Courage and bigotry captured on camera

Tess Asplund. making a stand against bigotry

Tess Asplund. making a stand against bigotry

There are some photographic images that appear to remain embedded in my mind for a very long time. Sometimes these are retained simply because of a personal interest in the subject, such as the stark but beautiful portrait of the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett by Jane Bown, or the 1946 image of Gandhi, Nehru and Sardar Patel in close conversation by Kulwant Roy. Others impose themselves because of the sheer horror of the stories they represent, as is the case with many of the works of Don McCullin taken in Vietnam or the image of a drowned Syrian child who was simply looking for a safe and better life when he was washed up on the shore in Turkey.

A couple of days ago my mind was taken back to a chilling image from 1989. A solitary man stands before a tank in Tiananmen Square in Beijing; he holds a bag in his left hand, as if he has come straight from shopping at the local market. We cannot see his face, but instinctively we know that if we could we would recognise fear, but also bold defiance as he makes his protest and expresses his disgust at the oppression of a brutal political regime. In her excellent and horrifying book “The People’s Republic of Amnesia,” Louisa Lim visits survivors of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and the parents and friends of those killed by the Chinese regime, many of whom had never previously seen this famous image of the anonymous individual who has simply become known as “Tank Man.” Even today she found many who would not talk about the photograph or did so only in circumstances where they were sure they would not be seen or overheard.

The reason that my memory brought back this powerful picture so recently was the publication of a similar image of a young black woman named Tess Asplund that was published in the Guardian newspaper on May 5th, and no doubt in thousands of other newspapers around the world. In this picture an individual lady, once again with a bag at her left side, stands defiantly before a hostile crowd of racist neo-nazi marchers on the streets of Borlänge in Sweden. The self-styled Nordic Resistance Movement has gained momentum in Sweden despite the numerous racist and anti-semitic outpourings of its shadowy leadership. The photographer David Lagerlöf has captured the bravery and defiance of his extraordinary subject as she stands in the middle of a road silently but powerfully confronting those who hate her because of her colour, her culture and her opposition to their narrow view of the world.

Such acts of non-violent protest require tremendous courage on the part of the individual, but it is highly perceptive of this single determined lady as she states:-

“I hope something positive will come out of the picture. Maybe what I did can be a symbol that we can do something – if one person can do it, anyone can.”

I am not convinced that she is correct when she says that anyone can take such a courageous stand. Hers was an act of bravery which should be seen as a motivation for all who oppose racism or other acts of collective violence, but I wonder if I would have the courage to behave as she did?

The action taken by Tess Asplund gives a powerful message. But let’s imagine that the photographer David Lagerlöf had not been present at the moment. How many of us would have heard of this solitary act of defiance? Photo-journalism, as with other forms of reporting can play an important role in communicating not only the news, but also the best and worst aspects of humanity. This is why the image of Tess Asplund, along with that of Tank Man, and many others which depict the human spirit at its strongest will leave an indelible mark on many of our minds.

A learning bridge between Europe and Asia that needs to be maintained.

Let's not turn our backs on the opportunities we have to learn from other cultures at a time when they need us most.

Let’s not turn our backs on the opportunities we have to learn from other cultures at a time when they need us most.

I have just returned from a week’s holiday in Istanbul. I had been looking forward to this trip for some time, having wanted to visit this ancient city that straddles Europe and Asia for many years. The history of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire, renowned for its architecture, philosophy and art has fascinated me for years, and I can now say that having visited, it more than satisfied my curiosity and expectations.

Whilst Istanbul is now a busy cosmopolitan city like many others in Europe, it succeeds in presenting in a most accessible manner the history of the past millennium and longer. From the Egyptian obelisk of 1500 BCE and the Theodosian Walls of the fifth century, through to the conquest of Mehmet II in 1453 and the architectural wonders created by Mimar Sinan during the mid 16th century, there is so much here to learn and to try to understand. In addition to the artefacts which are excellently presented in the several museums and the Topkapi Palace, the very streets of Istanbul present a historical face to the interested visitor. Views across the Bosphorous, the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara are dominated by a skyline of the domes and minarets of countless mosques and the crumbling relics of ancient fortifications. I have to confess that despite my earlier reading about the city, whilst walking the hilly streets, I found myself often contemplating the significant ignorance that I still have in respect of much that I was seeing.

