Sunday, 23 November 2014

A letter to my teachers

Dear Sir/Ma’am
This is a letter that I should have written after I finished school, but I realised that one is never really finished school. There are lingering undercurrents of influence that continue to ripple over one’s life long after matric. Some of these are positive waves of fresh water over a desert of one’s soul and mind while and some are more like tsunamis that devastate everything in its path by the coast from a far-off deep water seismic event.
Teachers, you need to know:
Firstly, I am deaf.  Not ‘hearing-impaired’, not ‘deaf and dumb’, not ‘hearing loss’, not ‘hardly hearing’, not ‘hard-of-hearing’. Deaf is fine, I am fine with this word, are you? I really do not have a problem with this word in class, and you can use it when talking to me, or talking about me in staffroom, or in the class. Time to change the words. Deaf is cool now.
If you say the other words, then you can never really get to know me. I am not hard-of hearing, or hearing impaired, as these imply that I am somewhat in the hearing world, and ‘ag shame, we need to help me get back in’, I really do not like that patronising tone and false sympathy and pity. I need your empathy instead. Do you know what it is like to be deaf? No, I am sure that you can imagine, but until you are deaf, you cannot understand what it is like in class with all the noise and paradoxically, all the silence and muffled sounds and missed words, sentences, dialogues, instructions, whispers, gossip, hidden meanings, announcements and general everyday cacophony of sounds and noises that are almost impossible to distinguish.  Coming back to the water metaphor: either I had a trickle of information, or drips, or suddenly, a tidal wave of overwhelming amount of water (sound) with its accompanying confusing detritus of information, it was confusing as I struggled to wade through the information of sounds for useful lifebelts of knowledge, like when the test and what we must actually do. You see, hearing-aids amplify everything, which is the problem, as I cannot often work out what is being said clearly, when others are talking at the same time or the general noise of the classroom impedes on my attention as everything is important to me. I do not have the same tuning-out ability that hearing children naturally have, so I am all at sea, cast-adrift, in the noise. And it is exhausting trying to keep up and decipher the messages. That is why I used a few close friends to help me understand what is required, they were my anchors of stability and understanding, sorry to say, teachers were not the best way of understanding. When the class was quiet, I could listen to you provided that you did not mumble, drop your words, not finish words at the end of sentences, or look away from me, at the board, or at someone else, or at the overhead, book etc. that is when I was pulled away from understanding by the rip-tide current of confusion and misunderstanding. Look at me, make sure that I see you, make sure that I follow, make sure that it is calm in class so I can follow you, make sure that I follow the points raised in class, make sure that you aware of my needs.  I was neither deaf nor hearing enough, and this caused much identity confusion, although I to take on the default hearing identity and try my best to pass, with both meanings of the word. There was much unresolved emotional baggage about my identity to be addressed. It is ironic that I found much support in the advice and counsel of a blind guidance teacher. It was our shared experience of being disabled that really helped me.   
For example, and this links up with the next point, it is easy to get totally overwhelmed by the noise that I need to zone out for a few moments to recover. Let the wave recede and I will be ready for the next one. I did not feel that I was surfing, just swimming, was all I could manage. Although in some classes, I did better than others. Such as Std 2 (Grade 4) second time (I had to repeat this year, I was not emotionally ready or learning to read and follow with the class, that was the right thing to do), and Biology in Grade 9 (Std 7), Geography, sometimes, and English, Grade 11. Maths, Afrikaans, and science, and History were horrible, a real struggle to keep afloat. And in all of these subjects, it was about the amount of information I understood, communication was key. So I took refuge in the safe harbour of the library, and in reading to try to be ahead of the class or at least catch up. This meant that I came to love reading, even though it was a struggle to understand, once I understood something then I could ask questions, or if I did not then I could ask questions about this too. I hated this feeling of being left out and left behind. I was always feeling alone in the mainstream, jus surviving was an achievement, and I tried really hard. I wanted to pass, I hate the feeling of failing, it meant that I was not good enough to be there. In the recess of my mind, I always feared failing and going backwards to a school for the deaf because I could not cut it in this school. And that time, that school for the deaf was strongly oral, although the learners signed among themselves. Although I never met another deaf person during my school years, I always felt inferior in this school, a ‘disabled’ person, like some I saw with back problems, or weak eyes.  To say that this school was inclusive at the time would be inaccurate. To be fair, this is how things were done then. I had to adapt, it was always about me fitting in, and not being good enough. Many times I came home in tears, and I recall the feeling of loneliness and not coping and not being included, or fully accepted.  How could I tell you, you did not ask, or did not want to ask, I must be strong, and many teachers told me that I am doing so well with my handicap. I wanted to scream! And rage against this sympathy. Listen to me. You are not listening to me because you do not understand. 
