Saturday, November 07, 2009

Keeping One's Head Above Water

It would seem that at certain times in our lives keeping one's head above the water is the most that we can do. As I type these few words and wait to go on line for a lecture for a course in Special Education which I am doing this year, several things come to mind. Today I helped an educational psychologist from the Department of Education and Science in facilitating an anger management group. We have six boys in this group and they were all co-operative and open. One boy's father is an ex-prisoner, and at least one of his brothers is in gaol. He's a lovely kid who is really striving to keep out of trouble, but unfortunately family circumstances and his social background are major factors that militate against his every effort. Another boy revealed that at one stage he had self-harmed. I had always realised that these kids - they are all around 15 years of age - are vulnerable and at risk. Needless to say, we followed up our group session with a fifteen minute conference and we decided to inform the school counsellor so that she could follow up with the boy who had mentioned an attempt at self-harm.

Then, I was also involved in helping an Asperger's boy calm down. He suffers from severe anxiety as well as a certain degree of OCD-like symptoms. He constantly checks his locker and bag for books, pencils, copies etc and worries continually over whether he has his homework correct. Indeed sometimes he worries whether he has done it correctly or not. He just simply cannot live in the here and now, so great is his anxiety. His mother is really worried about him and is driven to distraction to know what to do. However, she does have the have the help of a psychologist, a psychiatrist and an occupational therapist at intervals. Alas, these services are hit and miss and they are neither frequent enough nor readily accessible, given the disadvantages suffered by this boy.

Some of the pupils I am teaching are just managing to survive. As I type these thoughts I am listening to an on-line lecture from St Patrick's Drumcondra on the use of problem-solving approaches in SPHE (Social, Personal and Health Education) and I am also struck by the relevance of this lecture, not alone to my situation but to that of all the pupils in my care. They can be taught to problem-solve in their own lives by learning survival strategies that use problem-solving techniques. In such a way we can foster their independent thinking and a belief in themselves which can help them surmount an attitude of learned helplessness. This type of empowerment through problem solving is not, of course, a panacea. It takes must effort on both the part of the teacher and, indeed, that of the student to develop coping skills.

I should like to refer here to Sebastian Barry's recent play at the Abbey Theatre which I attended the other night with some friends of mine. I believe the subject matter of this drama is very much ad rem. The name of the play is The Tales of Ballycumber. We were not a little disappointed with this drama, which we all found far too short. Indeed, we were surprised also by the early start, 7.30 p.m. whereas most plays at The Abbey start at the more usual time of 8.00 p.m. Initially, this early start led us to entertain the mistaken notion that this drama would be a long one. However, be that as it may, we found the play not a little depressing given it's theme - the suicide of one of the characters and then the threatened suicide of another whom others still blamed for the death of the unfortunate man who had taken his own life. There is little to rejoice about on Sebastian Barry's stage. However, the play is relevant to my opening musings and to the development of my thought in these matters, namely that the human animal needs to learn to cope with life. He or she needs to develop life skills and coping strategies which will bring their owner safely through the vicissitudes of life. At least one man failed to cope with life in this play while another nearly "gave up the ghost" completely by almost succumbing to a similar suicide. There were some few moments of humour in the opening scene, but alas they were too few and far between.

The set was resplendent, with daffodils sprouting everywhere, giving us a sense of Spring or early Summer. However, we are immediately faced with a man trying to clean out his chimney as some jackdaws have nested there. This dual reference to blackness, both that of the soot and that of the jackdaws or crows, reminds us of death. Indeed, we are going to hear the report of one of the main character's death all too soon. Directed by David Leveaux, the cast includes Stephen Rea and Derbhle Crotty. Stephen Rea is marvellous and plays the part of one of the main characters wonderfully.

“Here, now, listen, I’ll tell you a tale...” These are some of the early words in the play as Nicholas Farquhar, a middle-aged Protestant farmer in the foothills of the Wicklow mountains gives advice to a naive young man Evans Stafford. The Abbey Theatre website puts the opening in all too poetic words thus:

Daffodils are in bloom as dawn breaks over the foothills of Ballycumber, ushering in hope for a new day and stirring the ghosts of a past fraught with sorrow, anguish and emptiness.Setting out in search of advice, young Evans Stafford calls to the home of a friend and strong-minded traditionalist, Nicholas Farquhar. The following morning the local boy is found bloodied, note in hand. What is said during their brief encounter to compel him to this violent act? (See this link here: The Abbey Theatre )

I cannot help agreeing with Bruce Arnold's insight that this play presents us with a powerful story, but that it is seriously flawed in its dramatic logic. See this link here Arnold In short those of us in our small theatre group felt there was something really missing in this sad but at times lyrical play. Perhaps it would make a good novel, rather than a play. It was very satisying for me that this play begins with the brilliant song, Heartbreak Hotel, made famous by Elvis Presley which sets the scene. Apparently the story behind that song was also that of a suicide.

However, we felt that the play was far too depressing, and that it allowed for no moment of brightness to shine at all. However, that is not to say that I feel that every play should be explicitly didactic or have a totally positive message. Indeed, I can allow for negativity and depression which this play had in sheer abundance, but there was something missing. The play was lacking something essential for a good theatrical experience. It left us nothing to hang on to. It assumes that the possibility of keeping one's head above water is not readily possible in a small rural community which has stifling, suffocating and closed values.

My work-a-day experience teaches me a contrary lesson, that while real life is far from a delightful experience for many suffering individuals, there is much room for hope. Problem solving strategies and coping skills can help individuals keep their heads above water and survive.

Aaron Monaghan and Stephen Rea in Sebastian Barry's Tales of Ballycumber. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

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