College (Chandni)

After watching ‘Radha is Looking Good’ most people have asked me –why did you tell this story, what research did you do?

Acting is my career, but I still needed a little help to pay the rent. Through a friend and a temping agency for teaching I found myself working in a special needs college as a SEN (special educational needs) teaching assistant.

‘A special needs college?’ I hear you ask! Well of course state schools run from primary to secondary to college, and it is no different for people with special needs. There are not many of these colleges around – they are very specialist and need a lot of equipment and funding to run.

For me this was a very new and raw experience. My first day was full of shock and fear but also laughter and smiles.

As I walked into the classroom, there were two big tables in the middle of the room, chairs, a huge projector screen, a sink that could be moved up or down via a remote control so that students in wheelchairs could reach it, three computers in different corners of the room, cupboards – all with lock on them, a piece of equipment across the ceiling called a ‘hoist’ that would lift someone in and out of a wheelchair, and three huge bean bags. Not your normal class room.

There were six students, two in wheel chairs and the rest able to walk. For most students it was one staff member to one student. But for a few more complicated students it was two staff members to one student. I was asked to stay away from these students as they had very specific routines that they would stick to and change would be difficult for them to understand.

What a morning I had. My first task was feeding. I was feeding a student mash potato and sausage which had been blended into a smooth paste for easy digestion. This was certainly not something I was used to – feeding a 19 year old man.  He was hesitant, he didn’t know me, I was a new face in his very structured world and there was certainly no accepting smile. I was told it was very important not to refer to student as a ‘good boy’ or ‘good girl’, as they were adults and we were not there to demean them.

That morning I decided the job really wasn’t for me and I wouldn’t be coming back again. But that afternoon we had a music session –and it was unlike anything I had ever been part of. The huge sliding doors between our classroom and the room next door were opened up to make one large classroom, and everyone came together to make a huge circle. A box of instruments was passed around the students and teachers. A teacher started playing ‘Hey Jude’ on the guitar and suddenly everyone came alive, banging, clapping and shaking their instruments to a beat in their head. It was loud, noisy and messy but somehow it worked. Faces were shining with colour and pride. Eyes were bright. Legs in wheelchairs were shaking up and down, hands held hands and swaying to the sound.

That was when I saw another side to the job that I hadn’t seen that morning – inside each of these students was a heart that was no different to mine and I wanted to see if I could make their whole day as exciting and motivating as this music session was.

I made this my challenge…and what a challenge it was!