From this short visit to Istanbul I will retain many happy memories and will long remember many of the fascinating sights and sites of the city. However, my visit was also tinged with an element of sadness which came from talking to kindly people who currently fear for their livelihoods and face an uncertain future. Without exception the people who we met during this brief visit were friendly and welcoming, and it was evident that they wanted to make us feel comfortable within their great historic city. Yet it was particularly disturbing to hear them talking of the falling numbers of visitors and the financial difficulties caused as a result of groups and individuals who are choosing to no longer visit the region.

The cause of this calamity is obvious. The close proximity of Turkey to a war ravaged Syria and the crisis of refugees on the country’s border has brought little by the way of positive publicity to the country. Furthermore, a number of terrorist attacks in both the capital city Ankara, and recently in Istanbul have dominated news reports and leave many would be tourists contemplating whether it is safe to travel. Indeed, during the time of our visit two terrorist incidents in and near Ankara claimed a number of lives.

The fear of terrorism is likely to impact upon many parts of the world in this way. This weekend on my return to England I read in the Guardian newspaper of the efforts being made by the people of Paris, to attract visitors back to that beautiful city following the recent terrorist incidents that devastated the French nation. It is however, important to remember that the vast majority of days in Paris, as in Istanbul pass quietly and without incident. It is even more important to recognise that the people who inhabit these cities, as elsewhere in the world are good, honest and hospitable. There is nothing that the narrow minded terrorists would like more than to stifle the economies of our major cities by driving people away; a situation which we must never allow to happen.

In Istanbul, probably more than anywhere I have previously visited, the close relationship between two of the world’s major religions is in evidence. Mosques created from churches following the 1453 conquest have in many instances retained and respected earlier Christian features. Nowhere is this more in evidence than at the Hagia Sophia where magnificent tesserae depict features from the life of Christ in the form of mosaics. The population of Istanbul is almost exclusively Muslim, and within the traditions of that faith are making every effort to ensure that all visitors to the city feel comfortable and safe. If as tourists we choose now to turn away from this city and many others like it around the world, we will be deserting kind and decent people and handing a tacit victory to those who would deny opportunities to all who wish to learn from other cultures and beliefs. Istanbul, just like Paris, Berlin, London and many other of the world’s great cities has faced threats and violence on many occasions throughout history, but the spirit and determination of good people has always prevailed. An all too brief series of encounters with friendly people in Istanbul over the past week has reassured me that this city and its population will undoubtedly defeat those who would wish them harm.

If the chance arises for you to visit the magnificent city of Istanbul do grasp the opportunity. You will be rewarded by a wonderful encounter with history and culture and through the warmth of the friendly people who inhabit the city.

The bazaar's of Istanbul have been a feature on the major trading routes between Europe and Asia for thousands of years. They remain dependent upon visitors to the city in order to ply their trade.

The bazaar’s of Istanbul have been a feature on the major trading routes between Europe and Asia for thousands of years. They remain dependent upon visitors to the city in order to ply their trade.

 

What can we learn in one minute fifty seven seconds?

 

arrival

One minute and fifty seven seconds – not much out of a busy day, and certainly very little time to do justice to the experiences of a seven year old child.

I can remember a couple of occasions in my life when I thrilled to the experience of being on the sea in a relatively small boat. One of these trips, out of Brixham harbour in Devon, on flat calm waters was to catch blue and silver mackerel, which made a fine supper during a brief family holiday. Many years later, as an adult, a far more exciting journey was experienced from the Isle of May in the Scottish Firth of Forth returning to the mainland following a week living on that quiet and desolate nature reserve. On this particular journey huge waves crashed across the boat as it pitched and rolled through the white crested peaks and troughs of a savage sea. However, as the skipper of the vessel manoeuvred a familiar pathway with apparent nonchalance back to the safety of the tiny port of Anstruther, where we knew warmth and shelter awaited, I was neither fearful for my safety and that of my family, nor apprehensive of what lay ahead.

How different then were my experiences from those of seven year old Malak who features in the first of a series of “unfairy tales” recently launched by UNICEF. These short animations combine the power of art and music to convey a simple but harrowing message about the plight of children fleeing Syria in search of a safe haven where they will not be shot at, bombed, or forced from their homes. Sadly, this is a story with which we are all now so familiar. So, will a simple animated film make any difference?

This was a question I asked myself this morning having watched “Malak and the Boat”, and I am still unsure that I have an answer. The title “Unfairy Tale” applied to these short animations is a subtle play on words. As children many of us are brought up with fairy tales; fables that often become ingrained within our national and cultural identities. Those of the brothers Grimm, or Hans-Christian Anderson, or Perrault have become classics of literature, much loved stories with which we became familiar in our early years. The play on words in the title of these brief animations, with an emphasis upon how “unfair” life can be for so many children and their families is an apt juxtaposition for a series of short films that convey a desperate message. (As a matter of fact, many traditional fairy stories have sinister undertones which have in some instances terrified rather than entertained the children to whom they were read.)

