One of the disconcerting things about living in New Zealand after England is the constant chirpiness and friendliness. As I bought some strawberries from the roadside yesterday, the vendor noticed my sons in the car "Kids, eh? Aren't they the best? I love selling strawberries to kids." I nodded politely, walked back to the car and he yelled after me "I'm a grandparent and it's the BEST time of your life!" Well, er, OK, that's lovely to hear but actually I just wanted some soft fruit. At first I thought it was just me being a newbie - "Welcome to NEW ZEALAND!" the Mcdonalds staffworker yelled at me in my first week here, as if I'd just won the lottery. But gradually I realised no, this is really how Kiwis talk.
In England you'd be lucky to get eye-contact. Here people pump your hand, laugh uproariously at your jokes. "New Zealand is the FRIENDLIEST COUNTRY IN THE WEST," everybody keeps telling me, there was a survey which proved it and everything, and the population seems determined to live up to their reputation. "Are you buying fish today? Well done! Welcome to New Zealand!" This is all great when you are in a holiday mood, but now I am living here it is a bit overwhelming to my stand-offish English sensibilities. I kind of like to mooch in to the supermarket and get some milk without being quizzed about how I am finding things and what are my plans for the weekend. The entire country seems fixed in a permanent smile. It got to the stage where I started to wonder if New Zealand was all a vast Truman show, taking parts in a endless pageant for tourists and new arrivals of warmth and friendly bonhomie, before slipping off to a secret off-stage area where they all scowled and grumbled amongst themselves about the state of the country today. It is rather like being in a country entirely composed of children's television presenters. I keep expecting the petrol station attendant to offer to help me make a kitchen-roll and foil rocket for my Mummy before I pay for fuel.
But I have discovered there is one way to complicate the unabashed friendliness, and that is to mention to a preschool or kindergarten that your child has disabilities. The law says that they are not allowed to refuse, but human nature being what it is, the unscrupulous and lazy can send a very clear message to anxious parents. "Well, we could take him," said the manager of the preschool on our road doubtfully, "and I would say we have some, that is to say, very limited, experience of disabilities. I would say, our experience is very limited. But you would have to contact the Ministry of Education and apply for a teaching aide first." By the time she had stressed the fact that they had a waiting list, I was already mentally walking out of the door. Which of course is exactly what the manager wanted, but you can't unfortunately fight prejudice and ignorance with your son as the battering-ram. If this was the Truman Show, then the actors were on a rest break.
Giving up the idea of walking to preschool, I said a prayer to St Aelred, the patron saint of friendship. That was what I needed, proper friendship, someone who was prepared to show love and commitment, to make a real commitment to my son. I mass emailed every kindergarten in the area asking about places. Some emails were defunct but a couple replied, telling me that yes, they had places. One asked for my telephone number. I wrote back thanking them both and asking them what the procedure would be to apply for a teaching aide for my disabled son. Mysteriously, neither kindergarten rang or emailed back. Hmm. Maybe Aelred was off-duty too. If this was the Truman Show, the actors didn't want the job.
So I went to Barnados, who run a home-care program, bit like a childminding network. They were initially helpful, and asked me to come in for a meeting to meet the child. When I got there, there was effusive friendliness, plus the breathless news "Isn't it WONDERFUL? We have found someone who is willing to take your child. But she only has twelve hours a week spare." Since the son in question will be eligible for twenty hours a week funding, and I had indicated that I would travel by car to wherever a childminder could be found, and they had told me there were several in my area with places this didn't seem absolutely fantastic news. It sounded rather dire, actually, was there really only one? Didn't that mean that my son was going to be denied his full entitlement?
I asked the question that school had discreetly suggested I pose: were they eligible, as home-based childminders, for the Early Support service from the Ministry? (Bit like Harry Potter, all this talk of the Ministry. Maybe I should scrap this request for a teaching aide and instead demand a couple of Aurors and a personal owl). They looked at me blankly. If this was the Truman Show, they hadn't learnt their lines. Er. Could they just go and check that? One woman left the room and came back. Yes, they could. If I wanted them to, they could get someone to come and help them set targets for my son. If I thought that was a good idea. Well, yes, I have this eccentric idea that my developmentally delayed son might benefit from some input from an educational specialist with expertise in helping children with learning delay. Call me fussy. Oh, and can I have an owl too?
In this context, the friendliness felt hollow, unsubstantiated by actual care. I came home, depressed. But then Dumbledore showed up, with a letter inviting my boy to start at Hogwarts. Or at least, an email from another kindergarten that did have a space, starting next week. Glumly, I emailed them back. Great, but my son is disabled, he has GDD and verbal dyspraxia and he's still in nappies, he's going to be a Muggle amongst wizards, do you still want him? Of course we do, they shot back. Come in and talk to us about his needs. See you on Monday. Oh, and of course bring all the children, we will find something for them to do whilst we talk.
I haven't turned Barnados down yet, I will wait and see what the kindy are like when we meet. There was nothing wrong with Barnados' desire to do a good job, just I felt a hopeless lack of understanding of what these kids with additional needs are likely to need in order to progress. Bit like sending your kid to Hogwarts but not giving him a wand or a broomstick. I think of St Aelred, his injunctions to choose your friends carefully and show them real commitment. Well, I am choosing my son's friends with great care. We may be back in the Truman Show of course, this may be surface and indiscriminate friendliness only, but the enthusiasm and clarity of the email exchange suggests that they mean what they say, they really DO want my son and are eager to try and meet his needs. Not just to bounce around grinning, but to get help from people who know what they are doing, set proper targets to help him progress. So I do feel a little more optimistic that there may be a kindergarten out there where the friendly reputation of New Zealanders is matched by the qualities that Aelred tells us to look for in a friend: compassion, commitment. Plus of course, a real desire to show love, to be welcoming to all.