Former students at the Newfoundland School for the Deaf are gathering in St. John’s this weekend to celebrate the school’s 45th anniversary — history that ends this year with the announcement earlier this week that the school will be closing.
News of the closure spread quickly among the former students — as quickly as it could among deaf and hard-of-hearing alumni.
“My friend texted me and said they were talking about it on the radio, but of course that did no good for me since I couldn't hear it,” former student Nicole Marsh wrote in an e-mail interview with the Telegram. “I texted another friend and told him, he checked it out online and confirmed the truth.”
Marsh — the last official graduate of the school, she finished in 2008, at which point she was forced to attend classes in a mainstream school — said that while integration might work for some students, the School for the Deaf was the one place that students with hearing loss could feel accepted — ironically, through being teased.
“The environment is the most enabling place for them, where everyone understands the culture and uses their own language. In the mainstream school while I was in Bishop's Falls, I was only picked on for my hearing loss. When I left my mainstreamed class and went to NSD, I was picked on for my poofy perm, platform shoes, all the silly things like that,” she wrote. “That teasing was the regular teasing, hearing loss didn't make a difference! It's the one place everyone feels accepted and that they belong, open communication, loud music for school dances, school outtings ... no one was left out and missing all the information.”
Former student Chad Greenham, who started at the school when he was five years old, credits his education for helping him overcome his hearing problems, something he wasn’t able to do during a brief stint at a mainstream school.
“If I was mainstreamed for 12 years, I would have struggled and relied on my frustrated emotions and probably would not have learned about the window of opportunities that I could do in life and definitely would not be an engineer today,” he said in an email interview with the Telegram.
At the Sheraton Hotel Monday night there were plenty of smiles, along with a few wistful expressions as NSD alumni mingled in the lobby.
And apart from the clusters of people using sign language, it just seemed like a regular high school reunion. You don’t need to understand sign language to know when someone is telling an funny story, or teasing someone else, or re-connecting with an old friend.
Retired teacher Charles Harkins, who was the principal of the school from 1978-2001, said it was clear that the closure of NSD was coming.
“I said in an email to some colleagues and former students that I sent out before I made any public reaction, that it was sort of like hearing about the death of a seriously ill person who you’ve known for a long time, but you know they’ve been dying for a long time,” he said. “It’s not a surprise, but it’s still a big shock.”
He accused the department of education of deliberately seeking to close the school because it didn’t want the hassle of operating a separate school for deaf and hard of hearing students.
“At the time I retired, I thought that’s where it was going (closure),” he said. “The only question was how long it would take, and it took a little longer than I thought.”
Marsh said many other former students are appalled by the decision to close the school, but says the announcement so close to the reunion could be a positive thing.
“There's more of us here, more that can do something and talk to make plans for later, network and share ideas,” she wrote. “It's sad that the school closing announcement happened so close to the reunion, but I'm sure in the end we'll find a positive aspect of this and show our true strength.”