Saturday, 9 January 2010

8001 letters - and then some more

if you are visiting from Nicola Morgan's birthday blog party later today, welcome to my blog. If you want to know who the "cat" from "downunder" is then here is a paw print. (I would really appreciate if you left a paw print in the comments so I can come and 'meet' you too.)

I once wrote more than 8000 letters about one idea. It was madness, insanity, determination and stupidity. It wrecked any chance I had of a career but, I hope, it made a difference. Nicola, should you come to visit, this is not witty or wise but it is about writing, reading and communicating. Let me start though at the beginning.

We have trouble fitting all the books into our house. The interior design feature is, quite simply, books and more books. Our shelves are double and even treble stacked. I have been surrounded by books from the day I was born. I grew up believing reading was important, very important. I grew up believing that being able to communicate was important too, even more important than reading. Reading is just one part of the complex process of communication. Writing is another.

I trained as a teacher - but it had to be in "special education" because, as someone with a disability myself, I was considered unfit for the mainstream classroom. In order to pay my way at teacher training college I worked as a 'junior housemistress' at a boarding school for girls - board and lodging in return for the usual duties. I also worked at a school for deaf and blind children on my day off - pocket money to pay my day to day expenses in college. This was all rather a long time ago - before things like "equal opportunity" legislation.

I taught a class of 18 profoundly intellectually and physically disabled children before I did a specialised year overseas - in London. I paid my way by teaching English as a Second Language. I had to leave hurriedly at the end of the academic year without having seen Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, Greenwich or Kew Gardens. I returned to Australia with extreme reluctance - to discover that (a) my mother had quite deliberately lied when she told me my father was ill and I was needed at home and (b) special education was being wound back as children were being placed in the mainstream as a cost-saving measure - dressed up as the better social and educational option. My dream of living and working in the UK was gone for ever.

I stuck it out in schools another four years, working with children who had profound communication impairments. I tried to introduce Blissymbols and communication boards into schools only to be blocked by those who thought it was all a waste of time. I also acted as head of the school I was based at on the headmaster's all too frequent days off. The school was due to close. I was told there was no teaching job for me. I spent a year in the central office and then there was no job at all.

At that point I announced my intention of going back to university. I had always wanted to do a degree. My mother was opposed, my father supportive. I reapplied to do the psychology course I had wanted to do four years previously. Once accepted into the course I had to rebuild a base of students to keep me housed and fed while I went to lectures, wrote essays and did all the work that students do. I did not have much time for student life.

There was talk around then about an International Year for Disabled Persons. I was already involved in the advance planning for that. My feeling however was that, important though the issues were, we were starting in the wrong place. People needed to be able to communicate. How can you complain if you cannot communicate? How can you get the services you need? It was also becoming increasingly obvious that many 'ordinary' people were just as badly disabled by a lack of ability to communicate. They needed to be able to read, to write, to comprehend in order to speak up for themselves.

I thought we needed another sort of International Year, something that would touch everyone.

My original idea was that we should have an International Year of Human Communication. I talked endlessly to people about it. My acquaintances must have been tired to death of the topic. I tried to think out a strategy to work on it. Who would support it? I wrote back to a friend in Australia, the poet Judith Wright. "Good idea" she wrote back, "Now go ahead and do something about it. You can do it." Judith was profoundly deaf by then. She added a list of people she thought I should talk to. They were Big Names. "Tell them I told you to make contact." Yes Judith. I would not have dared to contradict you.

It was at that point I began to write letters. This was March 1977. I was finishing the preliminary year that would lead to a Masters - or so I thought. I kept on writing letters. The responses were not encouraging. "International Years are expensive." "The idea needs a more specific focus". "Literacy has cultural implications you do not understand." A lot of people did not reply but I kept writing letters. I set myself a goal of two letters each morning and two letters each evening. I researched so I could individualise each letter, told the recipient something positive about themselves and saying that was the reason I was writing. Flattery and corruption will get you somewhere in the end.

