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American Annals of the Deaf

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In Silence: Growing Up Hearing in a Deaf World

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He hesitated, not quite understanding me. I caught his pause and pointed once again to the tomatoes. He took my hand and placed a tomato in it. “This is a tomato, and you want one pound, not one ‘lib.’ ‘Lib’ is short for ‘pound.’ Tell your mother to pick her own tomatoes, but not to squeeze them.”

I signed his instructions to my mother and she reciprocated with her radiant smile as she leaned over the tomato bin to make her selection.

He led me into the store laden with fall produce and named everything we passed, correcting my pronunciation and pitch, repeating the word, waiting for me to repeat and repeat each vegetable he named until my repetition was correct.

“Now ask your mother what else she wants.”

“Potatoes, three libs, and parsley, good fresh green, no spoiled brown nice lettuce, cumbers, onion . . .” Her list went on. And I said the words as I had just been taught, disregarding my mother’s speech.

“What’s your name, girlie?”

“I am Rathee, what is your name?”

“I am Max, and the next time you come, wait for me, I will take care of you and your mother.”

“Thank you.”

“How old are you?” he asked, grinning at me.

“I am five, next year I am six.”

Max asked, “Tell me your name again. ‘Rathee’ is a new name for me.”

I stopped, embarrassed. I had given him my mother’s name for me.

“Rathee” is pronounced like the word “rather” with a double “ee” rising at the end. It was my mother’s call. My own name, my private identity, deaf said.

“Max, my name is Ruth, my mother calls me Rathee; it is hard for me to say Ruth in the right way.”

The word rather, spoken in casual conversation, still elicits a turn of my head, a response to the person who unwittingly almost calls me by my childhood name. It is a hearing misuse of my mother’s voice. The name Ruth was not my name, not the name that connected me to my mother. It was a second name, a renaming into the hearing world, my passage to school.

My mother’s promises that “teacher will teach you talk perfect English” enchanted me. She assured me that school was the place where I would learn what she couldn’t teach me, “many new words,” where I would learn “hearing” language. In time I did learn, but the vibrant language of her hands was not matched by oral speech—not ever, not then, not now.

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