Reflections on Voicelessness

Being voiceless is horrible. I mean voiceless in both the literal and metaphorical sense, and I write this from my sickbed in a Greek apartment with an uvula the size and shape of a pensioner’s fist. 
For the last six days, I have had acute tonsillitis and it has been, at times, almost impossible to speak and to swallow. 

This really highlighted how central my voice is to everything I do. My entire working life takes place above the neck, and 80% of it just between brain, frownline and mouth. My body often feels like the dilapidated cart that ferries my brain around from desk, to whiteboard to child and little more.

Now, whilst I can meander through my working life with a wider arse, occasionally gouty toe and a burgeoning muffin top without it changing my routines, any damage to my voice is fundamentally life-altering.

Voice is important and voicelessness is horrible.

My brain is fine but I just haven’t been able to communicate my thoughts. 

In a restaurant, my pathetic little tadpole-croaks elicited pity and disgust from the waiter; he was trying to be kind -unquestionably – but because I couldn’t communicate my needs, he kept bringing solutions that didn’t help, like a soup too lumpy and a tea too hot. I wanted a very thin tepid vegetarian soup, but between my pockmarked larynx and the English-Greek language gap, it wasn’t getting through.

This well-meaning desire to help, without a clear sense of how, is not unlike what I do when a new child arrives in my class, freshly branded as EAL and with me having nothing else to go from. Like the waiter, I make an educated guess about what the person’s needs are, using as much info as I can, but the customer/child cannot let me know whether I am helping. Sometimes I retrospectively know I got it right, and other times I have flagrantly misjudged the situation.

Voicelessness is a kind of powerlessness. My options are limited and I’ve not been able to present myself very favourably – the bulk of my supposedly relaxing holiday has been spent gagging on salt-water and honey, gorging on Ibuprofen and laying in a dark room. I have lacked freedom. We walked down to the beach, a short steep walk of less than ten minutes, and on the way back up, I felt like I was undergoing the Trials of Hercules myself. Spent and weak, I fell asleep for two hours at about 2pm.

A few years ago, I had a pupil arrive from Portugal. I rummaged around our diminutive EAL resource cupboard and found nothing directly useful, so set to making bilingual classroom labels. Ahead of his arrival, I taught the kids some basic Portuguese phrases. We hammered Google Translate to make a bilingual welcome book. I went to Foyles and bought a copy of Horrid Henry in Portuguese (Henrique o Terivel) so we could read together, and thus bond. He arrived and was assaulted from all sides by mispronunciations from me and 30 kids. I read with him for a week, English and Portuguese books side by side. It was only a few weeks later that his mum told me he couldn’t read in Portuguese either. Why didn’t he tell me? He was Voiceless. Why didn’t I notice? I needed his help to know.

Finally, it is really emotionally bruising to be without your voice. I basically never get ill and my resistance to children’s sneezing snotty ways is borderline legendary, and I tend to power through many a heavy cold in an annoying chipper sort of way, littering the classroom bin with looroll like disposable feather boas. Losing my voice has been so disempowering and it has made me real sad.

It is the combination of these factors – the feeling of social powerlessness, constant miscomprehension and low morale – that put me in mind of how my more ‘voiceless’ pupils may have experienced school at times.

This year I have worked closely with a small group of children, many of whom are in the early stages of English language acquisition and also have (or have been suspected of having) further barriers to their learning such as dyslexia, Aspergers and global delay. 

Over time, our communication has got lots better, and just as my routinised lozenges and saltwater have eased my voice into activity, our routine interaction has eased our interactions into play. Now that I know what they can and cannot do, our communication is better; those who could articulate themselves clearly the earliest probably benefited most. 

Whilst I know I am blending the literal and metaphorical, if these kids have ever felt anything like as crap as I did two days ago, on account of the inability to communicate, I absolutely despair for them and apologise for not being better.


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