Alone in the
Mainstream: A Deaf Woman Remembers Public School
Gradually, I learned that certain remedial actions helped somewhat, but only in some situations. If I was with just one other child, the environment and the other child’s way of talking (loudness, lip movements, etc.) could be controlled to my benefit. In the public school classrooms of the 1950s and 1960s, there was enough peace and quiet that at least through elementary school I could hear and lipread my teachers. But I couldn’t hear and lipread when two or more other kids were talking the way kids talk—animated and often simultaneously. Ever. No amount of explanation or pleading or demonstrating would make it possible for me to be privy to the chattering for more than a few minutes. The kind of support I needed went against everyday ways of conversation.
As an adult, I found out that there were many other children who “can’t hear too well” and who grew up as the only such child in their school. I learned that I wasn’t, after all, the only one who had this experience, which I came to call “the solitary mainstream experience.” I learned that over the centuries, during my own growing-up years and still today, such children have been in schools all over the United States, and, indeed, the world. I surmised that they might be like me—not knowing who to tell or how to tell or what to do about it. Later on, I surmised that other adults like me, who had been through this experience, would be very happy to share their tales so that the children of today might have an easier time of it.
The Importance of Making a Contribution
It is a rather funny story how I first attempted to compensate for the deficiency I became aware of in that kindergarten classroom. As the kid who “couldn’t hear too well,” it was important to my self-esteem that I could contribute to my world (though I only know this in retrospect). My contribution was to invent a recreational activity for the neighborhood children: Coke bottle fishing.
The supplies used were real glass Coke bottles (one for each fisherperson), some durable string (the kind we used was white, soft, and absorbent), and whatever amount of white bread a mother could spare. On many a summer morning, we would haul our supplies over to the local mill pond that was quite close to our homes. There was plenty of edge access, and plenty of minnows, or as we called them “killies.” We had several “good spots” where the fishing was terrific.
Here is the technique: First, we tied the string around the mouth of the bottle. Then we made it fit snuggly in the little furrow that was just below the bottle top, so it wouldn’t slip off. Then, we broke up the bread and stuffed it inside the bottle. We then walked down to the shore and carefully dipped our bottles in the water, so that the water seeped in. When our bottle was more than half full of water, we threw it out into the water about five feet from the shore. Assuming the pond water was reasonably clear (and it was in those days), we would be able to see the bread inside the bottle. Assuming also there are ample minnows, in just a minute or two, we would notice the bread being jerked erratically as it was torn to pieces by voracious little mouths. Then we scooped up the bottle, and the bounty was ours. Most of these “killies” were about two inches long, but sometimes we would catch what we called “big fat ones” that were almost four inches long.