I have finally completed my last assignment for my University course and decided to defer my entry to Lancaster by a year. It’s a decision I took with care as it would be wasteful for my career development, as the Coronavirus restrictions would still be in place. My environmental science course requires participation in field trips and the restrictions would mean that the locations would be closed off to students. For now I have decided to take a year out and I will be bringing you more of my adventures as I carry on writing my new book in the meantime. For this post I am talking about education plans as well from my own past. This story will show how current education plans condemn the disabled to obsolescence. This is from my secondary school in 1996-2001, but it’s still felt today.
In April I wrote a post for the Havering Daily about my schooling and how my autism was played up to make it look like I was defective and how I was undermined. My ambitions were frustrated and crushed because my parents were led on by patronising pathetic useless do-gooders. It pained me to bring myself to write that story but I felt I had to in order to show people an example of a bad education for autistic people. I reckon had I been allowed more and better options when I was young then I might have not spent most of my life dependent on welfare handouts.
An autism advocacy blogger called Neurodivergent Rebel told her story about what it was like growing up autistic and not knowing it. Having seen that story I decided to work on my own life story here about what it was like growing up autistic and rejecting my doctor’s diagnosis. I was aware that I had some sort of thing about me that made me distinctly different from my peers, but I didn’t have the vocabulary or ability to express it in words. I did have a diagnosis of autism when I was young but I refused to learn about it because it was full of stories of hideous creatures that lived in hopeless situations. My parents did little to persuade me to see otherwise. To them I was too difficult to handle and couldn’t be fixed.
The culture of disablement back then was not as rosy and shiny as it is now. It was like a fringe group of the diversity movement that hadn’t been as widely embraced by society. It had yet to achieve it’s full potential to promote a positive view of being autistic. Based on this my family didn’t see anything useful in me. They didn’t even bother to educate themselves much about what my autism did to affect the way I behaved and acted. They just got irritated by the way I wouldn’t grow up properly or learn to socialise with people. Well it wasn’t my fault when I struggled to fit in as I couldn’t find any company that I enjoyed being in. Most of the people I was made to socialise with were stupid and pathetic, especially the people at my school.
Going into the school system after diagnosis I went into an education plan that was not set up for me. It was a horrible school made by association for people who were incapable of learning or becoming employable. I complained a lot about how I was feeling miserable but they never took action on my situation. Instead they just dumbed down the content of my lessons and made me take a mediocre GCSE plan. Recently I got out my old school admission files in my personal documents. I found out that my parents had applied for a few school places and I got rejected a place at my secondary school one, and then got a place on winning an appeal. I think they only accepted me on the grounds that they needed a disabled pupil like me for tokenism.
There is a lot of things that I wish I had learned when I was young but that was denied to me. Let’s start with my school and why it was so terrible. I went to Oaklands School, Old Bethnal Green, an comprehensive community school that was non-selective. It was a terrible school in a socially deprived area with a majority black Bengali population that almost resembled a ghetto. My first year went okay but then after a while I got bored and stagnated with the place as I felt like I wasn’t doing anything adventurous. I wasn’t just bullied, I was made to put up with distractions and loud classrooms of hooliganism and teenage chivalry. Some of my classmates were loud and caused disruption to my learning and the teaching. On a number of occasions the lessons got cancelled and I had to spend time in group detentions.
I tried to make a case to my parents to have me moved to a better school because I wasn’t doing well. I felt like I was being made to suffer with this day care hostel for troublemakers in the backstreets of Bethnal Green. The school even masked the bad behaviour and poor performances of the school by dumbing down the content. I saw this when I noticed my brother and sister were doing a completely different set of skills in their schools compared to mine. I was even helped by the staff to cheat at my exams.
Maths: In a conventional GCSE maths programme you are meant to study algebra, trigonometry, calculus, quadratics, symbols, Greek letter Pi, indices, logarithms ,etc. In Oaklands I just did basic maths with puzzle type cards that contained nothing mentally challenging enough to make a career as a maths geek. I presented a fancy calculator made for GCSE maths using the trigonometric functions and my maths teacher said ‘why did you get that, we’re not learning that type of maths’. I remember my maths teacher quite well because she called me slow and stupid even though she had been made aware that I had an intellectual disability.
English: Ordinarily you would study a mixture of plays, poems, novels, and short stories and deconstruct them by analysing the characters, plots and themes within them. Shakespeare, Orwell, Chesterton, Rand, etc. In Oaklands I didn’t do much of that. We spent most of the time doing recreational activities like poster making, copying and translating ancient grammar, and other menial tasks that didn’t involve anything with critical thinking. Because of the school’s diversity policy we ended up reading texts on black culture long before the politically correct culture of schooling took over. I remember my GCSE paper having a repeated set of questions from my SATs paper two years previously. I had to interpret the style and format of a piece of text. Can you guess what the text was? It was a leaflet on how to install a TV aerial!
