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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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We walked through the cafeteria that smelled of yesterday’s free lunch. When we got to the principal’s office, I came prepared with a timid speech for the school clerk. My mother did not wait for me to translate her words. She took me by the hand like any hearing mother. She opened the only closed door in the labyrinth of desks and secretaries scattered behind the oak counter, separating students and staff from the administrative arm.

Miss Nathanson, the principal, calmly lifted her round face to us. She had straight chestnut brown bangs, cut flapper style; horn-rimmed spectacles like mine, halfway down her nose; and the hint of a smile. Her voice asked, “Can I help you?”

“Yes,” I stammered.

My mother was still.

“What is your name, child?” Miss Nathanson’s open smile touched me.

I told her, “My name is Ruthie.”

My mother took charge. “Tell principal I must speak with her about your class.”

Miss Nathanson was quick. I did not have to explain to her as I had done so many times in the past with the “others.” She grasped my mother’s deafness. She reached for the pen and pad on her desk; she wanted direct contact with my mother through the written word.

My mother shook her head vehemently. With all her concentration, she breathed four words very clearly. “Ruthie talk for me.” Her hands were at her sides as she lowered herself to her knees and signed to me the words and thoughts that I was to interpret. I was proud of her spoken words, proud of her beautiful signs.

“Tell her,” she signed, “I not write notes. We talk together with your voice, Ruthie. Not change mind.”

As the sentences flowed back and forth, from my mother’s hands to my voice, from Miss Nathanson’s voice to my five-yearold hands, I was my mother’s interpreter, as I had been so many times before, but this time she was pleading for me. Miss Nathanson understood the words I spoke, the words that sounded like a deaf child speaking, and the words that sounded like a normal child. They were mixed together and her keen intuitive sense listened, separating deaf sound from hearing sound, never asking me to repeat a word.

At the end of our three-way conversation, Miss Nathanson said, “Ruthie, child, tell your mother to buy you a radio!”

“A radio? We are too poor,” I answered.

She was adamant. “Tell your mother.”

“Momma,” I signed, trembling, “principal say buy me a radio. I will learn talk better.”

These sensitive women looked at each other eye to eye, wordless. My mother shook her head with pleasure at this simple way to teach me to listen and to talk.

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