UNICEF’s “unfairy tales” are beautifully made and compelling. They are also short enough to hold the attention of even those who live busy lives and claim to have little time to think. But I am still unsure whether they are likely to have the impact that their producers intend. I find myself asking, who will see these films? They came easily to my attention because I am well connected to media outlets and newsfeeds that consider children’s rights, but I am unaware of them having been placed in a position of prominence beyond these. Are UNICEF therefore releasing these films only in the direction of those individuals and organisations that have already demonstrated concern? If this is the case, can they possibly hope to have an impact?

Whilst conveying the brutality that is a part of the daily lives of so many children and expressing a message that we all need to hear, I wonder if these carefully crafted works of art can possibly change the attitudes and approaches of governments, organisations or individuals who for so long now have been confronted with the horrifying images of children in distress washed up, and not always alive, on the beaches of Europe? Many of these destitute children appear to have simply become a daily feature of our television news programmes and have often been relegated to the inside pages of our newspapers. Can the efforts of UNICEF in producing these films possibly have any effect?

We have already seen that attitudes towards the ever growing population of refugees fleeing war torn countries have been conveyed in words of sympathy, empathy, and sorrow, but of late these emotions have been more frequently transposed by fear, hatred and resentment. But as the images of suffering have become a nightly feature of our television screens I would suggest that the most common reaction has now become one of indifference. Will yet one more bold and impassioned approach to gaining understanding, such as this from UNICEF change any of this?

These are the imponderables that I found myself addressing this morning as I began my comfortable journey to work. I have no answer, and indeed I suspect there are no easy solutions. In the meantime, we must applaud those who are making bold efforts to keep the plight of desperate refugees to the forefront of our minds. The UNICEF films may, or may not make a difference, but at least as an organisation they are taking affirmative action, both through this media and their actions on the ground, to support those who are suffering as a result of the carnage inflicted upon Syria.

I post “Malak and the Boat” here for you to see for yourself. It will take a whole one minute and fifty seven seconds from your busy schedule today to watch this film, and even longer if you then decide to send it to a friend. Perhaps after watching you can help me to find answers to some of the troubling questions I have asked above. If so, I would like to hear what these are.

Click on the image below to watch “Malak and the Boat”

 

Rowing boats and navigating a safe passage

Look carefully. There's some serious learning going on here!

Look carefully. There’s some serious learning going on here!

Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,

Life is but a dream!

         (Traditional Children’s rhyme)

Between teaching two cohorts of students and running a training day for our research students here in Bangalore, we like to make the most effective use of our time. This sometimes means providing training sessions in either the schools where our students work, or in those of colleagues who provide support to our work here in the city. We are dependent upon the goodwill of so many friends in Bangalore and we are therefore always pleased to be able to give something back in kind to them and their schools.

Thus it was that yesterday a group of teachers and parents found themselves seated on the floor, rocking to and fro, whilst chanting the children’s rhyme that appears at the top of this posting. Later in the morning, the same group were playing a simple traditional Indian game of hop and catch, though restricted space somewhat limited the scope of this particular escapade.

If having read the above you are wondering what this has to do with the professional development provided to a school staff and parents, I probably owe you an explanation. Latha, who was one of the first students here in Bangalore to graduate from the MA programme, had asked that we visit her school to work with parents and colleagues to consider how early educational experiences can help children to become confident learners. We were more than happy to oblige, and suggesting that formalisation of education is being increasingly imposed upon children at an ever younger age, we decided to demonstrate the value of informal learning and to explore the uses of play.

Great fun was had by all as they experienced the kind of activities that we would hope all parents enjoy with their children. This was accompanied by more serious discussion about early years learning, the promotion of healthy child development and the importance of providing secure relationships between children, and for children and adults. We examined in some detail the many learning opportunities that exist outside of the classroom, and the importance of acknowledging that children learn much from people who are not formally designated as teachers. By the end of the day we had all reflected upon a unique learning experience, and promised to go away and encourage the children and adults in our lives to learn by being more playful.

Today was rather more formal, though also involved a number of enjoyable learning experiences. My good friend Savitha, who has been so supportive of our work in Bangalore, and is a fine example of someone committed to running an inclusive school, invited me to assist her staff in developing inclusive classroom planning strategies. Knowing of the great enthusiasm always exhibited by the staff of Pramiti school, it was easy to facilitate a range of practical tasks focused upon the children with whom they work.

