How did I get here?

I still wonder… But, ‘How Did I Get Here?’ is the story of how I came to do a PhD and then turn it into ‘Signs of Hope’.  I have mixed feelings about this.  It is a true story (mostly … in a postmodern, narrative sense). I’m not going to reproduce the whole chapter here.  For that, you really should buy the book.  (Hey, why not buy the book?)  But here are some of my favourite parts.

I chose to write this story in the privacy of my room rather than speak or sign it to another person, into a microphone, or towards a camera. As I wrote it, I noted my responses. I found my heart beating faster, tears in my eyes, a lump in my throat. It suddenly struck me how my family narrators might feel, telling me their story. I also began observing the choices I was making about what to tell, what to leave out, and why. Again, I thought of my narrators. I realised that, for all sorts of unanticipated reasons, it was vital that I included something of my story here. This was both exhilarating and terrifying. I could tell a story; I could script it, direct it, stage it, I could be in charge of a story that, until now, had had a powerful control over me. However, I was getting into deep water. I would have to treat my narrative with the same care as I did the family stories. I changed all names, places and details. It is crafted and considered. It is also an angry story, a much-needed personal corrective, perhaps a small victory even. I have mixed feelings about its inclusion here. It reveals a side to me I rarely acknowledge, barely recognise. I decided to take the risk. Ultimately, and most importantly, I sought to align myself with Georgina, Toni, Thomas, Brigit, Bella, Dora, Luke, Harper and Maisie, who took a leap of faith in telling me their stories. I took up the position of storyteller alongside them.

So when did you become hearing?

Like many people I know, I have hazy, bleached out memories of learning to fingerspell. Andrew-something was his name, a small boy—tiny in fact—and a couple of years younger than me. He had dark hair, small, piercing black eyes like raisins, flying hands, and a jolting, frenetic energy. There was a box strapped to his chest, with white braces, and wires hanging from his ears. I think I knew that he was deaf. I never heard his voice, but used to watch his sister, brother and mother sign to him. And him sign to them. I remember it didn’t seem strange. Sometimes their voices sounded odd—they didn’t switch them off when they signed—but I remember intense discussions, arguments, jokes, communication.

1993: Alex

I am a Teacher. Alex was eleven when I met him. Again, dark hair, but this time, blue eyes and freckles. Alex had a friend called Laurie. The two of them used to hang out together. I think Laurie saw himself as Vital To Alex’s Well-Being. They were both loners who hooked up. I used to see them shuffling around together, in the corridors, the playground, and they always sat next to each other in class. Alex didn’t sign. Neither did his family. No-one had ever mentioned it to them. No-one was available to teach them. Alex used his hearing aids, and, after all, was only severely deaf. “Put this transmitter round your neck, make sure it’s switched to the right frequency and he’ll be all right. Any questions, just leave a note for his teacher of the deaf. She comes in once a week to help him with his English.”

I made an appointment with his teacher of the deaf, a peripatetic member of the borough’s Audiology Service, who saw Alex for an hour a week. In this hour, she checked his hearing aids and corrected his English homework. “What can you tell me about Alex? Is there anything I should know? Does he use sign language?”

“No. None of the children in the borough do. It’s policy.” Sometime later, however, all the teachers of the deaf in the borough were invited to attend a BSL Stage One course even though they would never use sign language with the children they taught. There were no courses for the children, or their families. I managed to get a place because of my growing interest in Special Educational Needs, and because of a very supportive headteacher, and I passed.

1995

I find myself, on the back of my BSL Stage One success, applying to work as a teacher of the deaf in a very large comprehensive school. I was the only one to apply for the post. I messed up my interview horribly, but they offered me the job. I was also offered training on a part-time university course in Hearing Impairment in order to qualify as a teacher of the deaf. For the one remaining term I had at my old school, I stumbled upon an Open University course called Issues in Deafness. I enrolled and dived headlong into course material about deaf history, education, welfare, mental health, about sign language, about deaf culture. I started to write essays.

My first day as a teacher of the deaf was a training day. I think we were still in those days calling them Baker Days. Part of the training was an IT session. Something to do with timetables. There were about ten of us in the room. The walls were spotlessly white, reflecting the sunlight that streamed in through the blinds. After an introduction from someone in a tie and a moustache, we were to pair up, and work through an activity. My new boss assigned me to Sam, who had been sitting in the room with us. Suddenly, it struck me. Sam’s deaf.

There is a sign in BSL for confidence—the thumb and forefinger form the shape of the letter C, which is placed on the chest. If you are feeling confident, the C rises up towards the throat. If you are suddenly filled with confidence, the movement is fast and sure. Over-confidence often results in the C continuing to rise and float above the head like a hot-air balloon. My C-for-confidence not only dropped like a lead weight; it crashed through the floorboards, into the cellar below where it bounced comically, ricocheted into a dark corner, and wasn’t discovered again for several weeks. I have no idea how we got through that training session, let alone the whole day. That afternoon, however, a bond was formed. And over the following weeks, it was Sam who found my confidence—my lonely C—cowering in the corner of the cellar, picked it up, dusted it off, gave it a bit of a slap, and restored it to its rightful place next to my heart.

