“Monsieur Audin! The principal wishes to speak to you in his office, right now!” A disembodied voice shrilled across the sea of heads.
Monsieur Audin, or Louis as we better knew him, had been Ben’s teacher and our close friend for the last five years. It looked like he was in trouble, and it was all my fault!
I glanced over at Sylvie, his wife, who was still holding her banner high in the air, ‘School for everyone!’ it boldly stated. She didn’t look overly concerned over Louis being summoned and continued to shout, “All children have the right to an education!”
It was the first day of the school year and Louis should have been in the playground welcoming his class. But instead he and his entire family were outside the school gates demonstrating alongside Ben and me! I had organized the demonstration in protest at the lack of schooling available to disabled children across France. The number of children with no school to go to had topped the two thousand mark, the year was 2001, and my son Ben, was one of those children.
Louis chuckled like a naughty little boy, handed his banner to his son, shrugged his typically French shrug and disappeared through the gates clutching his beret to his head, and into the school.
I laughed inwardly, he never changed, he was still that mischievous Peter Pan character disguised in the body of a man. And I let my mind wander back through the years to when we had first met him.
We had arrived at a pair of large, ornate metal gates which opened directly onto ancient stone steps leading down to a tarmacked playground, now filled with hundreds of screaming children running in every possible direction.
It was Ben’s first day at big school, he was eight.
I was more nervous than he, but I knew better what ‘integration’ could mean – particularly in a special class within a mainstream school – and in France! We stood hand in hand on the top step surveying the scene below, not knowing where to go or who we should speak to, when we were suddenly rescued by a stocky man in his mid-forties. Below his wild unruly hair was a dark bushy beard covering most of his face, and under his thick dark eyebrows his kindly, jovial eyes sparkled in greeting.
“Bonjour! You must be Benjamin and this must be your mother Mme. Morse! Welcome!”
He shook Ben’s hand first and smiled warmly at him – and won his first point in my book, most people, especially the French, tended to ignore Ben on first meeting.
“Please, call me Charlotte.” I insisted as he turned to shake my hand.
“My name is Louis Audin, and I am Ben’s new teacher.”
He smiled widely at each of us, a sincere, warm smile which made his eyes sparkle even brighter. I liked him immediately and felt some of my previous fears begin to evaporate.
“Now, tell me, what are you hoping for? For Ben to learn in this school?” He tousled Ben’s hair as he spoke, a thoughtful gesture to include him in the conversation.
“I’d like him to learn to read and write and to learn enough math to enable him to understand money.” My constant answer to an often similar question.
He put his head to side, scratched his thick beard and gazed at a passing cloud as skepticism began to cloud his eyes, “Ah bon?” (‘Oh really?’).
My defensive shield snapped into place, I was used to skepticism when it came to Ben, and I was having none of it! “In the UK and the US, 80% of children with Downs Syndrome learn to read and write, I am informed that in France the figure is a mere 20%!” I took a breath before continuing, well aware I was likely to offend. “So I can only presume that the reason has to be down to the education system, as the children in France certainly can’t be any different from those elsewhere.”
I had made up these statistics on the spur of the moment, although I did believe that they were vaguely accurate, I knew that the French children with Downs were certainly achieving less than others abroad.
He put his head on one side as he considered what I’d said. “Well,” He mused, “I’ll see what I can do then.” His gaze turned back to the clouds for a moment, “Yes, yes, I will! I’ll see what I can do.” He smiled warmly at me before turning to Ben. “Come Ben, come and meet your classmates.” And, quickly shaking my hand in goodbye, he took Ben’s and led him down the steps into the throng of noisy children.
I turned away, a little less nervous for my son now, than I had been on arrival.
When I took Ben to school a few days later Louis mounted the steps to greet us. We hadn’t had a chance to talk since that first day, and - after all the obligatory bonjours and handshakes – he turned to me and said, “I looked up those statistics you gave me….”
Oh dear, he’s going to tell me my figures are way out! I held my breath.
“….and they appear to be correct!”
I exhaled and stood a little straighter.
“When you first arrived and told me what you wanted for your son.” He scratched his beard and chuckled lightly, “Don’t take this wrong, but I thought to myself, ‘This English woman is mad!’” He laughed again, “But you were right! They can learn to read and write!” He appeared animated by his discovery and, like an excited little boy, he clapped his hands together in glee. “So, what I need to do now is find out how! I was wondering if you have any information at all on the teaching techniques used in England or in the US?” He looked at each of us in turn, “Oui? Non?”
I shook my head, gutted that I had no information to offer nor to encourage. “No, I’m sorry, I don’t know anything about teaching I’m afraid, Ben was only two when we left.”
He shrugged in the way only a French man can, and replied, “Not to worry, I’m sure if I look it all up I can find out, there must be many books on the subject too.” And turning to Ben he said “Right Ben, are you ready to join us? We’ve been playing a really good game called ‘Beret’ and I’m sure you’ll love it!”
Ben followed him gleefully into the playground, I was pleased to see that he had become so fond of Louis in such a short time and that he appeared happy in this new school.
But as I turned to go Louis’ words whirled around in my head, I was so astonished that this fully qualified special needs teacher was prepared to review all that he’d previously learned on the mere say so of one mum – in my experience it was unheard of from any professional in the field!
It was a couple of weeks later, when I popped my head around Ben’s door to begin getting him ready for school. Usually he played quietly in his room until he heard someone stirring, but that day his room was empty. I stepped back into the corridor and listened, I could hear him chatting to himself in a room further down. Oh no, that’s Sarah’s room! She, as all teenagers, demands that her room remains private, especially to Ben!
