make a difference. In all the hopelessness of young Billy’s life the kestrel, Kes, gives him a sense of purpose. We believe, for a moment, that it could be different. Not just his life, but those of all the other Billys too. And in an affecting nod to books themselves, Billy even steals one from a mobile library so that he can learn how to train Kes.
And then there’s Mr Farthing, his English teacher, who praises Billy after he gives an impromptu talk about Kes. Nobody praises Billy. And when Mr Farthing does, the flicker of kindness hurts inside because you know he needs so much more. So you’re willing Mr Farthing to do just a bit more. The bit that would make it all better.
The book ends tragically. I cried a bucket load of tears back then. And yet the message is glaring. Find the thing that gives meaning to a young life and nurture it. Open the door instead of closing it. We used to lock people with learning disabilities away. Close the doors on their young lives. We don’t do that anymore. But there’s so much more we can and should do to open doors. Not for nothing is Scotland’s learning disability strategy called The keys to life. Let's make finding those keys our mission for the generations to come.
We could start by making sure that they can all have the power of stories. Reading them if they possibly can — enjoying them told by others if they can’t. That would be a gift worth giving.