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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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That summer, on Sunday mornings, deep in the bedroom of warm sleep, my father sat on my bed filling me with the wonder of language.

“Watch me!” he said as he rose to his feet. “I show you hearing sounds.”

He raised his arms above his head, and with his hands plucking sound from the air, as a harpist plucks music from strings, he poured melody into his ears. And as he poured song into his head, he told me with a grand smile that school was where I would drink in what he couldn’t give me, the sound that he could not hear. Again and again, he played with imagined sounds from the air with his hands. Each motion that touched sound for him was a gift to be opened on my first day of school.

He signed, “School big present, has big blue ribbon, open ribbon, learn to speak!”

It was not to be. I was placed in a class for mentally retarded children. My mother and father’s promise of joyous learning was broken. I was apparently a stupid girl, and I was so ashamed that I told no one about the boring days of repetitive teaching, about the vacant stares around me as the teacher pressed on. I shrank, never uttering a word, joining the others in their slowness.

Each morning my mother hurried with excitement. My dress was still warm from the iron as she slid it over my head. She combed my hair and stroked my head with pleasure.

“I go school myself, Momma. Big girl. I careful in street.” I signed these words with my lips tightly closed.

I did not want her to see my classmates. I was determined to go to public school alone. I was not afraid of the streets, or of the roaring elevated train that passed over my head as I walked to school. I could do that alone. But I knew that I couldn’t fool my mother. Something had gone awry at school. There was no magic.

My mother was deaf, not stupid, not “deaf and dumb.” Just deaf. On that first Thursday afternoon after school, my mother, with her well-honed intuitive sense, asked me in the language of hands, “Why you not happy at school?”

Instead of telling her how much I loved school, my hands blurted, “The children in my class are stupid. I learn nothing, just cut paper, play with crayon. Teacher speaks silly baby words, over, over again. Dull time at school.”

On Friday morning, my mother and I left for school together. My pleas to go alone were ignored. We walked slowly in Brooklyn’s September light to the brick schoolhouse. I clung to my mother’s hand, the hand that promised me wondrous schooldays. She would make it right. She would tell the teacher that I wasn’t stupid; she would tell the teacher that I could sign when I was eleven months old.

“Come Momma,” I said, “take you to meet teacher.”

“No,” she said, “we see a principal.”

“But Momma,” I protested, “we see teacher first.”

“No,” she insisted, “I see only principal.” Her hands were firm.

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