Both of these days were not only rewarding, but were important to those of us who come here to offer the MA in Special and Inclusive Education programme. Having rowed boats across very smooth waters, and navigated a route through classroom planning, we will now hoist sail and sally forth to work with our next group of students.

The teachers at Pri. .miti School are amongst the most inclusive I have ever met. Not just in India, but anywhere

The teachers at Primiti School are amongst the most inclusive I have ever met. Not just in India, but anywhere

Getting things off my chest!

If Munch needed inspiration he could find it alongside me in this hotel!

If Munch needed inspiration he could find it alongside me in this hotel!

Adjusting to local conditions is something I always accept as an important necessity when working outside of my own country and culture. Most experiences can be regarded as learning opportunities and with a little forethought and a positive attitude they are usually taken in my stride. Indeed it is often those events or conditions that are far removed from those familiar at home that add to the experience of working in previously unknown places.

I recall working in Turku in Finland with a good Finnish colleague when the temperature was minus 26 degrees. Walking less than a mile through the city to the venue where we were going to teach, my beard froze solid, forming icicles that hung down towards my chest, and my eyebrows were so stiff with rime that I could hardly move the muscles in my face. However, I also remember that the air was clear, the voices of children singing in the cathedral were very moving and the company excellent.

In China I have on occasions found that the challenges are of a dietary kind. Though I became quite adept at using chopsticks whilst working in Hong Kong, the wide ranging foodstuff that I am more used to seeing hopping around ponds, slithering through the long grass or climbing trees was not always to my taste in mainland China. Having been told that the noxious smelling fermented tofu, considered a delicacy by some, tasted better than it looked, I found that I had been unintentionally deceived. It may well have been a local speciality, but it most certainly was not to my taste. Despite this, I was able to laugh about this situation with Chinese friends, and enjoyed seeing city sights that were novel and interesting to my western eyes.

Here in India, having visited so many times, I have begun to feel inured to the crazy traffic, the obstacle course that appears where pavements should be, the late starts of meetings, and the mangy dogs that roam the streets. You know that you are comfortable in India when you find youself dozing off in the back of an autorickshaw. I love the variety within Indian food, and have learned to cope with all but the hottest days in Chennai. However, just when I began to think that I was fully acclimatised, my complacency found me out.

Power cuts, often associated with stormy weather are a not an unusual feature in India, and these are usually short in duration and manageable. Today, a series of such “outages” as some call them here, have been the order of the day, causing regular minor interruptions to sessions on the MA course. These are generally manageable, and of course, our excellent students are very tolerant. Whilst this is a small inconvenience, other issues since my arrival in the city have been much more of an irritation. It is a symptom of modern life, and more especially today’s working practices that we struggle when we have no internet access. Our lives are, in part, governed by emails, which everyone assumes provide a quick and easy form of communication between all parts of the globe. When such a facility is not available, which has been the case for most of the time when we are in our hotel after a day’s teaching, and hoping to catch up with work from home, it is possible to quickly become irascible.

Before I go any further, and begin to sound as if I am moaning, let me state that the hotel staff are all very pleasant people, and I am sure that they are doing their best to provide a service. We have internet access at the teaching venue, so we can, to some extent work around the lack of this facility at the hotel. Such a minor inconvenience I would normally take in my stride. But when this is coupled with the fact that my laundry has gone walkabout somewhere in the suburbs of Bangalore, I begin to feel the strain.

It is said that Mahatma Gandhi when he was so brutally assassinated owned two dhotis a shawl and a pair of sandals. This was more than adequate for his needs. This I say is all very well, but I am not a Mahatma, and whilst I am generally of a calm disposition, I do not have Gandhiji’s saintly characteristics, and my tolerance level is far less than his!

I have no doubt that before too long I will be laughing about what are, after all, a minor series of inconveniences. I know that this is far from my usual experience of staying here in this city, where people are always welcoming and eager to ensure every comfort. Above all, the pleasure gained from working with good colleagues and excellent students means that as always, being in Bangalore is a privilege and a positive experience. The teaching has been a pleasure, and the interaction with people, not only on the course, but during my morning walks around Jayanagar has been, as always, a delight.

Today I told our MA students that they should write something every day. That writing is a physical as well as a mental process that requires training and practice. Trying to lead by example I informed these eager learners that if I write nothing else today I will at least post something on this blog (internet allowing). Writing I suggested can be creative, is an aid to thinking, and provides opportunities to attempt to solve problems. I have just realised that it can also be cathartic and sometimes allow one to, as they say, “get things off one’s chest.”