After the first four months someone who worked for MI5 (not that I knew that then) gave me some good advice. From then on I asked people not to write to the UN itself but to the UN representative of their country. Some of them wrote to me as well. They were often pro-forma replies but little things kept me going, like a handwritten letter from a Mr Rabin, Minister of Education in Israel, a man later destined to become Prime Minister. Another letter, in Spanish, from Pablo Neruda who then told me (in English) that I had better learn some Spanish if I wanted to succeed! I had letters translated into other languages, Arabic, Russian, French, Korean, Japanese and more. My students came to learn it was part of the price for learning English from me. I was getting enough to eat and just covering the cost of my room. It was enough. It had to be enough.

I wrote a doctorate and kept on teaching English to support myself, writing letters without stop. The postage and the typewriter ribbons, paper and envelopes kept me poor, very poor. I had to return to Australia in the middle of the letter writing which only made it harder. I would have given anything at that point to stay in London because there was a glimmer of hope on the horizon then. Some very powerful people were starting to look interested - but not interested in the way which would get me a job and the right to stay in the UK. John Major sent me to talk to the Ministry of Education about the idea - but not about bending the rules so I could stay in the UK.

Back in Australia there was nothing, not even the hope of a job. I had been away too long. Special education no longer existed as a separate entity. The Australian and State Public Service organisations told me I was unemployable and made sure the private sector knew it - I was considered to have too many ideas and it was thought I would prove disruptive. Perhaps it was true. I came close to giving up.

I went back to university to do another degree - in Law. Again I supported myself by teaching English. I co-supervised some degrees, concentrating on the language use in them. I had also started to write "communication boards", boards designed to allow micro-aid workers to communicate with local people in disaster and emergency situations when an interpreter was not available. It is what I still do and, believe me, I need the law degree to do it.

There was still no time for myself. I was still writing letters about the international year. One day I was the subject of an editorial in a major newspaper - after a letter to the editor. There was another spike of interest. Then, quite suddenly, there was a 'phone call from my contact inside the UN. It was 9 July 1987. He was 'phoning to let me know that there had been a resolution of the Economic and Social Council the day before; they were designating 1990 as International Literacy Year. I had written more than 8000 letters by then.

I should have felt good. I did not. I felt drained. I thought we had barely started on the real work. I put in my application to head the ILY Secretariat in Australia and did not even get called for interview. The Prime Minister of the day had apparently intervened. I was not to be given the job. As a person with a disability I was considered "unsuitable" to be an ambassador for my country. That was it. The year went ahead officially without me. That hurt.

But there were little things, many little things, that I was indirectly involved in that year. There were thousands of small projects that made a local difference. Of course we do not have universal literacy but we have literacy where there was none before. That did feel good.

I resolved to be less involved this year. I want to write too. I do not want to write more letters. I do not want to write about my experiences. It is all out there somewhere. Would I do it again? I do not know. Other people can get on with it.

I want to write books for people to read.


Donna Hosie said...

How long did it take you to write this entry? I reckon you should do NaNo this year. You would bang out 50,000 words in no time!

Adelaide Dupont said...

It's a shame that there hasn't been an International Year of Human Communication, even though there has been a Year of Tolerance (the year that radicalised me) and a Year of Anti-Racial Discrimination, in 1995 and 2001.

It was interesting to read about your teaching career.

Oh, Rabin. He was the man who got killed because of "a sacred duty".

Hooray for Literacy Year in 1990.

There are lots of disability ambassadors, who we hear about every December 3. Would like to see more focus on the ambassador.

Who knows, someone might nominate you for the Confucius or King Sejong.

Here is an interesting article from Time about the 'last adornments for handwriting'.

Mourning the death of handwriting (Time: 2009). It mentions that the 'new alphabet' was devised in the US in 1990.

Rachel Fenton said...

