It was fifty years ago this September, that my mum and dad took me to the Palace School, a boarding school for ‘handicapped’ children in Ely, Cambridgeshire. I had no idea where we were going or why. All I remember was that my mother sat with me in the back of the car rubbing my small, cold hands. I was too little then, even to look out at the flat lands of the fens; all I could see was the slate grey sky and the ribbons of rain snaking down the car windows. The date must have been Monday 8th September, 1969. I was 4 years old.
All that I am now, can be distilled into that single moment when my mum, sobbing, gently put me down, onto the cold hard concrete floor and left.
I would spend the next 12 years travelling to and fro to the same school on the train and got used to the sick feeling of dread that came with every journey back after the long summer holidays.
We often shared the train with kids going back to King’s, a private school in Ely and I remember thinking then, how we were worlds apart. Ironically, the Palace was taken over by King’s some years ago and is now an ‘independent school’
Only now, as a parent myself, can I appreciate how hard it must have been for my mum and my family to let me go at the beginning of each new term.
This poem is dedicated to all the disabled children and their parents, who, like me, had to travel far away from home to be institutionalized and receive a second class education.
Let history remember us!
School socked legs pound dew covered pavements
As summer swings stand silent, in the park
And the arc between child and adult narrows
With each marching year that passes,
Leaves burn on trees then fly away on the snappy breeze
To be chased by cars on their dreary-eyed morning
Commute to work; longing for the next opportunity to
Shirk the dreariness of nine to five.
Trains fill with blazers shouting grammar
And privilege in ‘silent only’ carriages,
Where hat-less people smoke,
Much less than they did, when I was young.
When I was a kid
The summer holidays felt luxuriously long.
Until September pulled my Paddington suitcase
From under the bed and folded name tagged
Pants and vests with sad resigned gentleness.
Then I would feel my heart churn and twist
Deep within my childish chest and I cried for time
To rewind and be lived again.
Fifty years on, those feelings, they still come
Brought on by the harsh September rain.