Do I feel better for that – probably. But I’d still like to become reacquainted with my laundry!

If my laundry doesn't arrive sooon I shall be as naked as Rodin's thinker. Then they'll be sorry!

If my laundry doesn’t arrive sooon I shall be as naked as Rodin’s thinker. Then they’ll be sorry!

Staying focused as we approach the finishing line.

Everyone assumes a role as we learn together on the MA programme

Everyone assumes a role as we learn together on the MA programme

Supporting our MA students in Bangalore as they work on the preparation of their dissertations is always interesting and at times challenging. At present we are working with a very enthusiastic and able group who have generated excellent research proposals and piloted one of their data collection instruments. At this stage of their progress they come back to us with many questions and a few anxieties about aspects of their piloting that maybe didn’t run as smoothly as might have been wished for. At the moment our job is not simply to give answers, but to give them opportunities to find solutions.

As part of the proceedings we encourage these neophyte researchers to bring their issues to sessions in order that we can help them to think these through, and learn about managing their projects. This invariably leads to lively debates and results in a stimulating learning environment from which we all benefit. Today was no exception.

This afternoon started with one of our students showing a brief clip of video recording of her work with parents of children from a village community near where she is based. Many of these adults are parents of first generation learners and our student wishes to gain data from them to inform her research, which is examining the effectiveness of the school provision made for their children. This is an exciting project which demonstrates the commitment and impact that some of our students are having in fostering more inclusive learning opportunities.

In order to gain the data that she requires this keen researcher is planning to use focus groups, but like many at this stage of her research development, she is apprehensive and has questions about how best this should be managed. What are the difficulties in collecting data from parents who cannot read and write? How do I manage a group when they don’t follow the conventions of taking turns to speak? These and other similar concerns were brought to the table. So this afternoon, much of the time was spent in role play, with students taking  the part of participants, researchers, recorders and observers. Everyone took the role they were playing seriously, and the action was followed by a lively discussion, with an exchange of ideas and suggestions that helped in the development of a set of principles for focus group management. Hopefully our student feels more confident and many of her questions will have been addressed. I look forward to her reprting back after the next stage of data collection.

Sessions such as these, led largely by the students themselves, and often involving friendly banter and laughter, can only be conducted when they feel at ease with each other, respecting their classmates and demonstrating a willingness to share ideas. I am sure that as these students begin the last leg of their journey towards achieving their MA degrees they are forming friendships that will endure, and have gained new skills and knowledge that they will take forward for the benefit of the children and teachers with whom they work.

Days like today reinforce the fact that it is a privilege to work together with such committed professionals.

 

 

Bringing colour to the lives of the people of Kabul

 

Street art from the detritus of war. Surely a better use for a tank!

Street art from the detritus of war. Surely a better use for a tank!

Until I read about her in the Guardian yesterday the name Neda Taiyebi was unknown to me, as I suspect it probably was (still is?) to most people here in the UK. I hope that it will soon be a name that is better known as this young lady is engaged in an activity that deserves wider attention.

Neda Taiyebi is an Iranian born artist who for the past year has been living in Afghanistan. At a time when many people have been fleeing from the war ravaged cities of that desperately poor country, Neda has chosen to travel in the opposite direction and believes that she has found a situation in which she is more able to express her artistic talents. Part of the motivation for her work is to be found in her commitment to enabling women to express themselves in an area that has been male dominated and asserts a bullish image to the world. She has commenced this task with enthusiasm and by taking advantage of the devastated landscape that surrounds her in the suburbs of Kabul.

Neda has noted the lack of public art within Kabul, and decries the fact that whilst efforts are being made to revive educational institutions within the city, these are seen as functional establishments with little consideration being given to the development of cultural or aesthetic well-being. Determined to begin to redress the balance, Neda Taiyebi has embarked upon a unique project to create areas of beauty amidst the rubble and chaos of the bomb torn streets of Kabul. A picture in yesterday’s Guardian shows a group of children playing on a piece of street art created by Neda Taiyebi, which is clearly bringing some joy into the lives of these youngsters.

Neda’s approach to creating public art is highly original, but has been achieved by seeking out some of the most potent symbols of violence and destruction to be found in the area. So far, she has created works of art by decorating the husks of three immobilised Russian tanks that have scarred the city streets for a number of years. These previously rusting shells of burned out vehicles have been assaulted with colour, patterns and images that could never have been imagined when these armoured beasts originally patrolled the streets of Kabul.

