Telling Noddy where to go
Saturday 29th September 2012
I’ve been trying to explain the concept of a ‘mother tongue’ to Calum. Calum is very interested in etymology, different languages and peculiar words. He is sticking his tongue out, touching it and looking confused.
‘No, no,’ I try to explain, ‘the word tongue, many years ago, used to mean language. In fact, the French and Italians still use the word tongue (I write the words ‘langue’ and ‘lingua’ down on a scrap of paper) to mean both a tongue and a language. Mother tongue means your first language and the language you feel most comfortable using.’
Calum isn’t looking particularly interested at this point and wants to leave the table. He has finished his breakfast cereal and it’s a Saturday.
I continue, ‘Imagine a Polish family moving to Peterborough. The children attend local schools and become fluent in English but when they go home the whole family chats in Polish. Polish is their first language or mother tongue.’
Although born into a hearing family, Calum started learning British Sign Language a few days after his diagnosis at eleven months old. A month later Calum was introduced to a wonderful deaf woman by the Local Authority who became his bi-lingual tutor. He went on to attend a toddler group at the local Deaf Club, then a pre-school group for deaf children and, later still, a Deaf school. Although now attending a mainstream school with a unit for deaf students Calum still maintains strong friendships with deaf friends both teenage and adult.
‘Now,’ I sign to Calum, ‘what would you say your first language is?’
‘English.’ Calum replies.
‘No,’ I sign back to him, ‘I mean which language do you feel most comfortable using?’
‘English!’ Calum repeats with increasing exasperation.
I stare at him. I remember a friend who went to teach in Ghana with the Voluntary Services Overseas. Upon returning she told me how dreadful she felt when all the children in her class huddled around to inform her that they all wished they had blonde hair and blue eyes just like their beautiful, white teacher.
Have I raised a deaf child who thinks he is hearing, who wishes he was hearing? Other memories come back: the adoption course. Nearly twenty years ago, when I was incorrectly diagnosed as infertile Calum’s father and I completed an adoption course. I still remember the official guidance: ‘It is not possible to place a child in a family which has a different culture and language.’ We understood this and we accepted it. How wrong to place a child in a family with no role models to reinforce and nurture pride in the child’s own culture and language!
But we never consider the deaf child born naturally into a hearing family, do we? The innocent cuckoo in a blackbird’s nest.
What have I done – what have I failed to do?
Calum looks worried. ‘Have I disappointed you?’
‘No, no,’ I reply. ‘I thought you would say BSL, I thought…’
I try to tell Calum that one of the reasons he was not implanted as a child was because we didn’t feel we he was, in any way, second best or imperfect.
What I don’t tell him about is my political reasons. Following a road traffic accident in 1989, in which I became disabled, I firmly believed in and campaigned for the social model of disability rather than the medical model. Why insist a disabled child be educated away from their family in a special school when the local school can be made accessible? Why force an operation with possible unknown side-effects onto a deaf child when people can learn sign language and when television, films and videos can be subtitled?
Years before Calum was born, or even thought about, a friend was writing her PhD on the cochlear implant procedure. This warm, intelligent and caring woman had to put up with my incessant arguments about Deaf and Disability Equality. Needless to say, we didn’t stay in contact.
Calum must be noticing the anxious expression on my face:
‘But I’ve always liked words. I always read and write far more than I sign. I chat with my friends on the computer. Do you remember when I first started writing? I was very young, wasn’t I?’
It’s true. I remember now. I had a child who could write before he could walk: delicate, endless strings of letters which stretched on and on like miniature sweetie necklaces you can still buy in old fashioned tobacconists. Calum would sit in his high chair far longer than other children copying letters again, again and then again. In his push chair and in the car, yes, his eyes were drawn to birds and clouds sweeping across the sky, but also to words and slogans scrawled and splashed across bill boards and shop signs.
‘But – do you remember the first words you actually used to communicate? The first words you signed?’
He shakes his head.
‘Light on, light off! The same night you learnt that you stood up, holding on to the edge of your cot, repeatedly turning your bedroom light on and then off pausing only to sign what you were about to do before you did it!’
But I also remember how he had no real interest in learning further signs at that young age.
He was more interested in the written word, or rather, letters. He was studying them intensely as though he was trying to crack a code, copying them into endless rows without breaks of any sort. Calum knew there was some sort of code hidden within all those shapes: one day he would find it out. Then one day the little Bletchley Park code breaker did just that. We had spent a wonderful afternoon in a large, rural park on the outskirts of the city and were on our way back home in the car. As we passed under a railway bridge near our home a splash of fresh graffiti in large white letters flashed into view: $%&* OFF!’ I turned quickly to the passenger seat and, out of the corner of my eye, saw Calum’s head nodding forward, his eyelids falling. My relief was palpable. But then I laughed to myself, was that the only thing I needed to worry about – Calum seeing swear words in written form? Yes, there were positive sides to being deaf: my son would never hear cruel taunts, dubious language, racist or homophobic comments from the ignorant: his hearing loss would protect him from all that.
Once home on the lounge floor surrounded by his pens and paints, paper and colouring books Calum roused from his sleepy state and set to industrious activity once again. After placing the permanent markers on top of the table, out of Calum’s reach, I walked to the kitchen wondering what to make for tea. Calum’s older brother would eat almost anything but Calum seemed to regard anything other than bread and butter as outrageously exotic. Staring into the fridge I heard Calum making his calling sound – a signal he only made when he needed something. I rushed back into the lounge to find him balancing precariously on the balls of his feet, one pudgy hand gripping the edge of the table the other proudly holding one of his bright yellow story books out for me to see. At almost two years of age Calum still wasn’t walking. I rushed forward thinking he was about to fall but then saw what he so desperately wanted me to see. There on the on the shiny yellow cover of his favourite story book my son had written his first sentence in thick, permanent marker.
His face was bursting with pride and expectation. I hugged him close as we looked at the sentence together:
‘$%&* off Noddy!’
‘I think I know why you say English is your first language, your mother tongue. I think I understand what you mean.’ I go on, ‘But when you chat with your deaf friends in BSL isn’t that easier, more relaxing?’
‘Maybe,’ he concedes.
He is turning to leave the kitchen. I tap him on the shoulder.
‘I need to know because we will have an appointment at the hospital in a few weeks’ time and it’s important (I think it’s important) that you are clear on how you feel as a Deaf person.’
I know I’m not making sense.
He humours me, ‘It’s okay.’ He signs.
‘One more thing…’ I have to ask the question. ‘Do you regret that I didn’t agree to have you implanted when you were little?’
His reply is immediate, ‘Of course not! This is my decision. I don’t want someone else making decisions for me. I was just a baby, how can a baby make decisions?’
He is gone before I register how surprised I am. I stare into the empty doorway – I have an incredibly sensitive and understanding teenager for a son.
Well, either that or I’ve done a remarkably good job of brainwashing…
More from One Mother’s Diary in a fortnight.
Thanks to Darren Hankins for his help with images.