I didn’t like passing as German, but I’m never sure I like their response to my real answer any better. When I see the fright in their eyes, the “oh-my-god-what-should-I-say-now?” look that freezes their face into that patronizing smile, I feel cornered again. I feel scared, too, for the way it reflects back on the way I saw myself for many years. I wish I had just stayed mute.
For all that it frightens me, though, when I get cornered and I see my scared, caught-between-the-hyphens, hard-of-hearing face in the mirror, something comes of it. This happened to me first, and I think most significantly, at my first successful academic conference. I had just finished my first year of graduate school and had journeyed to give a paper at the Wyoming Conference on English. I had attended the conference the summer before as well, but I had been in my silently passing mode. This year, however, I was animated by everything from a very positive response to my own paper on the first day, to the glitter of the featured speakers, to a headful of theory-stuff mixed near explosively with my first year of teaching college freshman in a university principally composed of minority and Appalachian, first-generation college students. I was primed. I was talking a lot.
On the third day of the conference we were having a picnic lunch up in the mountains; at a table with one of the conference’s biggest stars, I was feeling lit up, I guess by the glitter he was sprinkling on me by showing genuine interest in my own projects and things I had said in earlier sessions. I was telling stories about growing up in western Kansas. Everyone was listening, engaged, laughing.
Then a woman across the table, slightly to the left of me, wearing a tag from some small place in Louisiana, I remember, asked me, point-blank, “So, how long have you been DEAF?” (And that word, especially, went echoing off the mountain walls, I swear.) The question did not fall on deaf ears. The table, full of some sixteen people, went silent—awfully, awesomely silent. They waited.
“A-a-all my life.” Silence again. Eons of silence. Echoes of silence. “Wow,” said the star, and he touched my arm—a genuine touch, a caring touch, a you-don’t-have-to-feel-bad touch.
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