Now that I am older, and writing this letter, I am more skillful and aware of the bigger picture and see things better. And do not blame you for this unintentional oppression of me and deaf people, you did not know better. I see how ignorance of deaf learners is a problem, and the lack of knowledge that teachers had at the time of deafness and in the classroom, and that teachers did what they felt was the best they could do under the circumstances without actually upsetting the status quo of deaf people, the wave of the social model of disability had not yet broken over us here. But that wave of change was coming, I remember the play at the Market Theatre: ‘Children of a Lesser God, This was a moment of epiphany in my life. Inside, it washed over me, I was filled with the idea that deaf people do struggle and need to say something, being oppressed as a deaf person is wrong. Society needs to treat us fairly. And that sign language is a language too. Up till then I had no exposure to sign language, although I would have loved to have learned it earlier, but it was not an option. The focus of my education was to achieve a matric exemption so that I could go to university. And I achieved this, maths and Afrikaans were the two subjects that terrified me. I cannot lipread Afrikaans, plus all my speech training work focused on English and this paid off, but Afrikaans was a serious obstacle. And maths was a problem as I was so dependent on the teacher explaining how things work, but I battled to follow in class for the above reasons.  In any case, I passed by the skin of my teeth in these subjects to get the much needed matric. I wanted to study further, but I studied hard and only managed these results, nothing to be delighted about, compared to the other boys there who were expected to excel either in academics, or on the sports field. I did neither, I was nothing special, and at a top private school, that is a damning review of the reality. But, I was me and I wanted to be me, not the person that the school wanted me to be, a dux scholar, an A-team player, or a prefect. None of these were ever attainable for me at that time.  I was a small fish in a big pond, to quote Malcolm Gladwell. His point in David and Goliath is that often it is better to be a big fish in a small pond ha nth other way around, if I were at St Vincent, I would have been in a position to excel there, rather than struggling to swim in this huge ocean, against the tide, I was always chosen last, nobody wanted to have me in their group, sigh. Although, it has to be said, that I may not have achieved the much desired matric and university entrance by going that route. There I would have been much happier, but less educated because the standards were lower, not a tough for my parents, and I do not fault them for that. Just that so much more could have been done at the school to accommodate me, more dignity and better communication would really gone a long way.  For example, there was a teacher who later had to have small hearing-aids, and he had not accepted himself and was teased by the classes, and felt so ashamed for him, as this was the same kind of bullying I experienced, and he did nothing to make me feel better as he was wrapped up in his own pain. I could not get through, and he intentionally distanced himself from me probably for fear of more rejection from learners by being associated with me. So I did not have a positive role model, his attitude made me hide my deafness more, to come out of the closet, metaphorically here was not possible as there was no support. So I kept my undeveloped deaf identity below deck. Have you read Gina Olivia’s book ‘Alone in the Mainstream’? Her experiences mirrored mine. I am giving you some homework!
With hindsight, I would love to be back there and said all of this to all of the teachers and demanded more from teachers to service me and nurture me the right way. Only a handful of teachers did that for me.  So much more could have been achieved, but the school did not have in place the kind of approach or structures or support or awareness of deaf learners, like me. The school had to change, and I can see that with the inclusion movement, the school has become far more accommodating and respectful of the diversity of learners and their needs. Well, that ship has sailed, so there is no use complaining to the school about what the school did wrong. That is over. The real issue is about the transformation of the school and creating opportunities and awareness of diversity of learners. And in improving teacher’s awareness of deaf learners to avoid making the same mistakes again. Yes, there is an undercurrent of anger here, and especially of frustration of being left out and not understood in class. You need to hear that, as much as I need to say it to you. I do not want to hear your excuses for what you did and did not do, that is over. The point is, by talking about this bitterness openly, there can be an awareness of the bitter memories from my side and the bitter knowledge of teachers to allow us to begin to find our common humanity and begin to heal.                          
Let me end this point with a quote:
“If a child cannot learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way he/they learn” Ignacio Estrada  
Second, I am an introvert. I need time alone to think and recover from the noise and bustle of classroom life. Not all deaf people are the same, and this part of me was misread and ignored, I was cast as a loner, a social outcast. Only later did I appreciate my strengths as an introvert, from Susan Cain’s book, Quiet. I am at peace in my world of silence, except I could not find and enjoy this at school. What I mean is that I had to be ‘hearing’ 24/7, by keeping my hearing-aids on. This was the cost of a hearing identity, of course I could not see my own hearing-aids, but I could see the way that teachers and pupils responded to me, usually it was different to their peers or others, or indifference or hardly or badly disguised disdain or superiority, because I did not hear what he or they said. So it was a painful time of social isolation and neglect. I always consoled myself that they do not know any better, and that the rewards of a better education here will pay off later. I love deep one-to one conversations, in a quiet place. Crowds are my problem, even more so because even with hearing –aids I cannot follow the overtalking and look at the different speakers’ faces, and watch the other person’s reactions and process a reply. I am easily over-stimulated in noisy classrooms, it is exhausting for me to decipher what is going on which means that I need a time-out of silence to recover. And I have learned to escape from these times into place of quiet and solitude. I really love my inner world of silence, I think quietly these, and read and reflect and write in this space. For me, it is not a zone of doldrums, but a place in the ocean of life that is sacred to me and I need to retreat to this place often. Teachers need to know that and teach within and around this and not focus so much on the extroverts in class. Listen to the silent ones on class, like me. Ask me what I think in a way and place that is conducive to me giving a well-thought-through answer so we can dialogue on this.  