My deaf-sister, my deaf-conscience, my deaf-mentor, role-model, teacher, sanity-saver, my deaf-kick-up-the-arse; I owe everything that followed to Sam. She initiated me into deaf clubs, deaf pubs, deaf weekends. Entering deaf spaces—it’s a cliché but—there is nothing like that ‘sea of signing’ that hits you as soon as you walk in the door of deaf club. And the sound of deaf laughter; deep belly laughs, high-pitched screeches, it’s infectious. In deaf pubs the lights are on, the jukebox is blaring out God-Knows-What, but unlike hearing conversation—people shouting, bending their heads to listen above the racket, trying to order drinks—noise doesn’t matter. You can hold a conversation with someone outside, through the window, you can order a drink from the far corner, you can tell someone on the first floor balcony that you love them. And deaf nightclubs—I’ll never forget the first time I saw deaf people dancing. You tune in and feel the beat in your chest; your ribcage pulses and hums, your feet sense vibrations through the floor, you listen through your eyes and hear through your body. Quite a baptism—I proudly perfected the art of signing, and (almost) understanding deaf people while thoroughly inebriated.

I soon passed BSL Stage Two while both teaching in school and studying at university. I found myself working with an amazing group of children: Kevin, from Trinidad, Jaffar and Mahdi, newly arrived from Bangladesh, Mark, obsessed with cricket, Simon, who came out at 15, Halitha and Kaarthik, Adilah, Sabina, Ifra, Parveen, Shazmah, Aadil and Jawad. Patiently, we worked together, as I started to find my way and learned to sign better, as Sam and I took some of the children to deaf club, as we shared jokes in Science lessons, spluttering to smother our laughter, or as we ploughed our way through Romeo and Juliet, Lord of the Flies, quadratic equations, plate tectonics and Beatles’ songs (signing Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da at a terrifying pace is seared into my memory, thanks to Mr Phillips).

I became immersed—not waving but drowning—in Special Needs legislation: Annual Reviews, Individual Education Plans, hearing-aid technology and testing, audiology, audiometry, linguistics, classroom management, deaf awareness. Being a teacher of the deaf in a mainstream school often meant interpreting lessons (in spite of my rudimentary skills). At the same time, it meant constantly monitoring lesson delivery, language, noise levels, facilitating group work, advocacy, inclusive practice, acting as keyworker for some of the deaf children and getting to know their families. Those of us in the staff who could sign (there were only four of us) became safe people for the children to turn to. Our room became the secure space within the entire school—so large it was on two separate sites.

First week of the new school year

Thursday lunchtime. I was heading down the corridor of the lower school towards the canteen. A group of new, year-seven boys had gathered at the bottom of the stairs. “Miss, Miss!” As I approached, I saw Kevin. He was dressed in his PE kit, facing the wall, sobbing. Every time a boy went up to him, put a hand on his shoulder, he shrugged them off. They didn’t know what else to do, but were concerned and were trying to help. None of them knew any signs; they were a bit lost.

I reached Kevin, and put a hand on his shoulder. He was shaking, tears and snot running down his cheeks and chin. I needed eye contact, but he wouldn’t look at me. I kept my hand on his shoulder and sent the boys away. Slowly, they wandered off. Both hands on his shoulders, I turned Kevin away from the wall. I bent down, then kneeled on the floor and looked into his eyes, all puffy and sore, “What is it?”

Slowly, in between sniffs and huffs, hands shaking, Kevin told me he had wanted to try out for the Year 7 football team. The first thing I ever found out about Kevin when I visited him at his Primary school was that he was football mad. He worshipped Eric Cantona, and for years teased me mercilessly about my fondness for a certain, glamorous West London side who looked rather fetching in blue. In his journal for today he had hurriedly written ‘fotbll’ to remind him of the trial. His form tutor had read out the announcements during Monday’s tutor time, but there had been no-one to interpret, so Kevin copied the one word he recognised from the boy next to him. What he didn’t know, however, was that to try out for the team, you had to turn up in Games kit, not PE kit. Kevin had gone to the changing room (arriving late as he wasn’t sure where it was), put on his brand new, very white T-shirt, shorts, socks and trainers, and had run out onto the field. The teacher took one look at him, shouted something incomprehensible, the other boys all laughed, and Kevin was sent back to the changing rooms.

We couldn’t stay like this in the corridor. Children were staring and we were being jostled by the lunchtime crowds. Our room was just a few doors down. “Come on,” I coaxed Kevin. As I opened the door and we entered, I saw the boss, sitting there, eating his sandwiches. “Out!” he ordered to us both. “This is lunchtime and the children are not allowed in here. They’ll never integrate into the school and the wider world if every time they get upset they come in here.”