Taking inspiration from the domestic art that she had seen all around her in her home in Iran, including patterns from textiles and patchwork designs, Neda Taiyebi has demonstrated how symbols of death and ruin can be transformed into a colourful play station for local children. Drawing inspiration from such domestic items has asserted the contribution that women have made to creativity and design and has brought a more reasoned approach to interpreting the streets of the city. In so doing she has received some support from the Afghan government; though sadly, this has of necessity included the presence of an armed guard whilst she undertakes her work.

As we await the arrival of Christmas here in the UK, we have become familiar with the usual colourful lights and trappings that surround us on the streets of our towns, cities and villages. Whilst very little of this can truly be described as street art, it brightens our lives in the midst of winter, and brings pleasure to children and adults alike. Perhaps the work of Neda Taiyebi in Kabul will bring smiles to the faces of people of that once great city. Her assertion that more attention needs to be given to encouraging a cultural and aesthetic appreciation of the world undoubtedly challenges politicians and educators in a country which may see other priorities. However, the smiling faces of children playing on a decorated tank which in previous times would have probably terrorised them, is just one indication of the importance of her work.

Thank you and happy Christmas to Neda Taiyebi, may your work continue to bring joy to the streets of Kabul. And, of course happy Christmas and a peaceful new year to whoever may happen to read this blog.

Remember the Children of Peshawar

Peshawar, a historic city with many beautiful landmarks, including this, the Sunehri Mosque. Sadly it is today associated with far more negative feelings.

Peshawar, a historic city with many beautiful landmarks, including this, the Sunehri Mosque. Sadly it is today associated with far more negative feelings.

Children often demonstrate the most stubborn resilience. Thank goodness they do.

Driving to work this morning I was reminded by an item which I heard on my car radio, that it is the anniversary of the dreadful massacre of innocents that occurred at the Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan on December 16th last year. Writing about the atrocity on this blog at that time, I described the perpetrators of this mass murder of 122 children and 22 teachers as thugs, and suggested that one of their motivations for this evil deed was their fear that education will ultimately produce an increased number of people who are prepared to condemn their particular brand of bigotry, and stand against their violence and hatred. I have had no reason in the intervening year to change my mind on this matter.

A visit to the website of Dawn, the Pakistan, English Language national newspaper, confirmed what I had expected. A significant amount of space in today’s edition has been devoted to remembering this cowardly act, but even more column inches are given over to a celebration of the courage with which children and their parents have rebuilt a school community and reaffirmed their right to education. Several articles in today’s newspaper consider the current state of Pakistan and its efforts to address security issues and the fear of terrorism, but at the centre of many of the arguments is a reflection on the impact of this specific tragic event upon the lives of children and their families. The words of the journalist Zahid Hussain are fairly typical of the tone set on the paper’s opinion pages when he writes:-

“It was, perhaps, the gravest moment even for this country that has seen so many tragedies and bled so many times. The wounds of parents losing their children can never be healed. Those who escaped the macabre dance of death are back in school traumatised by the memories of their colleagues mowed down in front of them. Their lives can never be the same again.”

Whilst several writers have tried to capture the mood in Peshawar, and to reflect upon how we might interpret the terrible events of December 2014, they cannot hope to achieve the eloquence that is contained in the commemorative pages that dominate today’s edition of Dawn. Under the heading 144 Stories, the newspaper presents a narrative of each of the victims who died that day at the hands of a group of criminals. These stories convey understandable anger, incomprehension, desperation and fear, but many also are filled with compassion, hope and even forgiveness. I found it impossible to read more than a few of these accounts as the poignancy of the words and the feelings so personally expressed quickly become unbearable.

The tragedy of that day last December is peculiarly juxtaposed now here in England, as elsewhere in the world, when families prepare to celebrate Christmas. Many of us look forward to spending time with family and friends, but most particularly with children and grandchildren. Perhaps reading accounts such as those that are published today in Dawn serve an important function in insisting that we reflect upon those freedoms and relationships that we can so easily take for granted, and in ensuring that we are never complacent about the need to stand up against those who would undermine the values which so many of us hold dear. This is not simply an issue for Pakistan, but one for which we must all accept some responsibility. It is one in particular that those of us who are teachers should ensure continues to be discussed in our classrooms and with our students and colleagues.

My words are wholly inadequate in addressing a topic of such gravity, and cannot possibly hold a candle to those used to convey the 144 stories presented in Dawn. If you have time today to read only one page from a single newspaper, you would find it hard to better invest your time than in reading the one highlighted below.

