Friday, June 20, 2008


Whilst walking the camino Frances last year I often found myself singing, especially when the going got tough. One song that really gave me strength was the school song sung by the children at the Open Air School for physically disabled children in Durban that my younger son attended for 12 years.
The song is a poem by A.H. Ackley called
“You can Smile when you can’t say a Word”.

There are many troubles that will burst like bubbles,
there are many shadows that will disappear;
When you learn to meet them, with a smile to greet them,
for a smile is better than a frown or tear.

You can smile when you can't say a word,
You can smile when you cannot be heard;
You can smile when it's cloudy or fair,
You can smile anytime, anywhere.

Tho' the world forsake you, joy will overtake you,
Hope will soon awake you, if you smile today;
Don't parade your sorrow, wait until tomorrow,
For your joy and hope will drive the clouds away.


When the clouds are raining, don't begin complaining,
what the earth is gaining should not make you sad;
Do not be a fretter, smiling is much better,
and a smile will help to make the whole world glad.


It was especially poignant when being sung at assembly by some two hundred disabled children, some deaf, some blind, some mute, all disabled, belting out
“You can smile…”

“I can and I will” - this was the motto of the Open Air School. The children ranged from terminally ill – leukaemia, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy and so on – to those born with cerebral palsy, spina bifida or brittle bones (like my son) and a few amputees or accident victims who might spend only some of their school lives at the special school.

The effects of being involved with children who have to overcome enormous odds just to live each day are profound. Can you complain of a headache when you see a child with a brain tumour? Can you complain of a sore arm when confronted by a child with no limbs? Can you complain about having to walk to a shop after watching a child struggling to walk in parallel bars wearing callipers? Can you complain about having a child who breaks his bones when your friend’s child is dying?

These children teach you to accept your life as it is, to persevere and to live life joyfully. Children are generally playful, carefree and full of mischief even though they have crippling disabilities. For a number of years I was in a lift club with three other mothers from my area whose children went to the Open Air School. Mark (with the fragile bones) always sat in the front. Russell, Belinda and Jaquetta sat in the back. I ended up calling it my ‘death row’. Russell had muscular dystrophy and Belinda had Cystic Fibrosis – neither survived past their teens. Jaquetta’s prognosis was bleak. She’d had numerous aneurysms and seizures which had left her unable to walk, speak, or use her right hand. She has confounded the doctors by surviving and is now almost forty years old.

The children teased each other unmercifully, joked, sang and played games like “The A Team” where the ugliest, most deformed child was “Face” and my fragile boy was “Hannibal”. All were included in school plays and if Cinderella looked a little incongruous in her wheelchair nobody seemed to notice.

When the going got tough, climbing muddy paths to the Alto del Perdon, or steep rocky trails to Manjarin or O Cebreiro, I sang the school song and it lifted my spirit and gave me strength to carry on. When it rained for three days in a row I sang:
When the clouds are raining, don't begin complaining, what the earth is gaining should not make you sad;

Many people - like my son - are not physically able to walk the camino even though he has had incredible achievements in other ways.

I am eternally grateful that I am fit and healthy and able to walk the camino and remind myself every day, "
Do not be a fretter, smiling is much better, and a smile will help to make the whole world glad."


  1. Anonymous4:15 am


    I was searching online for anything to do with A.H. Ackley and his poem "You can smile when you can't say a word". I was searching for this because I spent the summer in Ghana teaching English to children and they would recite that poem to me. It was so gripping to hear them say the phrases "you can smile when you can't say a word, you can smile when you cannot be heard" because these children basically have nothing yet they are so much more thankful and have higher spirits than any person I know here in the U.S. I just couldn't get enough of the poem and the emotions it conjured up inside of me.
    I could hardly find anything but your post showed up when I searched and I was not aware this was a song. I would love to hear how it sounds-- do you know of anywhere that I may be able to find it? Anyway, your post was beautiful and I feel very happy to know that someone was touched by these words in similar ways. They will definitely stick with me for the rest of my life and I often find myself reciting this poem. Please email me, I'd love to hear from you!
    shanafitz (@) gmail . com

    Thank you!


  2. Shana, I am trying to find a way to record myself singing the first verse and Chorus so that I can post it onto this blog! My singing is atrocious but I'm sure you'll get the tune and then you too can sing it as you walk through the tough times!