Inspiring, nurturing and empowering young people with a vision impairment.

James Risdon

“I arrived at NCW in September 1989, almost a year after my assessment during which time my parents had sought to convince the local education authority that my needs could not be met in either mainstream or the local special school which did not have a sixth form. 

My sister had left NCW the year before, having moved there to take A levels. I used to love visiting for Christmas and speech day concerts, so was looking forward to starting at NCW myself. 

I have very fond memories of my first year in particular: riding bikes, after school swimming clubs, continuing my love of dry slope skiing and many attempts to stay up until 8am at weekends. I was in the choir throughout my time and particularly enjoyed preparing for the annual carol service, while the Christmas parties were always great fun. Although many of the houses and teaching wings were new, there was still a real sense of history in some of the older buildings such as the chapel or the gym,  and I was oddly captivated by tales of past pupils’ antics (I remember we found and took great delight in studying a past punishment book!)

In my third year, I discovered cricket. I learnt to play well enough to end up on the school team and my memory is of endless evenings playing matches and listening to Ashes series all night on the radio which did nothing for my mock exam grades.  I broke my cheek bone  after colliding with the runner coming the other way in a PE lesson. I remember waking up after an operation in hospital that night with the Head Master who had come to sit with me before my mother arrived. “I’m just watching Eastenders,” he said, “You were run out by the look of things…”

I also discovered the sport of goalball and within a couple of years found myself on the Great Britain school’s teams. I wasn’t the most talented but practised three times a week. We won the national cup in my sixth form which was a real coup as we qualified for a four-day European club tournament in Venice which was a pretty fun way to miss a week of school.

But my real love was music. I was able to find a recorder teacher in Birmingham and got to know several of the volunteer drivers over years of travelling to lessons. I also joined a local youth orchestra that rehearsed every Sunday and performed widely throughout Worcestershire. I remember one particular Friday where I was rostered to cook for 12 people in my house before racing out to play a clarinet concerto; at the time, it all seemed perfectly normal but I do wonder now when I had time for any work!

Of course I felt homesick and never really got used to the transitions between home and school. I always hated getting to Thursday of half term because I knew I was closer to the end than the beginning of the holidays. To counter this, my parents gave permission for me to travel by train, satisfying my childhood obsession with railways. On my first trip home, aged 13, I forgot my white cane which was met with much disapproval from my mother when she met me.

I left NCW with three A levels and a place to study languages at university. A testament to the teaching at NCW was that I don’t remember covering very much new materials until my final year. I was lucky to go on five exchanges to France and Germany and even though I hardly use my languages now, I still draw on these experiences.

Most importantly, I left with bags of confidence, able to cook, travel, live and work independently and with a few unique life experiences.

Overall, my memories are overwhelmingly happy and full of adventure, discovery and fun. My parents described it at the time as the choice between growing up normal in an abnormal environment, or abnormal in a normal environment. Actually, NCW wasn’t that abnormal and feeling normal among my peers gave me the confidence to tackle the challenges that lay ahead.

My career has taken me from Scope’s graduate training scheme to RNIB where I was the Music Officer for nearly a decade. I am now the Access Lead for ABRSM and maintain some freelance recorder playing alongside. Wonderfully, my work has meant I have made several visits back to NCW and I still have regular contact with the music department in particular.

I feel very fortunate to have had such a positive and enriching time at NCW with so many happy memories. It’s just slightly concerning how long ago they now are…”

James Risdon

June 2023

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