Cat - I don't know how you've done all this - I would have to live to 300 to fit in what you've experienced in part of one lifetime!

You certainly have determination though - you're one tenacious moggy!

You know you'll achieve your dreams, you'll simply have to learn to be more patient! (As if!!!)

catdownunder said...

Yes Donna, it IS a bit long...but then it was the short version too!

Anonymous said...

What determination! Your post also spoke to me personally. Communication difficulty is the reason why social anxiety is almost unknown.

Anyway, I'm here from Nicola Morgan's birthday party, and while I don't have many paws, my cat, Toby, has four and is leaving a print here for me. ~Miriam

catdownunder said...

I am glad you came Miriam!

Marsha Moore said...

I am in awe of your dedication. What a journey you've had - thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Wow, what an inspiring post. You worked so hard, it's incredibly sad that they were so discriminatory that you couldn't have been involved in the year officially.

The Virtual Victorian said...

Cat - great to find your blog. Good luck with everything. Who knows what's round the corner...


jonathan pinnock said...

Wow. Extraordinary story. Glad to have dropped in to read that. Your tenacity is astonishing.

Kate B said...

Cat, we can visit the sights of london together. Here, I am, a Londoner born and bred and have yet to fully appreciate half her beauty. Let me know where you want to go, and I will be your eyes. Have you heard of the Postman's Garden?

I am a firm believer in believing, just keep going


Nicola Morgan said...

Cat, I am very moved by this story. I knew some aspects of it, but I didn't know the full, chronological, painful detail. I am full of enormous admiration for you. You'd told me before that you'd made yourself "unemployable" but I didn't understand how or why or what this meant. I was quite misty-eyed at the end of reading that post, which gripped me, really gripped me. A moving paw-print!

You deserve better than you've had. I don't know how, but I really hope you will think of yourself much, much more this year. That doesn't mean being selfish - which I can't imagine you would ever be - but it does mean not beating yourself up about things. You have achieved an enormous amount, even if you've not been recognised for it. And you've shown great skills, as well, and they should be able to earn you a decent income if you can find a way to select the activities that will carry you forward.

You deserve success and happiness this year and I do hope you will find it.

Thank you so much for sharing your story. Quite amazing.

Jean said...

Thank you for sharing this interesting, moving and inspirational story. I came here via Nicola's blog-birthday party and will definitely be coming here again.

Nora Nadjarian said...

Hi Cat
What a story.
Nice to meet you (through Nicola Morgan)
Nora (Cyprus)

Anna Bowles said...

What impressive dedication! Compared to the obstacles you hurled yourself at for years, the much-vaunted difficulty of getting a book published looks very small fry indeed.

It's clearly time you had an ambition just for yourself, and best of luck with that one.

Nicola Slade said...

Cat, that sounds like a publishable memoir in the making! The absolute antithesis of the 'misery memoir' because it's such an inspiring record of one woman's perseverance. And surely all that effort, all those letters, gradually impinged on people? Made them think?
Things (we hope) are different nowadays and surely improving? Would it be worth sounding out a publisher?

Dropped over from the party with greetings from my moggies: Blind Dylan (nearly 17) and Fat Ed (10 yrs old and weighs over 14lb!)

Jo said...

I agree with what others have written here. Such tenacity and perseverance, and you're obviously an accomplished writer, so get cracking on that book. Good luck!

Jen Campbell said...

Cat, it was a pleasure to read your story. Having read your blog before, like Nicola, I didn't know these details and it was an incredibly moving read. You also put me to shame with your proactivity. I'm amazed by how much you have done.

Good luck for your writing, I have everything crossed xx

Michelle said...

What a good idea to share your life story on your blog! It really does help readers get a sense of who you are.

Ellen B said...

Cat, I popped over from my blog, thanks for the comment :)

I just wanted to say how much I applaud and respect your determination, and I wish you the very best of luck with writing a book. Let us all know how it goes!

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