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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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In Silence: Growing Up Hearing in a Deaf World

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I sat at my gouged wooden desk, stunned, until I remembered that we were poor and asked, “How much does it cost?”

“It is a free public library. Your mother can take you. Stop at my desk after school, and I will give you the address.”

I clutched the paper with the scribbled address all the way home from P.S. 39. I stopped for nothing and talked to no one. I walked home hoping that my mother would take me to the library that afternoon. I ran up three flights of stairs. I read our apartment number, 3H, on the door, inserted my key and opened the door. I didn’t ring the bell, nor did I knock. My mother greeted me only when she saw me.

She put down her knitting needles, put out her arms, and smiled her beautiful smile. She spoke to me with her voice. She was not ashamed of her singsong voice in my presence.

“What have you in hand?”

“Look, Momma, look I have library paper. We go now, not far.”

I spoke and signed simultaneously. I wanted to be very sure she understood my great excitement.

She shook her head. “Not today, we go Saturday. No time today.”

“You know what library is Momma?” I demanded.

“Yes,” she surprised me, “I know.”

“Why not we go before?” I asked.

“No time. We go Saturday when Daddy Ben no work. I promise you.”

My mother’s promises were golden, but it was only Wednesday. I had to wait three more days, three more days and nights. I dreamed of touching paper with words that formed sentences. My hands caressed pages in the air, pages that were smooth and those that were textured with slivers of wood embedded in the print, and pages that were thick and creamy. Best of all, there were pages that had words that would join me to other people’s thoughts.

I could read anything. I read hands and words with complete ease. Sign language is spoken with symbols for most words. But many words that I signed to my parents had no specific sign. These words were spelled out, letter by letter, in the manual alphabet of the deaf. My mother and I sat on many rainy afternoons, writing the letters of the alphabet that I already knew how to sign on the backs of stained brown paper bags. We practiced writing capital letters, lowercase letters and letters in script. My association with the signed letter of the alphabet and the written letter was immediate. For me, reading hands and reading the printed word were the same process. It was all language that connected me to the human mind.

At first light on Saturday morning, I crept into my parents’ small bed and shook my mother awake.

“What is wrong?” she asked. “You not feel well?”

“Saturday morning now, you promise take me to library!”

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