I knew 2016 was going to be a strange, difficult year, looking back 20 years to Jen’s death.
Here’s a strange thought: What would I have looked back to 20 years ago? In 1996, my memory would have gone back to that long, hot summer of ’76. Forty years on, that summer as a seven-year-old still stands out more vividly than 1996 does today. By this time of year we’d have been about to start the six-week summer holiday. There was nervous anticipation – which proved well founded – on the transition from infants to a brand new junior school. A letter introducing my new primary school was very much of its time, with its mention of corporal punishment.
At Jenny’s school there’d have been no transition from infants’ school to junior – her entire pre-16 education took place in the same building. I can’t find any letter marking the occasion but I do have a school magazine from that summer. Like the demise of corporal punishment in the state sector, Jenny’s old school mag records something reminiscent of an even more bygone age.
The editorial of John Jamieson the fifth, Jen’s school magazine from July 1976, mentions the recent removal of a sign from the school gates. It had read ‘Danger: Handicapped Children!’ Sadly, the writer couldn’t work out exactly why the sign had been removed. One would have hoped it was because of the language, but the more likely impetus would have been a paint spillage when the school gates were repainted.
Disability history is still in its infancy as a subject. When we move beyond chronicling equality legislation, I hope that scholars will raid the treasure trove of school magazines and ephemera for the ‘special schools’ or ‘schools for the handicapped’ from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. The stories that emerge from these lack the passion and triumphs of today’s Paralympians and activists. They are the more mundane accounts of day-to-day school life. Overall, responses to issues such as the school’s poor design were measured and passive with a dollop of humour. Self-deprecation, not outrage. No campaigning yet and a pragmatic focus on overcoming immediate obstacles, let alone attempting to educate the world beyond the school gates.