Alone in the
Mainstream: A Deaf Woman Remembers Public School
What did we do with our catch? For a while, we would just collect them in a bucket of water until our glee for the activity was satiated. Then we would mercifully toss them back. At one point, however, I had a slightly fiendish idea. My cat! I must have just read a book or seen a cartoon about cats eating fish and was intrigued to see if real live cats would eat real live fish. For some time thereafter, my cat probably thought he had died and gone to cat heaven. Then, alas, my mother put a stop to this foolishness. I wonder if she issued the cease and desist order for the sake of the “killies” or the cat.
From my conversations with other deaf and hard of hearing adults,1 I now realize that when we were in the early elementary years, communication was fairly simple, and it was easy for us to become leaders of activities such as Coke bottle fishing. We may also have been good in sports and were picked first for teams. But as we got older and moved from the local elementary school to the local middle school and high school, interactions became increasingly problematic. Then, it became really difficult to make a contribution in either activities or conversations.
Finding “My People”
Hearing loss made me different from the other students during all of my K-12 years. This difference colored, overshadowed, permeated, and consumed every single school day of my life. It was always just “there” and it threatened to become a lifelong state of affairs. Little did I know that things were about to change dramatically as I sat in the Washington College cafeteria in Chestertown, Md., during the fall semester of my freshman year. We were having lunch, me and my fellow freshman acquaintances. They chattered endlessly about God knows what. I never knew what people were talking about at mealtimes. Or at parties. Or at football games. That was life as I knew it, and there just wasn’t anything anyone could do about it. I looked like everyone else but felt like I was surrounded by an invisible glass wall that made all voices sound garbled.
Like my father, I had learned to copy interacting behaviors, laughing when the other kids laughed, and smirking when they smirked. I had also learned that if I asked anyone to repeat anything, they would say “I’ll tell you later” or “It’s not important.” I could discern their voices with my hearing aid, but because of the nature of severe hearing loss, the only time I could successfully use my lipreading skills to fill in the gaps was if only one person was talking in a very quiet environment and that person enunciated his or her words clearly and distinctly, as my kindergarten teacher had.
Because of this inability to follow conversations, my habit was to busy myself with my lunch while the other girls blabbed away. But on that day, I happened to look up, and over on the other side of the cafeteria I noticed a group of young men engaged in the most animated conversation I had ever seen in my life. My eyes fixed on them. My heart felt this intense grasping or longing like I had never felt before. I felt incredibly drawn to them and thought, “Oh! My people!”
These young men were having their animated conversation in American Sign Language (ASL), although I didn’t know this at the time. I soon learned that they were deaf and that they were the members of the Gallaudet College soccer team. To this day, I marvel at the depth of feeling that I had for this group of strangers. I had never seen anyone signing ASL before. And yet, I knew instinctively that I had an indelible bond with them. They were like me. I was like them.