Ding, dong, blearily..

16th December 2005 at 00:00
"I can't hear you very well," says one of my students. Oh no, I groan to myself, because I'm afraid this may count as a disclosure under the terms of the Disability Discrimination Act.

So it isn't just a matter of sitting him near the front, looking at him when I speak, and making sure that my face is well-lit. I will have to find an opportunity to speak to him in private and offer him an assessment from the support unit, and then make a full record of our conversation. Which goes like this: "Would you like to have an assessment by the hearing unit, where you will be able to get advice and help?" (He gives me a funny look.) "No, darlin'. Just speak up a bit."

We have a lot of students in college with impaired hearing who are proficient signers, and we have an excellent support service. My complete lack of skills in this area makes me feel inadequate. I've learned to sign "Good morning" or "Good afternoon", and the students have learned to respond as anyone would to an adult who can only say two words.

I was determined to improve and made a start by going on a hearing awareness course. In the speaking community I'd managed to ignore passing fads in the English language, believing that words such as "chav" and "bling" would fade away if I ignored them for long enough. But the signing community is more on the ball, and now I've doubled my vocabulary by learning to sign "wha'ever" and "minger". It's easy, you just put your thumbs together like this and... oh never mind, I don't know what "minger"

means anyway. Perhaps I should just stick to learning "Happy Christmas".

Meanwhile, the vocational students are finding it harder and harder to arrive on time, and those who do are looking bleary-eyed. Their evening jobs in bars, shops and factories are taking their toll, and by day they have the burden of completing assignments, which have all been left to the last minute. But juggling a job, lectures and half a dozen assignments will be good preparation for those who want to go on to university, if only they can keep their eyes open long enough to fill in their Ucas forms.

My basic skills students are better organised, and weeks ago distributed their Christmas cards. They have discussed at length the presents they have bought for every member of their family. One of the girls has thoughtfully bought her mother a nipple ring. They are looking forward to going to the reception area at midday to sing carols. As the karaoke starts up, we all try to join in with "Do They Know It's Christmas Time?" Everyone seems to know the chorus but no one knows the verses.

The Chaplain tries valiantly to insert a few words of Christian message into the raucous proceedings. Then the massed voices let rip with a final chorus of "Feeeed the Wor-orld", and one of the lads, eager to show off his new video phone, pushes to the front to record the scene. The message of rich worldpoor world could not be more eloquently expressed.

At lunchtime we gather in the staff restaurant for our department's Christmas lunch. An amazing transformation has taken place among the catering students. Out in the corridor, they are the usual bunch of loud-mouthed, jostling, joking, scruffy teenagers. But behind the closed doors of the restaurant, they become slick waiters in smart uniforms, with impeccable manners. They even call the staff "Sir" and "Madam". The meal is very well presented and we all enjoy ourselves. It is a pity that we have to leave before it is quite over, when the student charged with flaming the Christmas pudding overdoes the brandy and sets off the fire alarms.

So, I've made it through to the last day of term. One of the boys has a temporary job in the brewery, which has been pumping 247 for weeks. He gives me the gallon per minute rate, which is staggering (I make a note to use this in an application of number class) and describes a scene straight out of The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Once the taps are full on, there's no stopping the beer flowing, so the cans and barrels are piling up in the yards.

The tankers and lorries are also coming in and out, day and night and the air around the brewery is thick with the smell of fermentation. Another student, who has a job in the supermarket, says that the deliveries of drink are building up so fast they had to build a special compound at the back of the store and put a guard on it. But now there is hardly room for the delivery vans to unload. How is all this alcohol going to be consumed? Thankfully, the college closes at midday. I think I am about to find out.

Gill Moore is a lecturer in basic skills

'I'd managed to ignore fads in the language, believing words such as chav would fade away'

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