I found a harbour of safety in books. Once my reading improved, because comprehension was a problem for me, then whatever books, magazines, journals, I could get my hands was pirates gold of information to me. In books, I could understand without relying on incomplete sounds and mumbled/muffled dialogues. Remember, this was the time before subtitles, and DVDs, and internet and smartboards; we had overheads, VHS, with awful sound quality, microfiche slides and tape recorders. I found that reading gave me a portal into a new world of knowledge. I am still a book-lover, this is a lifelong hobby and habit that started at school as a survival mechanism which really help me cope and explore new worlds.   
Third, I am dyslexic, when I read, I frequently mix up B,D,P. and 5, E, S as well as keeping numbers in the correct order. That simply makes it harder for me. It is not a big problem, compared to my hearing loss, this is minor, but it does have an impact on my reading speed and proficiency. It was a struggle to read. Now I read really well, but have to watch out for these literacy whirlpools.
Fourth, I am a lefty. This is another thing that makes me different. For teachers, this is not a big deal, just that I need space so elbows are not bumped with a righty. Lefties think a little differently, and live life as a minority in a right-handed world. So discrimination is part of their life. But most lefties are well adapted to doing things with both hands.  But there are things that irritate and frustrate us: books and folders and pens and scissors are made for right-handed people.  I always wore my watch on my right arm, not left, so I was a closet lefty! Much later, after my school years, I had the courage to change and wear it on my right, which is natural for lefties, as well as making the statement that I am different in this way. Just so you know.  This mist of invisibility was pervasive, so much so that in the middle years of school I had small hearing aids that fitted in the ear to make it less visible. Even though these were less powerful, I wore these. I did not know that until I tried new over the ear hearing-aids and realised how much sound I was missing. I remember this conversation with my parents that I wanted to hear more even if it everyone at school saw me with big hearing-aids on. I won that and it was the right way to go. I was learning to stand up for myself. And people at school did not any worse than before, or better for that matter, but this part of me was now visible to them. 
Fifth, I am a teacher. On the surface, it seems that this is an ironic choice after all the struggles and complaints that I have raised here.  When you look deeper, being a teacher is both a lifestyle choice and a career move. As you can see, I have much that I want teachers to know and do with learners, especially diverse learners. I strongly believe that the inclusion of learners happens because of what teachers know and do, their attitude towards deaf and hard-of-hearing learners makes a huge difference. I was always told to be the same as everyone, to fit in, go with the flow, when this was not helpful advice. I am me, and teachers need to know learners are diverse and have unique needs. Get to know each person well, this connection is essential and the effort is worth it.  Teaching is about communicating, and I know how important this is as I have struggled with this. I love it when someone understands what I am saying, and lately, what I am signing. And this is where the earlier quote is so meaningful to me, we as teachers need to adapt our teaching to match the learners. We need to engage in the dialogue of understanding them. And this dialogue of learning is at the core of my teaching. I have first-hand experience of the frustration, confusion and loneliness of not understanding what is being said, in class, as well as when I do understand, which is why I have had to focus intensely on being clear. I am an ‘in-my-head’ kind of person, and being ‘out-of-my-head’ and fully explicit is a skill of communication and way of thinking that I have had to develop, as a teacher, and as an academic. Thus, teaching is a vital part of being an academic, along with the focus on becoming an established researcher. It amazes me now that the tide has dumped me back on the same beach that I started my sea-faring journey; teaching. I am nourished by teaching and on reflection I have discovered that if I am nourished, then the students or learners are also beneficiaries of what my experiences and what I have learned.
