Saluting My Teaching Assistants

My first year of primary school was, to put it mildly, not so great. And yet, for all that it was one of the worst years of my life (and probably more terrible for my parents than I could ever have known at the time) I’m glad I experienced it. The reasons for this are part of another post for another time. Briefly, for those out of the know, my first six months of first grade were spent at a mainstream primary school not far from our home where I baffled teachers by being a “blind but not blind” kid and, as a result, was mostly ignored. Not to drag the mood down too much, I still remember the “let’s write nicely” song we would all sing before writing time at which point I would be removed to another room to be watched by the secretary while I messed about on a computer keyboard composing full sentences, just saying. When my folks discovered that I was being made to spend break times in a separate area to the rest of the children, our mainstream experiment came to an end. The following six months were spent at a school for the blind about an hour’s commute away. This was a tough time and, as it’s not the point of this post, I won’t go into it here. Suffice to say that this difficult, disjointed year introduced me to what it is to experience disablism and it sucked. Before the days when three-year-olds were expected to be able to do basic algebra and mostly just ran about having a lovely time, I attended a mainstream pre-school where I finger painted and ate playdough along with everyone else. But, in Grade 1, for the first time, I realised that I was different and that the world didn’t know what to do with me.


To shorten a much longer saga, after the blind school disaster, I was lucky to get a place at Vista Nova Primary School where I was very happy for six years. Then, with the support of excellent teachers, my parents began to explore mainstream options once more. Of course, the concern that I would simply experience the same exclusion as before was real. It was not plain sailing but in the end I was accepted at Wynberg Girls’ Junior. I started in July of 2000 and remember physically shaking with anxiety on my first day. The anxiety was slightly eased by the fact that one of the girls in my grade, Tessa, who I vaguely knew from church, had invited me to her twelfth birthday party the week before so at least I knew her and one or two others. Seventeen years later and I’m looking forward to the immense privilege of standing next to this wonderful woman as one of her bridesmaids at her wedding in October. Tessa was the first of a group of very special girls who were about to enter my life.


Recently, while chatting to a friend about systems of inclusive education in the UK, I came to a startling realisation. We were talking about the achievement of truly diverse classrooms made possible by the presence of government funded teaching assistants and I realised that, particularly in high school, I had a team of excellent, albeit unpaid, teaching assistants also known as my friends. While it must be said that I had some wonderful, accommodating teachers, it was my “teaching assistants” who often bridged the gap between me and the content in ways that my teachers could not.


I took Accounting as a Matric subject and, although never my favorite lesson, I was pretty competent at it. Throughout Grades 10 and 11 my friend, Tarryn and I developed a seamless class routine. Sitting next to each other right in front, Tarryn would read out loud as she copied notes being written up on the board by our teacher and I would copy from Tarryn’s dictation. The teacher had no objection to this and often joked that we kept her on her toes by working so quickly. We were quirky kids and so our system did involve an imaginary accounting friend, Larry and compulsory phone calls (made on a calculator) to Accounting Ltd. before note dictation could commence. Our easy going teacher would roll her eyes and sometimes remind us when we forgot to make the all-important call to Accounting Ltd. In our Matric year this teacher left and we were moved to another teacher. The first thing this woman did was to essentially remove my “teaching assistant” by seating Tarryn across the room. She did eventually concede to let us sit next to each other but absolutely forbade any talking. Now, instead of having direct access to the content (from Tarryn’s dictation to my large, round handwriting) I had to wait for Tarryn to copy the notes and then attempt to copy from her handwriting which was harder for me to decipher (nothing to do with her handwriting, everything to do with my dodgy eyes). My marks dropped by about 20%. My final Accounting result hardly matters anymore but I went from a comfortable A to scraping a B in the final exam.


Thankfully most of my teachers were not averse to the various systems my friends and I devised in order for me to access content, but there were those who couldn’t or wouldn’t recognise the need for these strategies. Calling them “strategies” makes it sound like we all sat down one day, in a secret bunker, with charts and tension music but I honestly don’t remember ever having a conversation about the note dictation, or diagram descriptions, or subtitle reading, or sighted guiding, or anything else. I think it just sort of happened. Despite the odd misheard word leading to some confusion (I did nearly spend my life believing that friction causes cheese rather than heat, thanks Kirstin) having things dictated and described was hugely helpful. Of course, there were a few things that I just couldn’t do and this made me probably the worst lab partner ever. I will never forget standing helplessly by as my poor friend, Romi stifled her gags over a sheep’s heart, dutifully dissecting for us both.


There are so many other examples of how my friends facilitated for me over the years and not just in the classroom. My friends from high school, second only to my immediate family, are the people I feel most comfortable walking with. Their methods of sighted guiding are certainly not “correct” but, in the days before mobility aids were a part of my life, they were my mobility aids. And when mobility aids did eventually come onto the scene, first the white cane swiftly followed by the Emma dog, these were the people who made me feel like I was still me. One of the first times I took Emma somewhere other than university was to a shopping mall with Tess and Robyn. We were stopped at least four times that day to have the, now commonplace, access fight. I really had not expected to encounter so much ignorance and I wasn’t used to having to demand access. But I had back up. Laughing with friends about the bizarre encounters we were having on what would otherwise have been a pretty standard shopping trip eased the embarrassment of being stopped again and again by security and shop assistants. I mean if there was ever a time to jump the friendship ship the addition of a slobbery, lunch-stealing, poop machine, drawing the wrath of mall security everywhere would probably be it.


So this post is a salute to my teaching assistants, facilitators, mobility aids and friends. It’s really not the job of a bunch of teenage girls to bridge the disability/education gap but you did it anyway and I love you for that. I’ve now met enough blind people, who battled through mainstream education,  to know that my experience of your friendship is truly a rare gift.




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