Nothing inspires me more to keep writing novels than meeting extraordinary people who nudge the world a little and touch the lives of others. Maureen Duncan is the wonderful Head of Joseph Clarke School, a school of 100 pupils ranging from 3-19 years old for the visually impaired. I had the joy of meeting her when I came to run a writing workshop and to give a talk to the school about What Milo Saw. Maureen’s energy, drive and love for the children shone through – she is amazingly modest considering that she is one of life’s true heroes. It was such an honour to have Maureen at my launch of The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells – she came all the way from London, on a busy school night, carrying a bunch of beautiful pink and white flowers.
What three words would you use to describe yourself?
This is an extremely hard question to answer: maybe…
What do you love most about your job?
I love the variety that each day brings – no day is ever the same and each one is full of surprises. But particularly I like witnessing each and every one of my pupils making small steps or great leaps in progress and knowing that I offered them a handhold on that journey.
What do you find most challenging?
Having to say goodbye when a child dies
How has working with children who have particular needs, affected your outlook on life?
I think that it has taught me not to take anything for granted and to appreciate and celebrate the smallest things. It has also given me a belief that I should challenge situations which I believe to be unjust.
What’s the most important quality you look for when you hire staff to work with the children at Joseph Clarke School?
A passion for wanting to give each and every one of our pupils the best possible education and life chances.
Tell us an inspiring story about one of the children you have worked with?
Some years ago, we held a presentation evening for six of our students who had been given the Diana Memorial Award for their endeavours. Twenty minutes before the presentation was due to take place one pupil had not arrived. When we phoned home, the family said that they wouldn’t be attending and therefore he could not either. Needless to say I was really saddened by this as he had worked so hard for the award and deserved recognition, but it was too late for us to get him into school. Imagine my amazement when, a minute before the ceremony began, he arrived, suited and booted – without his parents. That may not seem particularly remarkable but for this pupil it was the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest: dressing himself, knowing that he needed a taxi; using the phone; giving the driver an address; persuading him that Mrs D would pay the fare upon arrival and arriving on time. This was an amazing achievement and showed how much he had progressed since joining the school and how much the award meant to him.
What kind of child were you at school?
I suspect I was a bit bossy but, in my defence, I was a pretty good organiser. I was definitely much more an ‘arts’ pupil than a maths or science pupil and would much prefer to do English homework than Maths. I wanted to do well in school so did as I was told (mostly) and revised hard; I also had the chance to play sports like rounders and lacrosse for the school team and never missed an opportunity to perform on stage or write plays. Just ordinary, really.
What’s your proudest achievement to date?
Getting an unexpected smile from a child in response to some intensive interaction and, when she did it a second time, knowing that we were communicating.
What’s your favourite book of all time?
It would have to be Pride and Prejudice. I have always had great admiration for Elizabeth Bennett and suspect we would be good friends. Why? Because I think , secretly, we are quite alike. I can be incredibly conventional but also have a sense of fun and I like to think that I, too, am influenced by someone’s personality not by their wealth or status.
Have you worked with children who have Retinitis Pigmentosa, like Milo?
Yes I have. There was one youngster who had lost some of his peripheral vision and then one day he woke up and was blind in one eye. That was very hard for him to cope with as it was so sudden and hard for us to know the best way to support him.
Who inspires you?
My Mum. She is in her late 80’s now but as I have got older, I have come to realise just how much wisdom, tenacity and compassion she has. She was adopted, lived through a war, moved from Yorkshire to London at a time when that was like emigrating, coped with a very difficult mother in law, helped me through what could have been a fatal illness and more recently, has had to cope with two serious broken bones due to osteoporosis. She has always put other people first but not in a sanctimonious way, and is somebody that others turn to in time of trouble. A truly remarkable woman and I think she has been a great influence in my life.
What’s your greatest hope for the children you work with?
I want them to be as independent as possible, to be able to communicate their thoughts, wants and desires appropriately, to be able to go into the world of work and lead the lives they want to lead.
What would you like people to understand better about children with visual impairments?
That first and foremost they are children and need to be treated as such. That it is all right to talk about the fact they don’t see well and to ask them if they need help. That it is important to use their name when talking so they know you are talking to them and to describe things to them in precise language i.e. the dog is to your right, rather than ‘over there.’ That they must be kept safe of course, but also need to be helped to explore their world.
What are you reading at the moment?
I am doing some research about siblings of children who have a disability so I am reading a book called Separate Lives by Dunn and Plomin. But when I am reading for pure relaxation I choose a whole range of genres. I am currently reading the last of the Stella Rimington books Close Call about a female MI6 agent Liz Carlyle.
What’s the most important lesson life has taught you?
Not to dwell on the dark days but to take the special moments from each and every day, wrap them in tissue paper and put them into a special memory box. Then, on one of the dark days, you can take them out and relish life.
Is there anything else you would like to say about your life, your work and the children you care for?
Only that sometimes people treat those of us who work in the special needs field as if we are saintly. We aren’t. We are ordinary people who are doing a job we love as well as we can. For me, it is a real privilege to be able to work within the Whitefield Academy alongside so many colleagues who are passionate about the children they teach and who believe that these children deserve the very best that they have to offer. And the children themselves – well, they are the best teachers I have ever had and I learn something new from them every single day.