31 March 2010
Dear Mr Xxxxxx,
Thank you so very much for your very kind and thoughtful letter about Alex. As you can imagine, it was heartbreaking for us as parents to watch the tragedy of his earlier life unfold, not least his valiant attempts to conform with the prevailing ethos of school and youthful social culture. Yes, he was eccentric and unorthodox, but in an earlier age (less obsessed with materialism and celebrity) – let us say, the Athens of the 5th century BC, or the Europe of the 19th century – he would have found much readier acceptance and appreciation, and indeed tolerance and compassion for his developing gender ambiguity.
All went reasonably well at Reading School until by the beginning of his third year (as we realised retrospectively) his morale cracked under the unrelenting pressure of ostracism – some of it quite possibly due to his social awkwardness and nerdy sense of humour – and then it was downhill all the way until we discovered just how low his academic performance had sunk – just in time to take matters in hand ourselves to ensure that his GCSE's and A–Levels were all of a very acceptably high standard. But it was no thanks to those subject teachers themselves, who had been quite unforthcoming at Parents' Evenings about such problems. Maybe it wasn't their business to be the bearers of bad tidings.
Alex himself was however far less of a weakling than his contemporaries imagined – a fearless and accomplished skier since the age of 6, an excellent swimmer who even at primary school had swum almost an entire BT Swimathon single-handed, a very creditable road-runner (my own favourite recreation) and a dedicated body-builder. He did his level best to be a proper tough guy, and in the process quite probably far outshone many of his detractors.
But add to that the anorexia, the scoliosis, the resulting fibromyalgia, and then the ulcerative colitis which necessitated the removal of her entire colon, and you get some measure of what Andrea (by that stage) had to contend with in addition to all the social pressures. We think that on that basis alone Andrea's life was a triumph over adversity.
It was nice that you too had spotted Alex's remarkable algebraic capabilities – I also well remember that particular display of virtuosity (re a**n – b**n), which was quite possibly catalysed by his new-found ability to do algebraic long division (practically nobody these days can manage even the numerical sort, of course). And then the dawning realisation of the pattern that was emerging! I don't actually recollect a genuine proof of the general case, but at that age I think he was on a roll and could have managed that too.
I can remember a session with my pocket calculator where I got him to compute (1+1/n)**n (I think that was it) for larger and larger n, and the penny suddenly dropping that it wasn't changing ... that gave him the idea of limits and he then more or less soaked up differential calculus immediately. The integral stuff came more slowly, I think, but by that time he was already having big social difficulties, and was losing interest in numerate stuff as being macho and oppressive.
Even after the gender transformation, however, Andrea's life was far from easy and she was still beset by relentless confrontationalism from her social peer group who perceived a personality weakness and just wanted to bring her down. I think they must have been the kind of audience at whom programmes such as Big Brother and X-Factor are targeted, and they are not happy until the victim has been rubbished. You are quite right to identify her as a tortured soul, and Sonia and I join with you in hoping that she has now found an eternal tranquillity in another realm.
With very best wishes,
R E Waddell