I was registered blind when I was three and, when I was six, I was sent to the boarding school where all blind children in the West Midlands went because there was no integration then.
I hated being away from home and my mum, who is also blind. She went to the same school, and didn't want me to grow up apart from the family as she had done. So after a disastrous year I was home educated. Then, at the age of eight, I went to Blackfriars, a special day school in Newcastle-under-Lyme.
The children there had a range of problems such as cystic fibrosis, spina bifida and asthma, but I was the only blind child. I didn't settle well because my first teacher resisted having me there. After a year I went into Miss Cope's class. I was nine, rebellious and insecure - but three terms later I was calm, outgoing, articulate, well-balanced and well-adjusted.
Jill Cope was inspirational. She was one of those teachers with whom you never felt you were at school, her lessons were so enjoyable. She was gentle and relaxed, yet had instant control. She could make a class of children listen in rapt silence to whatever she was saying without having to shout. Her voice was soothing and, although she didn't have children herself, she was motherly. She was very tactile which was important for me.
I had a bit of vision then and I remember her soft, feathery hair and silky, floaty clothes. She was very feminine and always smelled nice. She was kind to everybody but I think she and I had a special friendship. She had a magical way with young children and was tolerant, even with one boy who was vile to her. I remember her occasionally walking out of the room; possibly she was counting to 10 before coming back in.
A lot of important things happened when I was in Miss Cope's class. I started playing the trumpet and I got my first reading aid, which opened up a whole new world. From then on I could take part in lessons, read textbooks and stories, and write. Miss Cope was involved with all this and helped me. I won a cup for making good progress.
Lessons were fun. We did a lot of drama; she was a great one for role-play and whenever we did a class assembly it was always head and shoulders above anybody else's. I enjoyed taking part and was up for anything she asked me to do. She was very sensitive to my needs. For instance, she realised I couldn't see what she wrote on the blackboard so, without being asked, she would come up to me and dictate what she'd written.
The school had extensive grounds and Miss Cope made full use of the facilities, takingus on many nature walks.
She was a brilliant reader. I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor listening to her reading animatedly with lots of expression and in many voices. She read us ghost stories and introduced me to the work of Roald Dahl. My sight gradually got worse but for the first time, thanks to her, I was happy at school.
In the upper school she took me for needlework, which was fun. I was keen but hopeless and she was very patient. I remember once sewing the piece I was working on to my clothes. She laughed, then carefully unpicked it. Miss Cope made me forget I was blind. She'd say: "Have a go, just try."
At parent evenings, she told my mother and father I could do anything I wanted. Without that year in her class I would have been a different person. She gave me the confidence I needed to study and to sing and perform in public.
When I had my first child in 1994 I had an urge to go back to see Miss Cope and I took my baby girl with me. I thanked her and told her how she had turned my school life around. She was very moved and we had a little cry together. It was lovely.
THE STORY SO FAR
1971 BornAudley, Staffordshire
1977 Boards at Lickley Grange, Bromsgrove, West Midlands
1979-88 Blackfriars special school, Newcastle-under-Lyme
1986-94 Plays cornet with Ten of the Best brass ensemble
1988 Narrator in school production of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat; sings classical concert solos
1988-90 Lead singer with various local bands
1988-91 Newcastle-under-Lyme FE college
1994 onwards Sings with Audley Male Voice Choir
2002 Joint winner (with Jane Gilchrist) of Channel 4's Operatunity
2003 Sings in Jonathan Miller's production of Rigoletto at ENO
2004 Tours in A Night at the Opera; sings in BBCProms in the Park; Pie Jesu, solo CD released