 

http://www.dawn.com/news/1223313/144stories-remembering-lives-lost-in-the-peshawar-school-attack

 

Donald is not an easy boy to like, but still we must try to include him!

It's difficult to see the beauty of the world if you have a paper bag stuck on your head!

It’s difficult to see the beauty of the world if you have a paper bag stuck on your head!

Dear Mr and Mrs Trump,

It is with great sadness that I find it necessary once again to write to you regarding both the academic performance and the conduct of your son Donald. I am sorry to say that in recent weeks he has failed to provide any evidence of progress in most areas of the school curriculum, and his behaviour has become an increasing cause of embarrassment to the school.

I am fairly certain that much of what follows in this letter will come as little surprise to yourselves, particularly as together we have monitored Donald’s idiosyncrasies over an extended period of time, and I am sure that like us, you recognise that he gives the impression of living much of his life in a fantasy world, which of late has resulted in the most alarming delusions of grandeur. Indeed, in a recent conversation with the school’s careers teacher he even made the preposterous suggestion that he thought he might stand next year for the post of head boy. Whilst we would not wish to deter any of our students from standing for such a prestigious post in school, and indeed we are proud of our democratic traditions, I have to say I find it hard to believe that any of our students, who have a reputation for intelligence and fair play would be likely to support Donald in seeking such a position.

The difficulties which Donald presents in school are many, but I feel obliged to draw your attention to a few specific issues brought to my notice by some of his teachers.

Mr Clarke, our excellent head of history has this term been addressing a syllabus that recalls the early settlement of our post-Colombian nation. This most exciting and informative topic is always popular with students who are eager to trace their own origins and explore the possibility that they may have ancestral roots from many parts of Europe, South America, the Caribbean or elsewhere in the world. Unfortunately Donald, who appears to believe that he is of pure “white American” extraction, caused some consternation in the class by suggesting that his classmates Michael Beaumont and Elizabeth Burns may not be authentic American citizens and should be considered for repatriation to France and Scotland respectively. When Mr Clarke ventured to suggest that the name Trump was thought to be of Germanic origin from the term “trumpe” indicating the player of a drum, Donald resorted to his usual strategy of threatening to begin litigation against his teacher. Incidentally I still have thirty badly written letters purporting to be from Donald’s legal representatives on my desk.

Sadly, I can report similar issues from his Geography teacher Miss Grainger, who is in despair over the fact that whilst Donald claims to have a personal connection to young ladies who are the holders of dubious titles such as Miss Venezuela, Miss Panama, Miss Sweden, and Miss Dominican Republic, he was unable to locate any of these nations in his atlas. Miss Grainer is of the opinion that Donald needs to get out a little more. Unfortunately he appears to have little inclination to find out much about the world around him, declaring an aversion to “foreign” and a reluctance to engage with those beyond a small and equally insular coterie.

In citizenship lessons, I’m afraid Donald fares no better. Earlier this week his class were asked to write an essay on the significance today of those magnificent words from Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. I am sure you know them well, but let me just remind you:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Donald took a novel approach to this task by producing an extensive list of exclusion clauses. I won’t trouble you with the detail, particularly as his reasoning was at best flawed and some might well say deranged. However, it would appear that Donald sees no place in the “Land of the Free” for those of the Muslim faith, journalists with disabilities, Mexicans, gay couples or others who may be in dire straits and currently sleeping on the streets of our cities. Furthermore, the recent expressions of ignorance that have poured from his mouth have even disappointed his English pen friend Boris who has announced the cancellation of an intended visit to our school in fear that he might feel obliged to soundly box Donald’s ears.

Despite our continued efforts to accommodate his eccentricities, Donald remains isolated from most of his peers in school and appears to have aligned himself with a particularly disreputable and unsavoury group of youths who congregate outside of the school gate using offensive language, much of which is directed towards other students as they leave the premises. Whilst many of the staff here see Donald as a hapless buffoon, rather in the nature of Homer Simpson, I’m afraid I take a rather less charitable view and see him as being more in the vein of Rasputin or Cruella DeVil.

I trust you will recognise that we have gone the extra mile in tolerating Donald’s bizarre nature. We have been flexible in the administration of our no animals in school policy, allowing him to bring his pet gerbil to class each day; though we still fail to see the reason why he insists on wearing this poor creature on his head. We have made every effort to address the fact that he has difficulty making friends, but sadly his abusive use of social media has made those more respectful students wary of being associated with him.

