TV presenter Cerrie Burnell on the teacher that changed her life

Cerrie Burnell

Cerrie Burnell - Credit: Archant

TV presenter and writer Cerrie Burnell tells Sally Bailey why diversity is at the heart of everything she does and how one special teacher changed her life

Anyone who has read Cerrie Burnell’s first book will know that she sees children like snowflakes, each one completely unique, and every one of them beautiful.

Cerrie is known to millions as a presenter of BBC TV’s Cbeebies, a job she took six years ago when her daughter was three months old.

She is also known as the woman who was targeted by a group of parents who campaigned to get her removed from her job as a television presenter because she they didn’t like her shorter arm.

Their campaign catapulted her into the public eye and Cerrie found herself doing a parade of interviews for networks and newspapers around the world in which incredulous journalists expected her to be upset.

But Cerrie says as a new, sleep-deprived mum, she had bigger things to worry about and she couldn’t have given a hoot what anyone else thought.

She seized the media storm as an opportunity to put inclusion into everyone’s mind, turning it into a positive opportunity to be seen as a woman doing a job that had nothing to do with disability, showing the world that it was a greater problem than a bit of mud-slinging and those comments weren’t any more personal to her than someone saying they didn’t like Martin Luther King because he was black.

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“People were desperate for me to collapse but that girl people were looking for didn’t exist,” she says. “I’m cross that those issues exist for anyone but it’s a much bigger issue than the single person.”

Since those days Cerrie has become an eloquent spokeswoman for inclusion, patiently explaining her point of view over and over again until people listen.

Before you even scratch the surface of who the former actress is it’s clear to see she is a strong role model for children and adults alike; a single mum who has dyslexia, raising her daughter whilst holding down a part-time job on telly, writing for the Huffington Post, penning a play, championing inclusion, oh, and writing enchanting children’s books.

At the heart of what she does is diversity. Her fiction includes mixed-race children, a little girl with one hand, and in her new book, Mermaid, a girl who uses a wheelchair and swims like a beautiful sea creature.

Each child, like the ones in her first book, Snowflakes, is celebrated not for their differences but for their individual character.

It is how she would like to see the whole world treat people with any difference, allowing more diversity in public life.

“There has been some progress but there is a long way to go,” she says. “We need more diverse role models and it’s through television and literature that we can do that. It’s about the writing really, creating strong characters. That’s definitely happening more though, the journey has begun.”

Cerrie’s latest book, Mermaid, is due out this month. It is the story of a little girl who teaches a boy to swim. At night he dreams of their underwater adventures and when she starts at his new school and the children crowd round to look at her wheelchair he tells them she is a mermaid.

“Books and stories are so integral to who we are, it is damaging not to represent every child’s life,” she says. “People ask me if all my books will have diversity in some form. I don’t know how to write without diversity. That’s the way I’m wired.”

Cerrie initially grew up in London before moving to Eastbourne, and says school life was the same for her as for any other child.

She barely noticed she had a disability and saw the prosthetic arm she was encouraged to wear as a cumbersome part of her uniform at Crofton Primary School, Kent. She found it so annoying in fact that she drew on it, stuffed it in cupboards when no one was looking, and tried her hardest to lose it so she wouldn’t have to wear it.

At the age of nine she ditched it for good, telling her mum she was more beautiful without it.

“It wasn’t a big decision. I just didn’t want to wear it in the same way a child might not want a brace or to go to a flute lesson. It was that simple.”

She learned to write with her left hand, and did everything she wanted to including gymnastics, horse riding, ballet, and climbing trees. These days she can’t recall whether kids made hurtful comments in the playground.

“I think I was teased more for wearing a brace,” she says.

Dyslexia was a greater hurdle to overcome than her disability and Cerrie remembers having to stand in front of the class to read and looking down at words that were as illegible as a Japanese menu. Cleverly she used to get her dad to read to her before memorising the words so she could recite them the next day and look as though she was reading.

One special teacher changed her education, showing confidence in Cerrie’s ability, listening to her stories and writing them down for her, encouraging her every step of the way.

“She was a really wonderful teacher who was very patient with her and she would give up her lunchtimes to come and sit with me. I had people believing in me who knew I was intelligent. A great teacher can really make you.”

Cerrie herself has had a stint working in school, spending two years as a teaching assistant at the former Jack Taylor special educational needs school in Camden. No doubt her ‘can-do’ attitude provided that same inspiration to some of the pupils.

Today people she doesn’t know come and ask her about all sorts – and understandably a percentage of that relates to her arm. Being a well-known face on TV simply adds to their air of entitlement. Although she is open to questions and happy to provide a platform for them, the conversations can be bizarre.

“It’s invariably not about me, it’s about them. When I was about 17 someone came rushing up to me and said: ‘I’m so sorry your mother did drugs.’ They just launched in to this lecture about thalidomide. I said: ‘It’s interesting that you think my mother took drugs, actually she prefers a cream tea.”

Cerrie’s outlook makes her a great person to bring the subject of disability and difference to the fore in an age where some are still clumsy or nervous of it. And while many people would find it tiresome that strangers don’t engage in conversation about her work, being a mum, her opinions on politics or whatever, Cerrie reacts with grace and wisdom.

“People are uninhibited about talking to me about things. I don’t know if they’re meaning to behave badly, it’s just a reaction. It happened so often when I was younger it just felt like normal life. You can’t blame people for being curious, it’s what drives human existence.”

Giving her daughter, now aged six, a diverse and positive environment to grow up in has always been high on Cerrie’s agenda, as is trying to shield her from the demands of fame when people forget they don’t actually know her just because she’s on the screen in their homes several times a week.

“I don’t have photos taken when I’m with her because that’s not what I want her experience to be.”*

Although Cerrie is happy to talk about her own experience whenever journalists make a request she is reluctant to spoon out advice to children who are being picked on or faced with challenging situations today, saying that every situation is different and she is not an expert on disability, just a woman who knows what worked for her.

“With all bullying it’s important to remember it’s not about you, it’s about the bully. There will come a time when these things won’t matter.

“You don’t need to be held hostage by other people’s opinions, you don’t need anyone’s approval.

“There’s not anything you need to do or change. You are absolutely fine as you are. The challenge is accepting yourself and learning to love yourself.”

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