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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 spoke as my mother spoke. But my speech, in that I tangled the words I heard, was more confusing than hers, clearer than hers, all mixed up. I spoke shyly. Oral words strained from my throat. I flinched when people did not understand my words, words stirred with the sounds of silence. I longed for the great school that would teach me to be a hearing, speaking child.

I remember my voice as a young child. Unsafe. I lurched in unstated loss, in sound I did not hear properly. My speech, like my eyes, was cockeyed, cross-eyed, my tongue twisted profoundly by deaf sound. I had a voice that blathered swollen English sounds, a voice that crumpled consonants too difficult for the deaf to pronounce.

I served as my mother’s voice, shopping for fresh food. When I asked the green grocer for “one lib domadoes,” his eyes squinted, and I recognized the pinched narrow face that didn’t understand. I pointed to the soft red mound piled high and my finger indicated the words of my mouth. He recognized my mother and me, and was usually quick to serve us, but when he was busy he shouted, “Girlie, speak right. I’m loaded with customers here. I have no time for you. Come back when I’m not so busy!”

My throat lumped when my mother asked, “Why he not wait on me now, I must go finish shoppings. What take so long time?”

I shrugged without speech, not a sign, not a verbal mouthing.

“I come first before that fat women, tell man, it is my turn now.”

I remained silent. My mother, irritated, shouted at me with her hands, voice silent, “You stubborn girl, not good, not tell man what I say. Not fair.”

I opened my mouth in pretended speech but emitted no sound.

I did not explain my own shame at being misunderstood.

“Come”—she pulled my sleeve—“we shop other vegetable store.”

“Momma,” I signed, “wait, it is our turn soon. He not understand all I say.”

“Why he not understand you, you hearing child, you speak hearing language.”

“Not perfect, Momma, sometimes I make mistake when I speak in out-loud words.”

Her eyes dropped to the ground. When she raised them they were blue soft, and she said what she said so often when thwarted by hearing cruelty. “Never mind, we wait, we wait until store empty and vegetable man have time to understand your hearing words.”

Encouraged by my mother’s tenderness, I spoke up: “Mister, our turn now. We in hurry.”

He turned to my mother, patted my head and said, “Sorry, it’s been so busy. Now, what do you want?”

“One lib domadoes!” I enunciated each word carefully in my mother’s shrill pitch.

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