The other day I started going through my address book in some sort of attempt to be grown up and organised. I was shocked to find that of the 3,500 people in my contacts list, quite a few of them had passed away in the last few years. There was my Grandma’s mobile number, who I used to text every now and then to keep her up to date.
Then there was my Uncle Ging, who passed away a few years ago in South Africa. It was strange to see his email address in my contacts list. I almost reflexively sent him a message, to see if he would reply.
That’s him on the left. His actual name was Christopher, but my family always had an interesting attitude to naming conventions. He’s pictured here next to my other Uncle, known as Richard, for that is his name.
My family always tried to help my mum out with my upbringing in whatever way they could, particularly Ging.
Ging might even have been some sort of psychic, if what my father tells me is true. Even before I was diagnosed as deaf, he went into my bedroom to find Ging standing over my cot with a worried look, insisting that something ‘wasn’t right with me.’
Turned out he was right. Lucky guess.
Ging worked in the oil industry and was pretty well off. He wanted to help my mum get the best possible education for me so that my deafness was never an issue in life. They decided that they’d put me into Mill Hall, a very good primary school for deaf children, where my granny Connie already worked as a teacher of the deaf – a weird coincidence that I’ve never fully understood.
My uncle agreed to buy a house near the school, where he and my mother would live while I went to school during the day.
My mum had misgivings about leaving her friends behind in Sheffield to live with her brother in a village where she didn’t know anyone, but she was prepared to do that for me.
They took me to visit the school. I was shown around and introduced to various pupils. I then spent five minutes with the headteacher. I was only two years old.
After that five minutes was up, the headteacher, a very attractive lady (according to my mum anyway) came out with me and said ‘I’m sorry, he won’t benefit at all from being taught here – his language is already better than he will learn here.’
With the parting words that I’d be ‘better off in the hearing world’, that was the end of the plan to take me to a deaf school.
I returned to Sheffield and went to a nice primary school called Sharrow Juniors, followed by Abbeydale Grange secondary school. It started out pretty good, then declined as funding was cut. They closed down the sixth form. Long after I left, they demolished the place.
My education was mainstream. I never met any other deaf people.
I had a classroom assistant with me each day to make sure I understood what was going on, with the unfortunate side effect that I never got away with anything. They were always young and pretty women, so I didn’t mind that much.
Was I bullied? Hard to define really. I wasn’t bullied in the classical sense of the word. Worse than bullying was the steady hum of ignorance, of being made to feel I didn’t matter as much as the other pupils, that my opinion wasn’t valid or that I didn’t have anything to contribute.
It was a strange education. I was the only deaf person in the schools and colleges I attended until I was 18, with only one or two real friends, none of them deaf – until I met my first deaf friend in a pub in Durham watching England vs Italy in a World Cup qualifier.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve observed that deaf friends of mine who attended boarding schools together have stronger, more lasting bonds. Some of these people have stayed close friends for over 30 years. The only way I keep in touch with old school friends is through the occasional facebook ‘like’ here and there.
Would my life have been better if I’d gone to Mill Hall Primary, and then on to Mary Hare? Would I have become more confident in myself, more of a high flyer? Or would I have left Mary Hare aged 18 with no clue how the outside world worked, relying more on sign than speech?
If I’d gone to a deaf school then everyone would know me. I’d have no secrets. I’d be haunted by the things I’d done as a 14yr old even now. I wouldn’t like that.
I prefer the fact that I’m fairly unknown – even if most deaf people I meet assume I went to a deaf school anyway.
Whenever I correct someone and tell them I went to a mainstream school, the look of disappointment and confusion on their faces is weird. Are they confused because they’ve never heard of Abbeydale Grange school? Or disappointed because they can’t immediately call up a detailed character references and a detailed history of my school days?
I’m going to cut a long story short and admit the real reason I wish I’d gone to a deaf school. I’ve used very complex algorithms and various theories to investigate this… and I believe the following is true:
If I had gone to a deaf school, I would have had more girlfriends.
Or maybe I wouldn’t. Maybe who I am today is who I should be, all the experiences of my life so far have formed me as a person, and I shouldn’t want to change a single thing. But I remember days when, sitting on the number 24 bus to Abbeydale, when I wished I could be somewhere, anywhere else. Somewhere better. Perhaps that place would have been Mill Hall.
Ultimately, wondering ‘what if’ is futile. What if I’d been hearing? What if I’d been Chinese? What if I’d been born with two heads? My life is what it is. What I was at school was, above all else, lucky.
I was lucky to have an Uncle like Ging. I was lucky to be given all the support and help I asked for by the local educational authority. I ended up with 11 GCSEs, 4 A-Levels and a Master’s Degree education. If I’d been at school today, I’d have been much less fortunate.
The government are cutting services for deaf children in education, and that’s breaking my heart. Whether they want to go to a deaf school, a mainstream school, or a specialist unit – their options are being severely limited.
I was lucky, but deaf children today might find they aren’t as lucky. Watch this video, and sign the petition below.
PS If Anna Wade, one of my old classroom assistants, is by any chance reading this… get in touch.
William Mager is an award-winning director for film and TV, who made his first film aged 14 when he “set fire to a model Audi Quattro and was subsequently banned from the school film club for excessive pyromania.” He’s made short films, dramas and mini-series, and works for the BBC. Find out all about his work at his personal website, read his blog, and if you’re on Twitter, follow him here.
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