My favourite subjects were also dumbed down as well. Science was supposed to cover all the major disciplines including biology, chemistry and physics with analytical thinking and engaging in reasonable understanding of principles. Instead we just did mostly biology and a few bits of chemistry and physics. Nothing relating to radiation and quanta, just how animals and plants live in nature. IT here made me get into computers for the first time but there was nothing about the classes here that was set to make one of the early dotcom pioneers. Of all the IT work I did all we ever did was learn to use word processors and spreadsheets and surfing the internet for information, but never learn how to code or build a database.
Design and technology was perhaps the worst offender here at Oaklands. In my first year I learnt how to design and build a product out of wood and how to use tools. This lesson plan was then repeated in each of the following years with nothing to add on to it. No lessons on civil engineering, electrical conductors, bridge building or using a soldering iron. Not even anything so practical as learning how to wire a plug or fix a broken toilet. I aspired to be an inventor when I was young, and had I even passed my GCSEs I would never have gone anywhere because I was not taught any essential life skills.
I complained a few times about how bored I was with the repetitive rote type learning and how it wasn’t equipping me with any useful work skills. All they said to me was ‘if you repeat this stuff over and over again then you will be able to pass your exams’. That is so patronising, it was like politely saying to me ‘your thick and useless so don’t bother asking for something better because you won’t amount to anything’. In other words, just pass your schoolwork but don’t expect to go into work. To the school support team my autism defined me for who I was: defective, awkward and without a hope of doing anything useful with my life. I got so bored and miserable I put my brain on strike and refused to work for good grades. So as you can tell my mental health was severely affected.
Talking of diversity this school had a policy of supporting disabled pupils but it was biased in favour of only working to their personal agenda. They did support me in classes, but all they did was sit beside me and make sure that I did my work well. If I had a complaint about the way things weren’t working right for me they would chastise me for disagreeing with them. I got constantly told to ‘just ignore it’ whenever I complained to them about troubles I was having with other pupils. They even ignored me when they saw that I was being insulted for my Polish ancestry by the Bengali pupils.
When I let slip to them that my middle name is Zenon some of them started chanting my middle name like it was a dirty slur. I couldn’t make out what they were saying because I couldn’t read social cues and I couldn’t understand why in particular these black Bengalis were obsessed with it. Years later when I became politically active I began to understand that a Jewish name had Eastern European tones to it. So what they were doing to me was appropriating anti-Jewish remarks by linking me to Zionism. They pushed this stupid conspiracy that I was a catholic Zionist wandering into their territory. That is one of the shameful things about Oaklands, it has an anti-racism policy but it doesn’t include Jews and Europeans. I reckon had I gone into that school with my mother’s Polish surname I would have been bullied and hounded out within the first year.
Interestingly the lesson were designed to be Jew free to avoid to avoid triggering the Bengali pupils who were anti-Semitic in nature. The history lessons about the rise of the Nazis made no mention of the holocaust when we were discussing Hitler, as I only learned about it from my nan. One time I said to my tutor why she didn’t include the holocaust, and she just whispered in my ear ‘don’t talk about it here, it will upset some people’. I remember drawing the Israeli flag in front of the headteacher and she told me not to draw it and give it to her to be thrown in the bin. I was absolutely puzzled by that. On a number of occasions some of the boys said I was rich and I told them I wasn’t, and then they said ‘then why are you called Zenon?’ and I didn’t know how to respond to it. All the teachers told me was ‘You shouldn’t have told them your middle name’. It was pathetic and hostile to be there.
Now although I had a bad experience with going to a school with Bengali pupils that I did not get along with, I did not develop racist feelings from being taunted by them. But if you do not want to push racism into people then don’t let a minority group have a special right to be mean to white people. I have got Bengali and Muslim friends today, but unlike the ones at Oaklands they are not idiotic and spiteful to me. Most of them are pleased with my autism advocacy work and take an active interest in disability issues.
It’s situations like mine that undermine and ruin the chances that autistic people have in life. When you don’t take an interest in them you stop them from succeeding at getting a meaningful life. They end up becoming social pariahs with no people to network with and that leads to them living a lifetime of welfare dependency. Also having been in that situation as a person who was intimidated with anti-Semitic remarks I know what it’s like for a Jew to be denied their right to self-determination. It’s not fair that one group gets more advantages in life though selective prejudice that keeps the disabled in the cracks of society. If a school does not work for me then I won’t accept a third class education in a place like that.
Having had that experience of a terrible school I struggled to sell myself to employers because I had no interpersonal skills or social skills training. I got patronised by people who expect me to get a job when I have nothing behind me and I had to redevelop and learn everything about autism myself and how it affects me. Had I known then what I know now, I would have gone to a school governor or to a social worker and had myself set up with a home schooling plan.