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Grumpier than Louie in Taxi . . .

The 1970s clearly marked a nadir in customer-facing attitudes in the taxi world on both sides of the Atlantic. Attending a presentation by the Alliance for Inclusive Education – ALLFIE – this week, I heard about their project to document experiences of disabled pupils in education over the last 40 years.

It triggered memories which took me somewhere I didn’t really want to go. I went to a mainstream school with a PHU (Partially Hearing Unit), as they were then, from the age of 7 onwards, and my experiences could only be recorded as Kafkaesque. Nothing to do with the school or teacher/peer attitudes, or anything like that – the school in question was a lovely little place where I was very happy. In fact I was happy despite the headmaster, rather than because of him. Looking back, I rather think that most of the teachers, who were kind and gentle, had been appointed under a different regime and led a path of quiet resistance which sheltered us more than we knew at the time. Instead, it had everything to do with the local education authority (LEA), who were somewhat draconian in their approach.

For deaf children, the catchment area was very wide: practically the whole southern half of the county, which meant that the LEA paid for them to be collected and sent home by taxi every day, since many came from very rural areas with little public transport. Enter, therefore, the Grumpy Old Taxi Driver. In this day and age he would most certainly not be allowed to work with children, not because of any inappropriate or violent behaviour, but just because he made it exceptionally plain that he loathed and detested every single one of us. Me especially.

The problem was that I actually lived in the town, unlike most of the other children, and on the ‘wrong’ side of town to boot. In other words, by the time the Grumpy Old Taxi Driver had driven from village to village to collect everybody else, he then had to go out of his way in the rush-hour traffic across town to collect me because the LEA said so. Naturally, this did not improve his mood, and he was uniformly late, making us all late for school every single morning, and the teachers’ remonstrances made him snarl at us even more. There might have been a solution in that he could have set off earlier and collected us all pretty early, but that would have been a step too far for his grumpy soul.

We used to slip in to the middle of assembly with the whole school staring at us, which I found hugely stressful. We usually arrived just before they said the Lord’s Prayer, and as I bowed my head I would find drops of blood coming out of my nose with the stress of it all, setting up a lifetime of nose bleeds that have plagued me to this day. I always thought that it was simply a weak nose, but years later I found out that nose bleeds can be caused by high blood pressure, and it clicked – the cause was right there in the Grumpy Old Taxi Driver and the angst I felt in creeping in so unnecessarily late, and my little deaf self desperately trying very hard not to make a noise.

There was an obvious solution, so obvious that my unhappiness could have been cured extremely simply, but no, I had to undertake the Labours of Hercules (stories which I read for the first time at that otherwise lovely little school) to solve the issue. The headmaster was a Cerberus who guarded the gates of hell – the same headmaster who told my parents when I started the school that “deaf children are uneducable” and “she won’t even get any O-Levels” – because without his support we wouldn’t be able to challenge the Hydra of the LEA.

This episode is indicative of a cultural shift between then and now, when most families had one car, which was father’s. My mother was a stay-at-home mum with a car of her own, though, and she wanted to take me to school too, and get me there on time. I asked why I couldn’t go to school with my own mother. “Because the LEA won’t allow it.” I insisted, however, and made enough fuss that I was called before the headmaster to answer for it.

This is the point where the story changes to the Grumpy Old Headmaster. His lip curled angrily as he contemplated this little seven-year-old on the other side of his desk, causing him trouble, stirring up his world of the route of least resistance and limited contact with the LEA. He was determined to take the line that I was a very naughty little girl making an almighty fuss over nothing, probably being disruptive because I’d taken a dislike to either the taxi driver, or the other children, or both. He harrumphed and huffed and interrogated me so that I felt like the little boy in And when did you last see your father?

I think he was trying to make out that my fuss was rooted in a personality clash with the driver. Well, that wouldn’t have been hard – he was utterly embittered and would have clashed with anyone – but my seven-year-old self wouldn’t be derailed from the main point, that we were also all arriving late at school. I insisted that my mother was available and had a car at her disposal, but this was brushed aside virtually as an irrelevance, as if my family’s stake in my education was an impertinence. Innocently I asked: “Don’t you want us all to get to school on time? If Mummy takes me, I can get to school on time and everyone will get there earlier as well. Don’t you want that?”

It was one of the few times I’ve ever seen someone goldfish and I sensed that the conversation was at an end, because common sense was about to triumph. There really was no argument he could make that didn’t run the risk of sounding as if he were condoning lateness and diminishing the importance of education. Recounting this story to someone after the presentation, it struck me that the Grumpy Old Taxi Driver taught me to challenge authority at a very early age.