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American Annals of the Deaf

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In Silence: Growing Up Hearing in a Deaf World

Ruth Sidransky

Chapter Two: School Days

Little girl, be careful what you say
when you make talk with words, words—
for words are made of syllables
and syllables, child, are made of air—
and air is so thin—air is the breath of God—
air is finer than fire or mist,
finer than water or moonlight,
finer than spider-webs in the moon,
finer than water-flowers in the morning:
and words are strong, too,
stronger than rocks or steel
stronger than potatoes, corn, fish, cattle,
and soft, too, soft as little pigeon eggs,
soft as the music of hummingbird wings.
So, little girl, when you speak greetings,
when you tell jokes, make wishes or prayers,
be careful, be careless, be careful,
be what you wish to be.
                      —Carl Sandburg, Wind Song

All summer long my mother’s hands lilted, preparing me for the first days of school. “Soon soon, September come, you go to big, wonderful school, be with hearing children, learn read, write, talk good English words.”

“Ben,” she signed to my father, “Ruth start school next week. We buy new dress. Important she pretty.”

My crossed eyes wandered, scars left by measles, whooping cough and scarlet fever in rapid succession. My mother’s early efforts to straighten my dark eyes with daily exercise failed; they moved at their own discretion toward the bridge of my small straight nose. My hands reached up continually, nervously smoothing my silky black hair down the sides of my face, covering my ears. Then, I was ashamed of my ears, pushing them close to my head with my small speaking fingers, remembering all the years they were taped to my skull. And those tiny hearing ears had to be perfectly formed for Momma’s deaf eyes. Each time my hair pulled away with the adhesive tape, I winced, and my mother signed, “Don’t worry, make you beautiful ears. We fix stick-out ears.” Her signs were gentle and I hurt.

She could not hear my garbled speech. My language imitated hers, facsimiles of words she learned to say without the gift of sound. I understood all her words, the spoken ones and the signed ones. She never mastered the modulated pitch of normal speech, proclaiming her words just below the level of a shrill scream. Her sentences were signed, spoken in deaf shorthand, prepositions and conjunctions usually omitted. Strong verbs enunciated in the present tense; the words today, yesterday, and tomorrow added for absolute clarity. And it was all lyric.

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