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As Greta and Malala show, the children know best

The first book I ever produced, some 50 years ago, was a collection of poetry written by children. I called it Children’s Words. There are poems in there by the young Daniel Day Lewis and Montagu Don, among others, and another by one Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

I was a young teacher trying all I could to help children find their voices. It was at a time when teachers were not so confined to and driven by a narrow curriculum, the children not so taught to the exam, not so force-fed. So teachers like me could all have more time and space to explore ideas, discover worlds, write our poetry, tell our tales, sing our songs, paint our pictures, make and act our plays. It was a good time to teach. The work they were producing was extraordinary; I was already beginning to realise just how immense the potential and talent of these young people was. I should have known. I had children of my own.

What had not occurred to me so much then but has become much more apparent to me now, and to all of us, I suspect — and has been one of the great and important benefits of social media — is the power of young people to change lives, change the world and how we see it.

Patronise if you dare! The determination and courage of the young to take on the adult world, its hypocrisy, its greed, its idiocies, its hubris, its self-delusion, its ignorance, its absurd preconceptions and prejudices, ‘to bravely go where no one has gone before’, has taken most of us by surprise.

Some of us might not have thought that young people had it in them. Some of us did not think they were old enough. Some of us did not think they would understand such things. And some did not think they had a right to stand up for their beliefs, to say and write what they feel, to do what they think is right, and what should be put right. It wasn’t long ago that there were some who thought of women that way. That’s worth remembering.

Worth remembering too is the contribution millions of children today are making the world over towards the lives of others, towards this good earth, towards human rights, towards peace and reconciliation.

Let me mention just three of the millions who have made us sit up and think and change, who are telling us straight how it is, who are pricking our consciences and showing us a new way forward, a better way.

In Pakistan, some ten years ago now, Malala Yousafzai, a young schoolgirl of 11, was speaking out for the rights of all girls to be educated, and educated well. In full knowledge of how some in Pakistan might object to this — the Taleban in particular, and others — and understanding fully what risks she was taking, she went on speaking out. Her blogs for the BBC became well known. And the Taleban came for her, to silence her. They shot her in the school bus on her way home.

The assassination attempt backfired. After long months in hospital with all the world looking on, through social media, all of us, young or old, wishing her well again, the doctors worked miracles and Malala recovered. And once recovered she simply went on where she had left off, flying the flag for the rights of girls the world over to be educated.

And by then, of course, the world was listening, applauding. She spoke at the United Nations. They have their Declaration of Human Rights; but standing there before them was a young girl from Pakistan who had nearly lost her life for those rights. She received the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest ever to do so. A child had changed the lives of others, changed the world for the better.

Then another young girl came along, Greta Thunberg, 15, who decided enough was enough. She could see how climate change was threatening, how Sweden, her country, ecologically speaking supposed to be among the most enlightened of countries, was not moving nearly fast enough in the reforms that urgently need to be made. In school her teachers were telling her to switch off the lights and save the planet, and then they flew off all over the world for their holidays. Against all advice from parents and teachers she went on strike from her school, sitting in the street beside her banner. When asked, she replied, in her own parlance: ‘I am doing this because you adults are shitting on my future.’

This rang a bell for young people all over the world. Here was one of their own, brave enough to face up to the adult world that they knew was being hypocritical. This was their world that was being systematically polluted, exploited and destroyed. Young people are aware of the power of social media, know how to use it, and they used it. Greta’s message went around the world. Millions of children went on strike from school, marched in the streets. The great and powerful, the politicians and the establishment, may have shaken their heads in disapproval, but they knew well enough that they had been rumbled, that Greta was right, as were her supporters, who will very soon be voters.

Greta has just sailed across the Atlantic, to bring her message to the US. She does not lack courage. Atlantic storms or President Donald Trump, she faces them down in her own manner, quietly, firmly, politely. The other day she was protesting outside the White House. She is championing a great cause, to end climate change before it is too late, now, because it is an outrageous injustice to the planet, and a cruel injustice to future generations. This is a cause the young all over the world have taken to their hearts, and quite a few million old folk like me. We could not wish for a better champion.

And now to a hidden injustice I knew little or nothing of until I met a young boy called Jonathan Bryan. He was ten when I met him. He has suffered from severe cerebral palsy all his life. He has locked-in syndrome. He is entirely reliant on his family and his carers, and on 24-hour medical support — life support effectively. He hears, he sees, he feels, he smiles. But he has no ability to speak at all, so cannot communicate. Well, that’s what people often think about such children, and why people often give up on such children.

His mother and his family thought otherwise. For a while Jonathan simply existed. He would lie there in a room, the television on, with other children similarly afflicted. His mother knew there was a child in there longing to communicate: that Jonathan had a spirit, a mind, a personality, and that he was longing to express himself. Between his mother and his family and his carers, and Jonathan, they found the key to unlock this locked-in boy.

Jonathan could blink, he could move his eyes. He learned to spell out words, blinking at letters on the board his carer held out in front of him. Looking on, his mother spoke his words. It took years of practice to make the words make sentences, make conversation, make writing, make poetry, make a book, his first book, Eye Can Write. And can he write! And can he speak! I should say so.

I’ve known him for four years now. When I first met him I did not know what to say. I knew he was a poet. All I could manage was a rather awkward: ‘It’s good to meet a young writer.’ And he replied slowly, in his own blinking way: ‘And it’s good… to… meet… an… old… writer!’

I never patronised Jonathan again.

Not good enough for this remarkable boy to learn to speak with the blink of an eye, not good enough to write a book. No, Jonathan Bryan began a campaign. He went to see ministers, talked to those who can make things change, went armed with a persuasive statement and an insistent demand which has important implications for the education of all children everywhere. His message is simply this. Never underestimate a child’s potential. Give us the teaching, give us all we need to fulfil ourselves, to make the best of ourselves. Look at me. I had the help, support and encouragement I needed. And Eye Can Write. And with my writing I can change things, change lives. I can make a difference.

Three children, all of whom found a voice of their own, a mission of their own, found the courage to endure and to speak out, and are making the lives of others immeasurably better. Listen to the children. It’s their world as much as ours. More really. They’ll be here longer.

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