Updated: Jun 23
By Erin Canavan
Discussions, disguises and defining moments
My initiation into the social microcosm of tertiary education was over crackers, camembert, and several bags of sweets, with 4 other people I’d met in my very first lecture. As we walked out of the lecture theatre, we began formal introductions, establishing an immediate rapport through our shared inability to see the point of the three-hour developmental psychology lecture we’d just endured, and making a pact to bring something sugary every week to see us through the semester. But our light-hearted chat, ostensibly aimed at ‘getting to know each other,’ quickly evolved into a not-so-subtle interrogation of each other’s educational histories. It began, obviously, with the two most crucial questions for any person who’d just finished 12 years of formal, compulsory schooling: ‘What OP did you get?’* and ‘What school did you go to?’ With a salty cracker and smear of cheese halfway to my mouth, I quickly swallowed, and, suddenly overly conscious of the judgments that were undoubtedly going to be aimed in my direction, responded in the smallest voice possible, ‘An OP 8, and a Catholic all-girls’ school.’ Immediately I sensed the implicit ascriptions these people assigned to me – I was being judged as a snob who wasn’t prodigiously intelligent or talented. (The fact that I went on to graduate with second class honors and as a national award winner now makes this anecdote deliciously ironic. Take that, people who made snap judgments about my abilities and achievements as a fresh-faced university student).
The critical, statistical information about academic ability and social standing now stored away for future reference when comparing GPA’s and the quality of teaching placements, our discussion took a slightly more personal turn. We started talking about just why we chose education as our career. My colleagues spoke wistfully of that one teacher who inspired them, the family legacy in education that they planned to sustain, or their innate desire to support the lifelong learning of small children (always only in mainstream schools, though). How was I supposed to share my story, one that is pretty intimate and can’t help but invite a series of complex, protracted follow-up questions, after all of these romantic school experiences and lifelong dreams of ‘making a difference’ in education? Well, I’m here cause I have Cerebral Palsy and had some really crap experiences at school that I want to change because I’d hate for other kids with disabilities to experience what I did?
One thing I’ve learned in my twenty-three years is that there is no easy way to rip off a Band-Aid so firmly glued as the one that identifies you as having a disability. So, instead of the blunt, brutally honest tack I really wanted to take in response to that question, I was vague and noncommittal. ‘It’s just something I’ve always been passionate about,’ I replied, hating myself for responding with such a clichéd answer, but at the same time, reluctant to reveal a fundamental part of my identity to people who I barely knew. I worked to maintain my façade of ‘normalcy’ throughout my undergraduate studies, and it wasn’t until days before our graduation ceremony that my colleagues learned the connection between passion and personal experience for me (funnily enough, I wasn’t even the one who told them. The local paper published a ‘triumph over adversity’ story about my CP and my apparently miraculous achievement of completing a tertiary degree that they all conveniently read).
So, what do I want you to take from this story (apart from a slightly more diversified understanding of disability and how it looks)? Quite simply, the idea that passion is the prerequisite for any career path, and it comes in many different forms – just because my definition of enthusiasm for my career isn’t conventional doesn’t mean it’s not valuable.
*The OP is one of the Australian systems by which students in the final year of high school are graded – the lower the number is, the better your score. So in the grand scheme of things, my OP was good, but not great. Cue the raised eyebrows from people who didn’t think I’d be able to handle university.
Erin Canavan is a Learning Support Teacher and Teacher Librarian studying her Master’s degree in special education. In her spare time, she plays the clarinet and saxophone, writes articles about various academic and non-academic topics and reads as many books as she can.