 I entered the teaching profession as a hearing person and left 11 years later as an identity-confused person. Who I was supposed to be was not working for me, and I realised that I had reached the end of my hearing identity chain, this anchor did not hold cargo on this identity ship. And I had to have a honest look at myself. By pretending to be a teacher, albeit one with a hearing problem or as a hard-of-hearing teacher, was a false identity that did not float anymore. It was a traumatic period of my life of sinking, drowning and ultimately releasing that identity which was not mine anymore.  It was time to board a different ship, and this was called ‘SASL Bilingual’. But there was much identity work to be undone. The flotsam of the old identity had to be disposed of, and for a long while, I hang onto the lifejacket of my hearing-aids, and citizenship with the hearing world. But this identity was lost at sea and I really struggled to let go of the wreckage. There was a very real sense of being dragged down to the depths and drowning. Until I was confronted by others and circumstances that this old identity was pulling me down. It was so hard to let it go. This is what I knew. I did not know enough about the deaf identity, despite being born deaf, and without hearing-aids, I am deaf. So I preferred to stay with the life I knew, even if I did not fit in there. I was rejected, and eventually I faced up the reality that this is not where I belong.  In my heart, there was a small place that reminded me that I am not alone, this is the lie that I was told over and over again, I was alone in the school the only deaf/hearing-impaired, brave one, etc. This is also the lie of apartheid:  that our identity cannot change. If you are white, you cannot be black, and vice versa. And so to was this lie extended into my life: I cannot change my identity, I was hearing impaired /deaf (small d)/ hard-of-hearing etc. I cannot change my identity to become a deaf person.  I was never seen as a deaf person when I was at school, I was anything but that, and I believed it. And so much has been invested in making me ‘hearing’ that those ropes of selfhood cannot be untied. If I had met another person like myself at school, then this fallacy could have been disrupted and challenged. But it was not the case. So I was constrained by this system of auditory apartheid. I was forced, with much encouragement on how well I was doing (for a hard-of-hearing/person with such a severe hearing loss’) to become someone that I was not. It was easy to believe that lie because it sounded (sic) so sweet. But it was a lie, and did not see it that way. Hence, I lived a bracketed identity, and these heavy brass brackets were drowning me. I do not blame teachers, but later when I understood the mechanisms of this system of exclusion and oppression, I had the tools to untie these ropes that had for so long anchored me to the hearing world. I cut these ropes and was cast free, and for 5 years, I was a castaway. During this time, I learned that I love silence and found my deaf self. I was free from the tyranny of my hearing-aids, I was free to learn sign language, which became an option when I moved, literally and symbolically into the deaf world and made new deaf friends and acquaintances. I learned to be deaf. And to use an interpreter, which was never an option in school. To marry a hard-of-hearing wife, who introduced me to this world. It is ironic that she wanted to be in the hearing world more, as she had lived in the deaf world more, from going to a school for the deaf, which she despised for its educational neglect and low standards. But she could sign. And I switched ships from the hearing world to the Deaf world by learning sign language and became far more involved in this world. Becoming a deaf lecturer in Deaf Education at Wits was the catalyst to this identity shift. But I also had to find my own way in the waters, I am bilingual, and have become better at signing. I have not lost my home language for the sake of being deaf. I am more of a multi-purpose international vessel, I use both languages. Now I am a signer, a second language signer, but I am proud that I use SASL and an interpreter more proficiently. It has taken 10 years to reach this destination.  I am a proud deaf bilingual person. That is my new identity. I like the new me.            
I am becoming a writer and my proofreading small business has made me proud of this successful business enterprise. This is not something that I would ever have envisaged doing when I was at school. The real joy of this is that I am an independent business person where I run this business solely through emails. Contact with my clients is done through emails of their documents. Being deaf does not matter here. What matters is the service that I provide and having a really good command of English as a high school English teacher, and as a (academic) writer myself has borne much fruit in this home industry that I have established.  This achievement has banished the fallacy and expectation of private schools of super-achievement. As learners, at xxx, we could hardly fail, we were the elite. But I did not feel that way, I was trying to stay afloat, I was no more than a mediocre student there. I am proud of where I am now. I am not a chairman of a board of a multinational company, but I have found myself and giving back to the next generation of teachers and learners. Teaching, is the greatest profession, even if it is not seen this way in South Africa, we change lives. No technology can replace a teacher. Who you are as a teacher determines the learning and development in your learners; be that person who leads them into their future as confident and independent thinkers.
For me, writing, academic (for PhD, poetry, my own blog site) is an essential outlet for me, a way of putting my thoughts down and reflectively engaging with words and experiences and ideas.
Lastly, I am almost 50, so this is a good moment to reflect on the 30-plus years of life after school, on what is important and what could have been different, what I could have changed. I think that I learned a lot at this school, but I could have been more confident within myself, less tentative, which was borne out of not knowing and following conversations, being lost and trying to fit in. For me, this fearfulness of not knowing has receded with the increasing knowledge and skills and involvement with other deaf people, I found that I am strong, and that I am not alone. I am not angry anymore with some of the teachers that I had for putting me down, I have learned to forgive you for what you did not know or understand about me.  And that statement has released me. My request and prayer is that teachers take the time to learn about deaf learners and understand us. You can ask me anything so we can talk about it.
Your former deaf learner

Guy Mcilroy    

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