Rhun ap Iorwerth, Plaid Cymru AM for Ynys Môn
I’ve finally watched ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ for the first time. Some consider the 1946 Christmas classic to be one of the best films ever made. It’s certainly one of the best-loved. We watched it as a family, and yes, it really was wonderful.
In one episode of the US comedy Friends (The One where Old Yeller Dies) Monica tells Phoebe to watch ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, saying: “I promise it will restore all your faith in humanity.” Well, just hours before watching the film, I’d had my faith restored in what humanity can be.
I was first elected in the summer of 2013. Four months later I was given privileged access to an event which had a profound effect on me. I say ‘privileged’ because it was the kind of access that elected representatives are honoured to receive by virtue of our positions: I was asked if I could attend the Christmas show at Ysgol y Bont in Llangefni.
Ysgol y Bont was a special school. Sadly there was nothing very special in the building – an old leaky flat-roofed 1970s maze of corridors and small classrooms, but what happened there that afternoon was very special indeed.
Among the pupils, ranging from 3 to 19 years of age, were a wide range of needs, some very severe. But every child took part in what was a quite remarkable show.
To this day, I’ll never forget a young man, perhaps 18 years of age, very quietly and beautifully singing the Passenger hit ‘Let Her Go’.
You only need the light when it’s burning low
Only miss the sun when it starts to snow,
Only know you love her when you let her go.
Only know you’ve been high when you’re feeling low,
Only hate the road when you’re missing home,
Only know you love her when you let her go.
And you let her go.
It was the most beautiful love song I’d ever heard. In fact, the whole event was the product of the most intense love and care imaginable.
A mile away from that dilapidated old school, a building was under construction that was a palace in comparison. Ysgol y Bont would soon move into a new home, a £10m purpose-built special school, with state of the art facilities. It would now be called Canolfan Addysg y Bont – a new name, but the magic was the same.
I attended a second Christmas show, then another. I spent much of each show, as I had the first, in tears. This had become a highlight not just of the Christmas period, but of the whole year.
Because there in the darkened theatre of the school hall, with music and light and laughter and joy, I stop and think, and everything is different.
I see children given tender care, encouraged to push themselves to the limits to bang a drum or sing a song, to dance a few steps, to tell a joke, or to just be there on the stage. With eyes fixed on a young carer gently mouthing lyrics, a child that may otherwise be silent sings in a sweet voice. Young male staff members softly stroke the hands of teenage boys who need a comforting touch.
As a keen musician, I was spellbound in that first show in 2013 by two of the staff who gave the event its soundtrack. Gethin Thomas on the keyboard, the musical director of the show, is something of a genius. He had a right-hand man in Gareth Roberts, a teaching assistant who impressed me with his drumming skills, but more so by his kindness.
I was left numb earlier this year when I read that Gareth had died. The tragedy had a deep impact on the school – on staff, pupils and the wider school family, and the tribute to him at this year’s show was beautiful in its honesty and simplicity.
#belikegareth, wrote the children on laminated cards, with each letter signifying a virtue that Gareth had left them as his legacy – to be kind, to enjoy music, to try your best always. I wish I could remember them all.
Again, this was all wrapped in kindness and love.
But even in the small community of Llangefni, few really know what happens within Canolfan Addysg y Bont. What happens there, and at special schools like it, is that life is stripped back to its basics. The children have needs, and those needs are met. The teachers and carers are totally dedicated.
Within our society, however, there are many, many others whose needs are not met – the homeless, the hungry, the abused, the vulnerable, the exploited.
In that Christmas show, I think ‘how on earth can this be?’ How could our society have become so unequal? How can so much wealth accumulate in so few hands whilst vital life-saving, life-enhancing, opportunity-providing services are starved? How can we prioritise weapons over welfare, shells over shelters?
Questions fill my mind. They’re questions I grapple with daily as a politician, but here their power is intense.
Where is the humanity?
This outpouring of humanity on the stage before me is the world I want. Nothing brings into sharper focus the responsibility on all of us in politics.
If all the world could sit in the hall at Canolfan Addysg y Bont for the Christmas show, it would be a better place for it.