Jawad

Jawad and I had a reading lesson. He was, at 13 years old, working his way through a Primary School reading scheme. We found a table in the corner. Over the far side of the same room, beyond the bookcase, Anita was taking a Year 7 E2L class who were reciting, as a group, English sentences written on the whiteboard. Over and over, becoming more rhythmical each time, and louder. One or two of the children were beating time on the table, with hands, pencils, rulers. There was a fierce energy to the lesson and a smiling Anita was almost dancing round the table. I turned to Jawad. Pale, with dark shadows under watery, deep brown eyes, he switched his hearing aids off. I was about to—automatically and without thinking—remind him to leave them on. But I didn’t. I stopped myself. As usual, he took the left aid out. His ear was bright red where he’d been rubbing it. “Pain,” he signed. I didn’t know what to do. This didn’t feel like school. I got up to fetch him a glass of water. We’d wait for five minutes. He closed his eyes. His bag was still over his shoulder, unzipped, and full to bursting with books, trainers, pencil cases, a packed-lunch box. As we sat there, I realised I was envious that he couldn’t hear the E2L class. My head was starting to throb. A few more minutes and Jawad opened his eyes. He looked wiped out. “Are you ill?” Shake of the head. “You want to read?” Sigh. He twisted and tugged the flimsy, dog-eared picture book out of his bag. Something to do with a cat and a dog and a missing necklace. I had planned, in my notes, to try and work on comprehension today. I’d pictured us working together; we’d silently read a sentence, and then discuss it. Or maybe even a paragraph. A page, a whole chapter.

Before I could do anything, Jawad opened the book at his bookmark, and mechanically started to bark at the words, stabbing each one with his finger. He nodded his head in time to the syllables, and moved his mouth to the shape of the words. I tapped his hand. What was he doing? He ignored me. I put my hand on his shoulder. Still, he carried on. This was horrible. He was getting louder and faster, unwittingly mocking the class on the far side of the room. He turned the page and read on, word-by-word. I just sat there, defeated. Defeated, but impressed by his rebellion. This is how this school wants me to read, so that’s how I am going to read. I am not signing, I am using my voice! He turned the page. More words. And again. And again until he reached the end. He closed the book and looked at me, pained yet defiant.

Leaving, moving on

I left my job. I didn’t want to fight any more: I could no longer make sense of the system in which I was working. The children held a party for me. It was in our room at lunchtime on my last day. Some of the older children had been shopping to buy party food and had spent morning break either decorating the tables, or keeping me out of the way. We had Sri Lankan snacks and Indian sweets, cake, biscuits and squash. There were cards, ribbons and balloons. Towards the end of the party, as the afternoon bell flashed, Halitha stood up on a chair in front of everyone because she had prepared a goodbye speech. She started to sign. And my boss interrupted: “Use your voice!” I was speechless.

I moved to a different city, to a different school. Too many stories. Why am I telling you this? After only seven years of teaching, I fell ill. I was having terrible dreams. I was fraying at the edges. I wanted to teach my class of children and everything was getting in the way. I was told to make sure teenage deaf children in my class wore their hearing aids at all times and when I offered that I simply couldn’t do this, it was clear I was not complying. I was therefore not a very good teacher. I carry the guilt with me to this day. Temporal distance merely blurs the mess of memories that play over and over in my bluer moments. I try to remember the successes, the achievements, the lasting bonds that were formed in my final 18 months as a teacher, but I was falling out of love. My doctor advised me to quit teaching. I failed, drowning in a sea of politics, disappointment, joy, despair, confusion,  and even more disappointment. And anger. At myself. The system. At bureaucracy, misunderstanding, indifference and short-sightedness.

I took flight and landed, albeit with the wrong map, in the world of academia and Deaf Studies. Confronted with the History of Hearing People’s Oppression of Deaf People and encouraged to ‘academise’ my emotional responses to my place in this history, I felt myself withdrawing; uncertain, confused, inarticulate, the rug pulled out from under me. At the same time, my eyes were opened to a whole new world of being and seeing, of identity, language, communication and history. I was hungry for knowledge and desperate to learn more. A constant negotiation, on the edge, not fitting in, yet wanting so much to be there.

And so I found myself working and surviving in deaf community and academic spaces where the going—still rough—became more navigable. But rather than chugging safely in the estuary, I was now out on the high seas; the ups were huge and the downs terrifying, full of tears, doubts and some very strange dreams. But there were also times for forging deep and lasting relationships, for talking and sharing, for reflection and introspection—how did I get here?—and time to appreciate that I did get here, under my own steam eventually; guided, prodded and encouraged by a long line of generous, intelligent, insightful and inspirational people. Maybe I was finally starting to find my place.

I picked up my C-for-confidence, pinned it back where it belonged, and fell in love all over again.

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