Several weeks ago I took a call from a female with a particularly persuasive tone of voice. She identified herself by name, informed me of her close association with a Vieux Fort school for children with special needs. “We would be so very honored if you would agree to read to our kids,” she said, “this being reading month.”
Now, there are few activities I enjoy as much as communicating with young people whenever the opportunity arises. Just a few days before I received my invitation, I had witnessed with some amusement government officials talking to news reporters about the value of reading, and why they had taken time from their busy schedules to read to students at schools in Castries—officials who themselves obviously read very little, judging by the content of their House addresses and my own conversations with some of them.
Two of our prime ministers had famously advertised their own aversion to reading local newspapers, especially such as tended to criticize their policies or their embarrassing proclivities. Indeed, the impression I’ve formed is that our MPs read only the introductory notes to books by Paul Kruger and the journalism of a certain local transvestite on a crusade.
As I watched one particular MP talking at a mic in the manicured hand of a mute TV interviewer, I also recalled a Vice President of the United States who in 1992 had corrected 12-year-old student William Figueroa’s spelling of “potato” to “potatoe” at a spelling bee in Trenton, New Jersey. Those in attendance had pretended not to notice the gaffe but the VP continues to this day to be widely lambasted for his demonstrated ignorance. (And now I am reminded of another leader famous for pronouncing plaque as playke.)
I promised my caller from Vieux Fort I would be more than happy to read to her students. She called three or four more times to confirm my attendance. The last time she phoned I told her I wanted to be different from the rest: instead of reading from some book of fairytales, I would read passages from the prime minister’s last Budget address and afterward invite the kids to tell me their understanding of what their constituency representative had said. Earlier, my caller had revealed the kids I would be reading to were between 15 and 17 years old.
“That would be so nice,” she said, with uplifting enthusiasm.
I arrived early and was warmly greeted by my caller in the flesh. She introduced me to two or three of her colleagues. And then I stepped into the classroom with some 20 neatly turned out kids already in their seats. Judging only by appearances, I’d say they were the happiest young people I’d ever encountered in a classroom. Their smiles lit up the room and their eyes spoke of an inner happiness beyond description. What a surprise when a teacher started to introduce me. All of a sudden it occurred to me how badly I had miscalculated. Too late I learned they may have been 15-17 but they had the minds of 3-year-olds.
True, I’d been told (warned?) I’d be reading to “kids with special needs” but it never occurred to me until I met them how special were those needs. I started reading from one book, abandoned it in mid-sentence for something simpler, then finally grabbed, of all things, a crumpled copy of Watchtower with an article on tears. Don’t ask why it was among my papers. In any case, it was not too long before I had to discard that too.
Thankfully 2.30 came; time for the kids to board their buses home. By which time I was myself near tears. I learned later that two of the teachers, out of embarrassment for me, had left soon after I started reading. They had formed the opinion I had not been properly informed in advance of my arrival at the school.
Actually, the fault was mine. I had misunderstood that “special needs” descriptive. No matter, I learned much that day, from the teachers who stayed behind to talk with me and for whom I signed copies of Lapses & Infelicities intended for the kids.
Such dedicated people, those teachers. I heard from them what I’ve never heard from a government minister about the number of young Saint Lucians as special as were those I’d just met. But later for that; I plan to write in greater depth about my experience—certainly a learning experience—in Vieux Fort.
I will say just this more on the subject. The teachers considered theirs a Sisyphean task: whatever they managed to teach the children on a given day had to be taught all over again the next. The kids went back to homes that the teachers knew little about, an environment over which they had little control.
Oh, but there’s good news.
According to a press release issued yesterday from the office of the prime minister, headed Another Promise Kept: Help for Special Children: “The Saint Lucia Labour Party administration has kept yet another promise to provide financial support for differently-abled children. The Grant Fund for Children with Disabilities, which was first announced by Prime Minister Dr. Kenny D. Anthony in the 2013/2014 Budget Statement, was launched on Wednesday in Vieux Fort. Under this program the government of Saint Lucia will grant $200 per child, to assist parents with medical, educational and other general expenses associated with the care of their differently-abled children.”
“In his address at the launch of the program . . . Dr. Anthony recognized the tremendous sacrifice that is made on a daily basis by parents and teachers of children with special needs.”
Dr. Anthony said to the teachers: ‘I admire what you do. It takes an extraordinary person to love and care for our special children. I know they demand constant attention and care. Day after day, you continue to love and care for them. I want to tell you how much I admire you. I thank you for the sacrifices you make for the well-being of our children.’”
The press release noted the launching of the fund on Wednesday but neglected to mention when the $200 allocations will start to flow, whether daily, monthly or annually. Ah, but better this than nothing; better late than never; it’s a start. NICE!
How wonderful is life on this Rock of Sages. We will revisit this subject, this nasty little secret that for too long has remained hidden from public view.