I stepped quickly along the corridor and opened the door. “Ben! What are you doing in here? You know Sarah doesn’t like you being in her room when she’s away!”
He visibly jumped and quickly turned from the mirror he’d been closely studying, his face a mess of guilt - and big red blobs!
“What on earth have you been doing Ben?” I turned his face towards mine, “Oh no, that isn’t nail varnish all over your face is it?”
He looked down at the small bottle in his hand and shrugged. “Ben want be clown Maman, Ben good clown, eh Maman?”
“No you’re not a good clown, you’re a very bad clown! Oh Ben, you’ve got to get to school and nail varnish doesn’t wash off!” I roughly grabbed the bottle from his small hand and began to rummage through Sarah’s bedside cabinet. “Is there any varnish remover in there? It’s impossible to get off without remover!” I grumbled, more to myself than him.
His head drooped and disappointment glazed his eyes, my angry reaction was not what he had been hoping for and he turned his gaze from me to study his feet.
“Ben, there is no remover in here! And I don’t have any! Oh for goodness sake! Come with me!” Exasperated I grabbed his arm, a little too roughly, and dragged him towards the bathroom, his little legs running to keep up with my angry strides. “I don’t believe this! It’s a school day! What were you thinking?”
He hung his head, his voice was small. “Ben just want be clown Maman.”
I dampened a flannel and began to vigorously rub at the bright red circles on his nose and cheeks; it had no effect at all! As I scrubbed I wracked my brains trying to think what might actually remove it without damaging his skin, which is always particularly dry. Face-paints were tricky enough to remove, but nail varnish was going to be impossible! I groaned inwardly.
“Come, let’s try something from the kitchen…. Maybe vinegar, or washing-up liquid or washing powder might work?”
I tried everything, nothing would budge it and all I was achieving was bright red flares of soreness.
“Well that’s it! I’ve tried everything and I can’t get it off! You’re just going to have to go to school like that, but your teacher Louis, won’t be pleased with you at all!”
Ben had already begun to have problems at the school, the mainstream children enjoyed poking fun at his entire class and they were certainly going to find his clown face a wonderful opportunity to stoke their amusement and mockery.
He rubbed his cheeks with both hands, they looked sore, so I guiltily spread a dollop of cream across his face to try to ease his discomfort.
When we arrived at the school gates, Louis was in the playground with those from his class who had already arrived. I’m sure he saw the steam coming out of my ears even before we entered the gates, but he certainly noticed the furious expression still etched into my face and my overly fierce grip on Ben’s hand.
He sauntered over to us. “Oh good morning to both of you! What have we here then?” He lifted Ben’s face for a closer look. “Hmm interesting.”
“I’m so sorry Louis, Ben stupidly decided he wants to be a clown today! It’s Sarah’s nail varnish! I’m furious with him as I can’t get it off and I tell you, I’ve tried everything!”
“A clown eh?” Louis looked down at Ben and smiled, his eyes mischievous, twinkling below the heavy brows, “What a wonderful idea!” He clapped his hands together and laughed, “I think everyone in class should be clowns today, what do you think Ben?”
Ben’s eyes light up immediately “Yeah?”
“Yeah! Let’s go tell the others!” He took Ben’s hand and, after a quick wink and smile thrown in my direction, he began to lead Ben down the steps towards his group of kids. “Hey everyone! Look at Ben! Ben’s a clown today, shall we all paint our faces and be clowns too?”
I watched fascinated as all Louis’ special children stopped what they were doing and almost in perfect unison yelled “Yeah! We’re going to be clowns!” And ran headlong towards their class room whooping with joy at the anticipation of the fun filled day ahead.
As they disappeared into class I stood in wonder at what an amazing man that Louis Audin was! How empathetic, intuitive and creative to turn such a negative situation so positive. Ben would no longer stick out like a sore thumb and be open to a day of harsh ridicule from the other students, he would now blend in with the rest of his class and his bright red blotches of nail varnish would appear to be nothing out of the ordinary.
From that day on I vowed to try to be more like him and not lose my temper, get frustrated or exasperated by Ben’s antics, but rather to embrace them and turn them into something positive.
And as I got to know Louis better and those first few encounters blossomed into a deep friendship which lasted even beyond our return to the UK, I came to realize that Louis was one of the most amazing men I had ever met. I witnessed many other of his ‘negatives to positives’ during Ben’s time with him, making choices that most teachers would never think of, be aware were possible, or if they were aware, never dare put into action – but those are for other stories, and for another time.
During the five years that Ben was in his class, Louis continued to study numerous books, all in English, on the methods of teaching children with learning difficulties, while at the same time completely modifying his own approaches, in keeping with all that he read.
And by the time we left France he had taught Ben and many of the others to read and write, and to do simple arithmetic – and despite at first being been so skeptical, it had now become his norm – solely, I believe, because he was prepared to be open to all ideas, and to listen to others despite his numerous qualifications.
He didn’t get into any great trouble over the demonstration outside the school either, the principal said his piece as he no doubt felt he should, but I believe he was well aware of the gem he had within his school walls and was loathe to risk losing him.
Louis died of lung cancer only a year after we returned to England, but we did manage one last visit with him and were very thankful to have the opportunity to say our last goodbyes. Both Ben and I will always remember him as the truly great and inspirational man that he was, and we know that sadly we live in a much poorer world without him in it.