Three years and a successful defence of her seat later Louisa Calleray chairs a meeting of the committee she set up to look into issues affecting women in the community at large.
“The problem is, Louisa,” Alice Keegan said, “the issues in our community are exactly the same as they are nationwide. Women are under-represented in all areas of society, but none more so than in the workplace.”
A murmur of agreement rippled around the small group of fifteen women.
“My daughter, Maddie, has just this past spring left school.” another of the women said. Louisa thought her name might have been Mary, but she wasn’t certain. “Maddie’s a bright girl and could do something really good with her life, given the right opportunity.”
“I agree, the options open to young girls - women in general, really - are few and far between.” Louisa said.
“’Less you got money. a’course.” a coarse voice chimed in. “Ain’t no problem gettin’ on if yer got money.”
“You’re not wrong, Janice. Seems to me the posh lot get the pick of the good jobs and the rest of us are left the dregs.”
“That’s what I was getting at. My Maddie wants to be a teacher. She’d be really good at it, too, but she can’t go to no college or university because me and Eric can’t afford to send her.” Might-be-Mary said.
Another, slightly louder murmur rippled around the group.
“All we can do, ladies, is keep raising awareness of these issues. The Late-Learners group has been a huge success thanks to the efforts of everybody involved.”
The ‘Late Learners’ after-school group was the brainchild of Louisa Calleray. She decided to act after a recent school-leaver had applied for a domestic place at one of the Connolly House Project properties. By chance Louisa herself had spoken to the girl and had been quite taken aback that the fifteen years old could barely read her own name. Heaven only knew how she would have coped handling the chemicals – bleach, caustic soda and the like – that were used around the properties.
Louisa made some enquiries and learned to her horror that an uncomfortable number of boys and girls were leaving school with only a very basic understanding of their native language. In only her second year as a councillor Louisa had taken the issue, firstly to Mayor Oliver Jellis, then to the Education Committee, to seek support and agreement to set-up the support group that was now known as the ‘Late Learners Group’.
Opposition to the plan was an eye-opening experience for the novice politician. Money – or lack of spare funds – was the most often-cited reason for objecting to the plan. More shockingly, though, was the attitude of the male councillors.
“What’s the point of giving these girls and education anyway, eh? All they want to do is get married and have more babies than they can cope with.” one wheezy old-timer puffed. “Waste of time and resources.” he concluded.
It was only when Louisa promised that the project would cost the good people of the community nothing whatsoever as those helping out would do so voluntarily that the plan gained grudging approval. A council-owned hall was allocated for one evening a week for two hours. The arrangement was far less than Louisa asked for, but it was a concession in her favour; a small victory over the bull-headed objections of many of her veteran narrow-minded colleagues.
Louisa had been the driving-force behind the project and was its most passionate and energetic supporter. She had been far too modest to tell the assembled group that it was her hard work that had set-up the project; her efforts that had recruited the volunteers; her compassion and tact that had steered the young people towards the project and her ongoing support that kept the project running in the face of severe criticism and mockery.
The ‘Late Learners Group’ name had also been Louisa’s idea. Rather than make the young people feel inadequate or a failure for needing a little extra educational support Louisa wanted a name that was encouraging rather than derogatory, like the offering The Slow-Leaners Club someone had mooted in all seriousness.
The group concentrated on improving the basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills of those who came to the weekly sessions for help. As many as eight volunteers - sometimes as few as two - worked on a one-to-one basis where possible, but more usually in groups of three or four. The atmosphere was as relaxed and non-institutional as it was possible to make it. There was a lot of laughter mixed in with the learning.
Now, at the end of its first year of operation, some forty teenagers had passed through its doors with varying degrees of success. The harshest lesson Louisa and the other volunteers had learned was that for some youngsters learning was always going to be a challenge no matter how hard or for how long they tried. One such case was that of Jimmy Vine.
James ‘Jimmy’ Vine was almost seventeen years old but had the physique of a man half as old as him again. His hulking gait, wide-open grinning face and slow manner of speech made him the butt of the cruelty of both boys and girls. His simple-mindedness was the result of complications at his birth. Deprived of oxygen for almost five minutes, the damage to Jimmy’s brain was catastrophic. Developmentally he would always be a child, his oversize body controlled by the mind of a four-year old child.
He had turned-up at the Late Learners Group a few minutes before the session ended. He had asked to join in.
“We are almost finished, Jimmy.” one of the volunteers had told him.
“But I want to learn to read a book!” Jimmy had cried.
“You will have to come back next week, Jimmy. Can you do that?” the volunteer had asked.
“When next week?” Jimmy had asked, uncertainly.
“Wednesday. Next Wednesday, Jimmy. Right here, at seven o’clock.”
It was clear that the young man had not understood a single word of what he had been told. This was borne out by Jimmy turning up at the hall the very next day only to find it shut up. He found the same the next day and the day after that and every day until it was Wednesday again.
“Jimmy wants to read!” he exclaimed excitedly as he was shown into the run-down and drab interior of the hall. “Jimmy wants to read!” he repeated loudly.
Melissa Powers, a mother of three boisterous boys aged three five and six, took Jimmy aside.
“Now, Jimmy, the first thing you have to remember is that other people are here to learn as well. To do that we need to speak quietly.” she told Jimmy, dropping her voice on the last word.
“Yeah, okay!” Jimmy agreed… loudly. Another huge grin spread across his face. “Jimmy read now!”
Melissa shook her head, smiling in spite of herself. How you get annoyed at a fifteen-stone baby? she asked herself.
“Come here, then, Jimmy. Come sit next to me.” she told the boy, patting the seat next her. Jimmy dropped heavily onto the seat and looked at Melissa with an open, expectant expression on his face.
“Jimmy read?” he asked.
“Yes, Jimmy, we’ll read.” Melissa smiled fondly.
The pattern was set. Every day Jimmy would turn up at the hall, whatever the weather, returning each day until he ‘stumbled’ upon the right day. His name cropped up in conversation one afternoon in the early weeks of the New Year.
“And this has been going on how long?” Louisa asked.
“Goodness. At least six months I should think.” another volunteer, Patrick O’Dell, said. “At least that long.”
“What has been done to teach him – Jimmy – the right day to come?” Louisa wanted to know.
“Melissa’s the one to ask, but obviously she’s not here.” Patrick said. “I know she was trying to teach him the days of the week.”
“How did that go?”
Patrick smiled grimly.
“Good and bad, I guess, Louisa.” he said. “Jimmy now knows the days of the week inasmuch that he can recite them parrot fashion. The problem is that he doesn’t really know what he’s saying or why. Ask him to name any day of the week and he clams up.”
“Is that because he lacks confidence or because of something else?”
“Honestly, Louisa, I really don’t know. He’s taken a shine to Melissa and she is the one who has worked most closely with him. I’m sure she’ll be able to answer your questions.” Patrick said regretfully. “Sorry to not be of more help.”
“No, no, it’s fine.” Louisa said absently, her face a mask of concentration.
To be continued...