Stifling dreams

No one should negotiate their dreams. Dreams must be free to fly high … You should never agree to surrender your dreams. ~Jesse Jackson

The Paralympics are coming to a close. J and I were watching the Men’s 100m T42 final, and the commentators were discussing whether Richard Whitehead would move to using prosthetics with a bendable knee like some of the other competitors in the race, and that his coaches were looking at it as a possibility for 2016. We wondered how those prosthetics work. J said “you would have known, if things had been different”.

It’s not the first time we’ve had that conversation. J sent me a Guardian article asking “Could exoskeletons help disabled people to be more active”. The photo illustrating the article was similar to images that were in my mind in my early teens.

When I was in high school, we had to decided in our second year what subjects we would study for the following two years, and sit our exams in. I was good at science. I wanted to do two sciences. I wanted to do physics and biology. The school forbade it. If you wanted to do two sciences, you had to do chemistry plus one of physics or biology. Physics and biology was an impossible combination.

But I wanted to do both. Because I wanted to build robotic limbs and exoskeletons. I wanted to create devices which could supplement weakened bones and muscles, or replace missing arms and give a person a fully functioning body. To do that I needed to understand biology, and I needed to understand electronics. So I needed to do physics and biology.

Explaining this resulted in laughter. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that what I wanted to do was silly. It was science fiction. It was impossible. I watched too much Star Wars, read too much Asimov. I should be realistic and stop being silly. So I gave up, humiliated that I had been set on something so obviously ludicrous that adults laughed at it. It was around that time that I picked up a video about becoming a solicitor from the school’s library. There was a sensible, realistic career. So I applied myself to that instead.

And twenty years on, the Guardian has photographs of people in the sorts of devices I dreamed about. Artificial limbs which are wired into nerves and controlled by thought are available.

I now teach. And I am conscious of how easily a careless word can completely crush the dreams and enthusiasm of a student. So whenever a student comes to me with pie in the sky dreams, I know to stop, and think. Twenty years ago thought-controlled limbs would have seemed as ludicrous as touch-controlled pocket computers which can send messages and retrieve information from around the world. Yet twenty years on, they are common place. I can’t go back and tell myself not to surrender my dreams. But I can ensure that I don’t ever tell a student to surrender theirs.

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