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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf in DC: A Memoir
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The students ignored me totally, and I wondered if I was invisible. In India, the arrival of a stranger is a big event. A student from another country would have been surrounded by and questioned about where he was from and what he was doing there. I looked at myself to make sure I was there and knew that I had to do something to get help or I would have to stand there with the Air India handbag and the attaché case at my feet for the rest of my life.

My first two attempts to get someone’s attention were a total failure. I waved my hand to a tall, thin guy who looked at me for a second. He walked toward me and I began to spell, “w-h-e-r-e.” By the time I was spelling “r” he was gone back to his friends. My effort to get the attention of another guy met with the same fate. The first thing I learned about Gallaudet students was that they have little or no patience with someone who does not sign. I thought this was rude, but then I remembered the kind of treatment deaf people without the ability to speak clearly get when they are trying to get attention of a hearing person. “Well,” I told myself, “the tables are turned here.” However, the irony was I was also deaf. But I was a deaf person who didn’t know American signs.

Finally, I did succeed in getting the attention of two pretty girls. They both had short hair, wore tee shirts and shorts, and seemed like they were just going for a walk. I waved timidly and was surprised to see them both stop in their tracks and look at me with interest. One of them looked at the Air India bag on the ground and pointed at it and then at me. I nodded my head vigorously. We were communicating!

My “w-h-e-r-e” was interrupted again, however. One of the girls grabbed my hand and turned it around to face her. I was first puzzled, but then the light dawned upon me. I was spelling the letters to myself. It was like someone showing a photograph to another person but keeping it facing himself! Boy, did I feel dumb. Spelling in this new orientation of the hand was a bit difficult at first but became easier in a few minutes.

Then the second girl spread the five fingers of her left hand and touched her pinky and ring finger with the index finger of her right hand alternately and pointed at me with a questioning look in her eyes. She wanted to know if I was a pinky or a ring finger person. I shrugged my shoulders like I had seen Americans shrug in the movies. My shrug must have been pretty awkward—it was my first shrug.

One of them wrote on her notebook, “Are you a freshman or prep?” I didn’t know which one I was. Worse still, I didn’t know what a prep or freshman was. Our talk, or rather the effort to talk, got the attention of a male student with thick glasses hanging from the very tip of his nose. The three consulted with each other and then the male student motioned me to follow him. I waved to the two girls and followed my benefactor.

He wrote on paper that his name was Godsey and he was from Florida. “Where are you from?” He wrote. I pointed at the Air India bag. He nodded his head in understanding.

We passed the College Hall and walked to another building. He wrote, “This is Fowler Hall.” I wondered why he called the buildings halls. A hall in British English is a large room and a building is a building. But I had more important things to worry about than the nomenclature so I remained quiet. Fowler Hall, it turned out, was a dormitory for preparatory boys. Godsey, my guide, knocked on a door and a muscular man opened it. They both exchanged conversation with fingers and hands flying to and fro. I looked from one to other and began to talk to the new person, who looked back at me as if I was speaking Greek. Apparently, he didn’t understand one word I was saying. Their exchange in signs was also Greek to me; I could not understand even one word. Their conversation resulted in the other man’s handing me a key along with a pillowcase and two bed sheets. Godsey and I climbed four floors and then he led me to a room—his own—and helped me make one of the beds. I learned later that he had offered to be my roommate until the mystery of my being a pinky or a ring finger was resolved. The bed-making process was new for me. I had never made a bed and was glad for his help. In India, one spread a duree—a thin mat—and a bed sheet over the cot. There was no tucking needed as there was no mattress to tuck the sheets under. This tucking the sheet, I thought, was a bit too much. I would rather let the sheets hang out.

Hunger was gnawing at my arteries. I made the universal sign for eating. He shook his head. The cafeteria was already closed. We walked to yet another building. It was the Students Union Building (SUB), he told me. My brother Narain was very active in the student union in his college and later in the railway employees union. I thought about joining the students union later when I was settled.

In the student union building, I saw my first vending machine. Godsey helped me insert a dollar in the change machine and then helped me find a dime and a nickel. I inserted the two coins in the Coke machine and pressed a button. I got a can of Coke and was pleasantly surprised to find the can very cold. The vending machine had a refrigerator built into it. I was amazed. I also got a package of biscuits, which Godsey called cookies. While munching cookies and sipping the Coke, I looked around. Godsey pointed to a machine in the corner. I walked to it with coins in my hand, as I was still hungry. There didn’t seem to be any food in that machine and I looked helplessly at Godsey. He wrote, “This is a pinball machine. Later you can play on it.” The steel balls in that machine didn’t look very edible, anyway.

The Coke and the biscuits, I mean cookies, gave me some energy and we walked back to Fowler Hall. Godsey showed me the bathroom where I changed into my sleeping suit, shook hands with Godsey, who looked puzzled, slowly got into the bed, and passed out.

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