I don’t really know what I was expecting, exactly. A kind face, an interested mind, a desire to help. What I got instead was thinly disguised contempt behind a St Tropez tan in a well cut, fitted dress that talked to me whilst facing the opposite direction, something I didn’t even realise until the face turned to shine its politely impatient eyebrows at me as I yet again failed to respond to a question aimed at the wall behind Tula, who sat nervously on the black leather seat with the doctor’s tanned finger pressed to her forehead to keep her still so that her eyes could be peered into with strangely threatening tools.
We drove to Caen today for an appointment with an eye specialist after Tula was examined by a very lovely and smiley school doctor a few weeks ago and diagnosed with both sight and hearing problems. That was an altogether different experience, with the doctor patiently repeating her questions and encouraging my shy and silent daughter to respond.
Because there’s no doubt about it: Tula can be struck dumb in situations with strangers asking her questions. She sits, twisting her clothes in her hands, lips sealed as if for eternity, not even a glimmer of comprehension to be seen. Watching her, it is easy to understand how someone meeting her for the first time might think her mentally challenged in some way, and I can’t deny the thought has crossed our minds that maybe she is on the autistic spectrum.
But released from the prison of a strangers’ gaze, this girl cannot stop talking. The minute the door shut behind us she was babbling about which way we had to go, which floor we were on and how many stairs there were. At home she is happiest singing at the very top of her voice with all the strength in her compromised lungs and when she is not talking or singing, she is dancing or running. The difference could not be more stark.
Being looked at as if I were something stuck to the sole of an expensive shoe doesn’t do much for my mood either, so I stopped trying to understand the doctor altogether after a while and simply waited to be released back into the city heat outside. I silently received the papers she gave me and the two of us left the doctor’s office with relief.
I’m left not knowing any more about Tula’s eyesight than I did before the appointment: the only reassurance I have is that she does not have cataracts, one of the symptoms of Conradi-Hünermann Syndrome which hasn’t been checked since we left England.
After living in France for 5 years, I have come to realise that there is a certain kind of French personality that has been so rigidly shaped by this rule-bound and regimented society that it cannot see past its own prejudices. This woman, working in an area where she is likely to encounter all kinds of different people, made it absolutely clear to us both that she disapproved of us in every way: she disliked my tatty, hand stitched bag, my flimsy cardigan and supermarket-bought dress: she was irritated by my poor accent and general Englishness.
Our lack of a French family health book vexed her: she asked more than once whether we would be in France for the summer, disbelieving that we could be resident here. Despite suggesting to Tula that she could respond in English if she wanted to (indicating she could have talked to us in our own language, but chose not to) she then added that obviously she ought to speak French as she is being schooled here – neglecting the idea that my daughter was perfectly capable of doing so but was simply too scared. Most of all, the impression she gave me was that we were taking up her valuable time for no good reason: this was quite probably due to the fact that our appointment was at midday and the good doctor was eager to leave for lunch.
I am angry with that doctor. I am also angry with Tula’s teacher, who has placed a large X in the box in Tula’s end of year report indicating that she will not be moving up to the next class when she returns to school in September. At no point during this school year did her teacher once approach us to discuss whether Tula might be struggling. And to discover (just weeks ago) that she does in fact have difficulty seeing and hearing properly – both of which we already suspected – makes me feel so sad for her having had to struggle all this time only to have clearly been judged as incapable rather than incapacitated. Judged by her teacher, who should be her carer and advocate, for her silence and reticence in class, in exactly the same way this doctor judged her today.
It is the quiet ones who often most need help. Being silent when faced with a scary situation should not be regarded as a sign of stupidity, rather a sign that perhaps that psrson requires a gentler approach, not a one-size-fits all attitude, which too often in France seems to be the norm.
But I am also angry with myself and Jude. We should have fought harder to get Tula seen sooner: we all know how she is, she’s different; she’s Tula. We should have sought out experts to assess her properly rather than relying on cursory school health checks or for her teachers to notice that she was not keeping up. We are used to healthcare in the UK being easily accessible and a family doctor being someone who can refer you to an expert if necessary, rather than the onus being entirely upon the individual.
I am heartbroken that she is going to be leaving her group of friends from her class: she is beloved by them all and gets rousing cheers from them when she returns from her frequent absences for hospital visits. By leaving her care to others I failed her. And as Jude has pointed out to me, writing letters to the school to express my anger at them for not noticing sooner that she needed help is not going to achieve anything but further antagonize an already fragile relationship between us and the school.
I love living here and I would not choose to return to England. But there are times when I deeply miss a particular kind of English sensibility, an appreciation of character beneath appearances: an awareness that even if a person doesn’t look a certain way it should not mean that they are not without worth. France is very much a place that lives for rules: lunchtime is from 12 to 2, so you cannot expect to be fed at 3. This narrow way of thinking denies free thought and inhibits appreciation of ‘other’, of ‘different’.
Tula is different, there is no doubt about it. But her difference is refreshing and surprising, in a way that I value and cherish far more than her ability to fit into a little box on a piece of paper. And I will work harder to ensure that she is given every opportunity to shine as brightly as everyone else around her: in spite of, and because of her difference.