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John’s determined to do his level best

Student who endured one operation after another gets the grades

24 August, 2018 — By John Gulliver

John Murray, pictured in black with mother Michelle and brothers Leeroy Sasha, 15, and Julius, 16, at their Highgate home

JOHN Murray wasn’t too sure that he’d get good enough grades in his A-level exams to open the door at the University of Sussex.

Whatever I said didn’t seem to help. He was disconsolate.

But I was confident there would be something intrinsically wrong with an exam system if anyone as articulate and mature as this 18-year-old youngster wasn’t able to end up at a university. I was right. John was unduly pessimistic. And on Thursday he got the grades he needed – a B in English literature, and Cs in French and History.

I had met him in his pessimistic mood a few days beforehand at a café in Swains Lane, Highgate where I watched his uncoordinated body shuffling along, harnessed to a frame on wheels. John has cerebral palsy and, though it is comparatively mild, it is enough to make his pursuit of higher education a mildly heroic one.

John is a familiar figure in the Swains Lane area. Every school day he would leave home at around 8.30am, laboriously make his way down two flights of stairs at his Holly Lodge home – where he lives with his parents and two brothers – and then frame-walk his way to school, a journey of nearly 30 minutes. While talking to me over tea and cakes he suddenly mentioned what was clearly unmentionable: the word “wheel-chair”.

t seemed to have been a spectre hovering somewhere in the back of his mind. We had been talking about his hopes, his years at William Ellis school, his love of history, and his dream that perhaps he might be able to go to university. He had obviously resisted using a wheel-chair all his life – it seemed to spell something of a finality to his life, something he would never accept.

Determination? It runs through him. He insists on using his large walking frame which he had “parked” outside the café against a wall using his legs as a kind of navigator. He would in many ways be a teacher’s dream, head down over his books.

But there are many hurdles in school. When it came to A-level exams John, as a “special needs” pupil, had to be given special attention – the time allotted each pupil to an A-level examination is two-and-half hours – but for John it was in excess of five hours.

He had to start at 9am, then break for an hour’s lunch at one o’clock, before returning to finish the papers with another two hours.

He has won several awards at school over the years but feels unhappy talking about them, not out of modesty but because he is sensitive to anything that sounds patronising – he cannot stand it when he hears words such as “resilience” or “persistent”.

But he clearly loves reading and enjoyed all the books attached to his recent A-level course, which included Russian history, modern Chinese history, French literature and English literature – Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Shakespeare, they are all there with their dark and golden visions.

He also loves writing and talks about how he has recently written three short stories as well as a film script. Academic studies ooze out of him. That is what he wants to do one day – become an academic, a lecturer. John is, for his age, articulate and mature perhaps beyond his years, shaped by his disability.

He has endured one operation after another over the years, and he talks about the year he spent aged six in a hospital in the south of France, where he lived for some time with his family, and there is a sound of pain in his voice. Facing him is the prospect of another operation, but too much time would have to be allotted to it, as well as months of physiotherapy.

While talking about how he relates to others in society, he mentions that, as a pretty fluent French speaker, he read Camus’s classic The Outsider several times in French – and I felt that is how he sees himself, as an outsider, someone looking in at those around him, in a world others cannot touch.

Then he rose from the table, and walked awkwardly to the door – and to his walking frame, where he takes hold of it like a harness, and then manoeuvres it away from the wall of the café towards the pavement, and I walk along Swains Lane with him for a hundred or so yards, and watch as he pushes his way slightly uphill to towards Holly Lodge estate


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