BRITISH JAMAICAN Poet, Raymond Antrobus is blazing a trail others in the field of education would do well to follow.
I was around seven years old when my parents first realised that I was deaf
He is the author of the critically acclaimed Shapes and Disfigurements (2012) and To Sweeten Bitter (2017).
But perhaps his most known work is his first full length poetry collection – The Perseverance (2018), which picked up the Ted Hughes Awardand was The Guardian’s Poetry Book of the Year in 2018.
Those accolades were quickly followed by Antrobus being the first ever poet recipient of the Rathbones Folio Prize (2019) for the same full-length poetry collection. His poem Sound Machine was awarded the George Dearmer Prize in 2018 while his poem Jamaican British has been included on the GCSE English syllabus.
And if all that is not impressive enough, the award winning poet is also one of the world’s first recipients of an MA in Spoken Word Education from Goldsmiths University.
However, Antrobus has also received plaudits for his work in schools, raising awareness of the needs of black and minority ethnic deaf children and young people.
The 32-year old was born in Hackney to an English mother and Jamaican father during a time when there was a lot of stigma towards race and disability.
“I was around seven years old when my parents first realised that I was deaf,” says Antrobus.
“It strikes me as rather funny that the first deaf school was built in Hackney in 1760, yet I found myself being moved to schools outside of the borough because they were unable to offer the support I needed for my disability.”
Antrobus admitted that it was only upon looking back at old school reports that he became fully aware of how serious his disability was during his childhood.
“Everything was below average. Reading those comments made my experience at school seem much worse than how I remembered it.
“To my parents I would be like, ‘Oh, I don’t remember having that bad a time at school.’ But now I know that clearly I was just shielded from a lot of it.”
Antrobus also recalls a humorous response from a school he attended upon discovering that his father was Jamaican. “My dad was born in the Hanover Parish of Patty Hill, Jamaica (he later moved to Kingston).
“It’s the early 1990’s. When it was established that my dad is Jamaican, the school launch this investigation to find out if my learning is being stunted because I’m smoking weed at home,” laughs Antrobus.
He continues: “You know, all this kind of madness was said and can actually be found in my school report.
“But that was just one example of the kind of ignorance towards race, not to mention the added difficulty of there being no understanding of my deafness, too.”
Antrobus attributes the support he did receive in the end from the education establishment to the persistence of his mother.
“My mum was great – she was able to tap into a network of special educational needs teachers and deaf teachers within the Hackney, Islington and Haringey boroughs where I had spent some of my educational life.
“It was my mum’s persistence in pushing for my inclusion and acceptance within schools that saved me.
“I was given hearing aids, speech and language therapy and ended up having some really great teachers of the deaf who gave both the support and extra tuition needed to keep me on track.”
Antrobus, who has won numerous poetry slams, including being crowned the Farrago International Slam Champion in 2010 and joint winner of the Open Calabash Slam in 2016, now uses those childhood experiences alongside his gift of poetry to inspire the youth of today.
He says: “As a freelance teacher and poet I go into many hearing and deaf schools, Special Educational Needs (SEN), Pupil Referral Units (PRU), Universities and sometimes prisons, facilitating poetry workshops and life writing as art therapy.
“The sessions are geared in getting young people to read and engage with poetry in a way that is personal and relevant to them.
“Often my focus is on emotional literacy as it opens up a space for young people to talk about their emotional lives out of which they can then create a piece of writing, spoken word performance or the like.”
Through his creative work in schools, Antrobus has seen first-hand the difference it makes in the lives of young people. He says: “My research and experience in this area has proven that this work has academic as well as social and emotional value. Nurturing creativity and creative communities in schools can boost self-esteem and give participants an opportunity to be heard and understood more deeply by their peers.”
Antrobus’ work has also been received favourably not only by educational boards but also by government with the inclusion of his poem – Jamaican British on the GCSE English syllabus in schools across the country.
Yet while this has helped in making an impact in the lives of young people, Antrobus admits that there is still much more that could be done in raising awareness and addressing the needs of BAME deaf children and young people.
He says: “All teachers and staff ought to be deaf awareness trained, especially given that d/Deaf young people are commonly mainstreamed into schools with little or no support or role models, especially if they’re black.
“Learning some basic BSL (British Sign Language) will also help. I wrote a poem called Two Guns In The Sky For Daniel Harris which warns of the danger we’re all in if we fail to understand each other.”
For Antrobus, many young people just want to be heard, including those who choose to be silent. “What the world is lacking right now are individuals who truly know the art of listening. It’s about being an ear, a heart and a mind to others and not being afraid of silence.
“Once young people, including those with special educational needs, can see that we are willing to speak less and listen more then that is often the key which unlocks hearts and minds and brings out those hidden, inner qualities which can brighten up the world.”
While the premise of his work is on emotional literacy, the area of mental health is also important to Antrobus, who pointed out that in light of recent social injustices – including the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the US and Grenfell and the Windrush scandal in the UK – that now is the time to make our voices heard on matters too often swept under the carpet.
He says: “I have donated to Black Minds Matter UK which pays for therapy and well-being for black people in the UK but more has to be done.
“Deaf schools and SEN are generally underfunded and there is little room made for emotional and creative work in schools and many of us are leaving education unprepared for living as emotionally healthy and functional human beings.
“However, by making our voices heard, we can begin to experience change.”
Raymond Antrobus’ debut children’s book Can Bears Ski? will be released this November. For more information on Black Minds Matter visit: https://www.blackmindsmatteruk.com/