Saturday, 4 September 2010

Black Dog

I've been carting Christobel Mattingley's picture book Black Dog around for about a quarter of a century, since I won it in a disability awareness poster competition. I was about six at the time, and my “entry” consisted of a painting of a person in a wheelchair out visiting friends, bearing a bunch of flowers bigger than their head. They were coming up the path towards their friends' house, and in what was probably interpreted as a deep social commentary rather than just a few random daubs of paint, the house had steps.

The painting was more what you'd expect from a toddler than a six year old, thanks to my slow development and motor skills issues – at the time, nobody had a clue I had a disability of my own.

In hindsight, the clues were all there. I didn't catch a ball or tie my shoelaces until I was about seven, or ride a bike 'til 10 or 11.  I misinterpreted the simplest instructions despite a deep desire to follow the rules and do the right thing, and normal playground interaction defeated me.  Yet nobody picked up on it.  Because like many Aspie girls I am quite gifted linguistically and reasonably able to mimic what I see others do, even if I don't understand exactly what we're doing let alone why we're doing it, it was generally assumed that I consciously chose to be different and difficult.

Once we had to draw a picture of a face depicting an emotion. Most of the other kids' were easy enough to work out – grotesquely huge grins for happy, enormous furrowed eyebrows for angry. Mine didn't even look like a face. I think there might have been a moustache above, instead of below, the nose.

There's something slightly ironic about both my entry and the prize. Both deal with friends, yet interpersonal relationships are my downfall.  My social skills are a lot better now than they used to be, but when I was a kid they really were a problem.  That created a barrier just as tangible and insurmountable as that posed to the wheelchair user by the steps on my painted house.

The prize was Black Dog by Christobel Mattingley. Nothing to do with depression, it's a children's book about a girl's first day at a new school. She loses herself metaphorically in the school library, when familiar characters offer a respite from a strange, unfamiliar place. But she also literally loses herself when the teacher apparently doesn't do a head-count before herding the kids back to class.  It's a book to give kids who have changed schools, or are going to, to show that while it might be scary there will be a happy ending involving a friendly dog and a game on the oval with your new friends.

The very last illustration in the book depicts that game, showing an assortment of children playing some hybrid of leapfrog, cricket, and cowboy-themed make-believe. There's one kid sitting in the background, facing away from the rest of the crowd at an odd angle. He's not looking at the other children or at anything else in particular, just sitting, staring. He looks out of place. The rest of the kids ignore him completely.

I can't help but feel that kid is me.