However, a few days ago I heard a conversation which gave me real cause for optimism. A group of girls had been to see 'Woman in Black' and the station platform was loud with their exclamations and shrieks as they recounted their recent shock and terror. In the middle of this entertainment, the following exchange fitted seamlessly.
"Oh, and d'you know who was at the cinema too? Mr X from xxxxx (school subject) ! "
"Aw, I like him! Who was he with?"
"His husband. And he said "Hi, girls. Enjoy the movie!""
And the conversation rolled on with further shrieks and giggles about the ghost movie, as I thought how wonderful it was that these girls showed how far we have come, probably because of civil partnerships, marriage for gay as well as straight couples but, I hope, also because of the good work being done in schools to counter homophobia, gender stereotyping and the ignorance which gives rise to fear. As so often before, I was heartened by young people, although I know we still have a long way to go.
Then, yesterday, a different experience, again on a station platform where a group of adults with learning difficulties, with their carers, were waiting for the train, as they regularly do. Only a couple of the men communicate verbally, but I chat to them in passing if they signal or look at me, just as I would with anyone else. One of the wheelchair-using men communicates by clapping his hands, slapping his own forehead and also by an occasional very loud yell. Immediately after the first yell, a young woman of about 17, who had been sitting on the bench listening to her ipod before the group arrived, leaped up and moved swiftly up the platform, away from them. Her expression said it all; she was afraid.
Initially, I felt cross with her. It reminded me of 35 years ago this month, when I arrived at a local bus stop to find a young woman standing at the edge of the pavement with her severely learning disabled son who was making one hell of a din while rocking back and forth and hitting his hand against his head. The other folk in the queue were crammed in at the rear of the bus shelter! I was eight months pregnant. I began a friendship that day simply by standing with G and her son and sharing a quiet laugh at the rest of the queue's discomfort. In the intervening years we have seen progress in the perception of people with extensive learning difficulties. But we have such a way to go.
The young woman on the platform was afraid. There was nothing to be afraid of. How can we teach future generations and help them see humanity rather than difference? For all the work I have seen in schools on issues of equality and diversity, I don't recall open discussion of the nitty gritty of serious learning disability and on public behaviours which may catch us by surprise. Even though we teach respect for all individuals, perhaps we need to be honest and say ... 'You might find yourself embarrassed or nervous if someone behaves like this; but here's why it happens and why you need not feel afraid"
The group enjoyed their train journey; F showed me the fabric daffodil pinned to his jacket and waved as he left. I felt uplifted by sharing in his pleasure and my day was the better for meeting him.
I wish the young woman could have got something positive from her experience. Where will she stand on the platform next week?