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Open Features: Arabesques in The Hut – Part 1

...In The Hut we could play music, dance, spread ourselves around and 'work big'. Dance – there was tap, flamenco, Latin American, Irish... whatever David was currently taken up with. But mainly there was ballet. David was already a classical ballet buff. Not me. Until I met him I didn't care for it. But I just had to buckle down to my homework so that I could partner him in his greatest roles: Romeo, the Prince in Swan Lake, and various other princes, heroes and show-offs. I was happier as the bumbling Ginger Rogers to his Fred Astaire....

Jacqueline Finesilver tells of the education of a very special boy.

This story will be continued next Friday.

Morning school was almost over, David and I were coming to the end of our very first session and I could not see that anything had been achieved by either of us. He had tolerated my presence but not connected with me. Neither had he shown any interest in the objects and activities I had tried to introduce; all around us, disregarded and abandoned, lay my ‘bits and pieces’, the teaching aids, and materials I'd brought to this first meeting. Obviously, he wouldn't be offering to help me gather them up.

For some reason, I went into ham acting mode - hunched my shoulders, spread my hands and slipped into really crass mock Italian:

“Eh! Amico! Why you no ‘elp-a me?”

He looked sideways at me with a glint of something in his eyes. Irritation? Annoyance? Would I hear yet another 'No!', very quiet but firm? I continued my 'Italian' plea. Could it be he was actually amused?

Really hamming now,

“ Eh! Davide! I'm-a askin' you....”

I even dropped to my knees with a melodramatic gesture.

My kneeling and arm waving triggered a response I wasn’t expecting. David grinned and sang something in his barely audible voice,

It took a moment or two for me to realise what he was singing. Then I got it.

“Hey, Officer Krupke, I’m down on my knees...
(mumble, mumble, mumble)... social disease.”

Wow! Well! Right! So, this boy knew 'West Side Story'! Connection!

‘The trouble is he’s lazy,’ I squawked (switching to my best New York hoodlum accent),

‘The trouble is he drinks’ whispered David.

‘The trouble is he’s crazy.'

The trouble is he....(I held my nose and pulled a face)

'Stinks !’ David giggled. He repeated that line and the gesture.

And then we sang it again, from the top. And again. And that was it. From then on we were in showbiz together.

If I were to list David's problems it would be a long list. But I won't do that. I will just say that multiple congenital abnormalities, neurological and physiological dysfunctions made his life hazardous. Apart from everything else, attending his local primary school was very challenging for him because of his hypersensitivity to noise and bustle, the obstacle-filled, ever-changing physical environment and his lack of 'saving reflexes'. A cleft palate and other speech problems made ordinary verbal communication very difficult. He was only able to cope with half-day attendance for much of the time. Afternoons were spent at hospital or at out-of-school therapy sessions. Needless to say, his mother's life was also a very demanding one.

But setting aside the physical problems, David had a lot going for him. He's always been surrounded by music. He comes from a family of professional musicians. His mother had studied 'cello at the Guildhall and David showed an appreciation of classical music from a very early age. Not only did he listen to symphonies and concertos with absorption and enjoyment but responded expressively and appropriately with arm and hand movements. By the time I met him, when he was about age seven, he had begun to indicate to his mother, by a gesture and a whispered, 'Schubert' or 'Brahms,' when he spotted that one composer had borrowed a phrase or motif from another.

But he wasn't confined to a strictly classical music diet. Together, David and his Mum attended all kinds of performances in all kinds of venues. They are such frequent and appreciative visitors to ballets, concerts and operas that staff at the Royal Opera House, Sadler's Wells, The Peacock and other theatres often greeted David by name. Dance, too, soon became a 'must have' ingredient of everyday life. So they have strutted their stuff at free events and workshops on the South Bank, especially a wonderful glitzy extravaganza called 'Ballroom Blitz'. Street theatre, carnivals, jazz and jive events, buskers - these attract them like bees to nectar.

So, David loved music and dance and stories. He loved performance. He had a developed awareness of sounds (and a liking for foreign accents) and rhythms and a great sense of timing. He had a marked sense of humour and an ability to make quick associations between characters, situations, actions. But he couldn't speak clearly and couldn't write. Not only did he have an aversion to answering a straight question, he refused to engage with simple systems by which he was supposed to indicate his wishes and responses.(His Classroom Assistant tried to introduce a picture-board system;but he totally blanked this.)

Those who got to know him realised he was a strong character, full of interest and great company. But he had no mainstream 'voice'.

In our school sessions I decided to try to embed morsels of ‘lesson stuff’ into tempting portions of ‘music and dance stuff.’ David and I were lucky in two things,: the Head Teacher and The Hut. David's primary school had a sympathetic and accommodating Head. She didn’t object to a portion of the premises being used for show business. The Hut was a slightly saggy pre-fab building where the football team shook the mud off their boots and where children went to make unsociable noises with violins and trumpets. It was a place I had already commandeered for literacy teaching, using games, drama, obstacle courses, whatever would strike sparks. Now David and I were to transform it into a sort of theatre-cum-props room.

In The Hut we could play music, dance, spread ourselves around and 'work big'. Dance – there was tap, flamenco, Latin American, Irish... whatever David was currently taken up with. But mainly there was ballet. David was already a classical ballet buff. Not me. Until I met him I didn't care for it. But I just had to buckle down to my homework so that I could partner him in his greatest roles: Romeo, the Prince in Swan Lake, and various other princes, heroes and show-offs. I was happier as the bumbling Ginger Rogers to his Fred Astaire.

Sometimes other staff or children wandered into The Hut. The music specialist once dashed in to collect something, trying to be unobtrusive. David grabbed her and she found herself sitting at the battered piano, the sheet music for 'Top Hat, White Tie and Tails' before her. Well, she did her best. David didn't actually say, 'Don't call us ....'

Another time some prospective parents got a surprise. David and I were jigging around to a rather wild Irish tune, yelling along with the band while engaged in chalking graffiti on the blackboard. The door of The Hut opened and the faces of the Head Teacher and the parents peeped in. They all looked startled and the door shut quickly. (And that nice woman never said a word to me afterwards about this incident.) I suppose if I'd been quicker, or bothered, I could at least have explained that we'd been chalking, 'Smash The Windows!' on the board because it was the title of the tune.

To be continued next Friday.

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