Reading through what I have written about Donald in this letter, I suspect that what I have to say next may come as something of a surprise. I am sure that there are many schools in this district who would be throwing in the towel at this point, who would be saying enough is enough, and this boy must go. However, this is not our way at the Harriet Tubman Academy, where we pride ourselves on being an inclusive school. Here we have a philosophy of opening our doors to all students, regardless of need or ability. I must admit at a staff meeting yesterday we spent a considerable time revisiting our school principles, but after some debate we have now amended all of our school documentation, and to the declaration that stated that “we welcome all pupils regardless of their race, religion, colour, socio-economic status or sexuality” we have added a clause indicating that “we even do our very best for bigots!”

I do hope that you and your family, including Donald, enjoy a very happy and peaceful Christmas holiday, and that he may return in the new year with a renewed enthusiasm for learning. If you could encourage him to make a single new year’s resolution, might I suggest that keeping his mouth shut whenever something offensive comes into his mind might be a good start.

Yours sincerely

A. Lincoln

School Principal

 

 

 

 

 

 

Euphemism cannot hide the desperate plight of some children

Is this an acceptable face of collateral damage?

Is this an acceptable face of collateral damage?

I receive regular email updates from an organisation named Team Around the Child (TAC). These often provide useful information about new publications or events related to children with special educational needs, or those living in difficult circumstances. The TAC newsletter and other resources are managed by a man named Peter Limbrick. I have never met Peter, but certainly feel some affinity to his ideas and the commitment that he has given to keeping the needs of children and families in focus for all who care to listen to what he has to say.

Peter Limbrick is often referred to as an activist, working on behalf of children with disabilities and their families, and inevitably at times this places him in opposition, and even conflict with those authorities and policy makers who he perceives to be falling short of delivering effective support and services. Such campaigners are, in my opinion, essential if we are to avoid complacency with regards to the rights of children.

I usually find something of interest in the TAC newsletter, and when one arrived in my inbox yesterday I was not disappointed by its contents. I have made a note to seek out the details of a new DVD about the use of intensive interaction from Dave Hewett, which may well provide a useful teaching resource, and I forwarded details of a forthcoming conference on autism spectrum disorders to be held in New Orleans to some of my colleagues. As a source of such information, this newsletter is always welcome and I have on several occasions accessed useful teaching materials from this much appreciated newsletter.

Whilst the information contained in this latest edition was welcome, it was an item titled Collateral Damage – A Sorry Little Phrase, that grabbed my attention. Rather than announcing a new publication or resource, or highlighting a course or conference opportunity, this link took me to a personal reflection from Peter Limbrick which could well provide a useful source for debate. Limbrick opens this brief piece by stating that:

“The term ‘collateral damage’ is trotted out to make the death or damage of innocent people in conflict zones seem like an unfortunate inevitability. We are invited to think it is much the same as infirmity with old age and disturbed nights with a new baby. We don’t like it but we are persuaded it has to happen”.

He continues the article by suggesting that whenever there is armed conflict it is invariably the most vulnerable and innocent members of society who suffer most. He provides a harrowing example of a five year old child killed in a bombing raid, despite the fact that she and her family had no direct part to play in the conflict that brought about her early death, other than that of being yet another victim.

Limbrick suggests that by using the term collateral damage we are in fact accepting that such tragedies are an acceptable and inevitable part of life for families in war zones. The ways in which we define this term are almost always euphemistic, but Peter Limbrick offers an alternative view in which he suggests that we could well understand collateral damage as meaning

  • Parents who had children and now do not
  • Children who had parents but are now orphaned
  • Youngsters who had all four limbs and now have to manage without some of them
  • Babies, children, teenagers, adults and elderly people who had a complete brain and now have some of it missing
  • People whose skin used to be soft and smooth and is now burned all over and painful
  • Families broken apart, traumatised and displaced
  • Girls and boys who could see, hear, play, talk and sing – but now cannot

This is a chilling list, but sadly it is one that seems wholly appropriate at a time when I am sure children and families in many parts of the world are living in fear as their homes and communities find themselves in the front line of conflict. The debate about military action in Syria held in the UK Parliament last week was certainly to the forefront of my mind as I read Peter Limbrick’s words.

Peter Limbrick’s item in the TAC newsletter is brief and stark. I am sure that it could provide a useful stimulus for further debate, I am equally sure that it will ruffle more than a few feathers. Being located amongst other articles that provide a positive perspective on how greater support can be afforded to  children and families experiencing difficulties, I am struck by the juxtaposition of hope and despair on a page. Let us hope that the former overcomes the latter.