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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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So it was that a radio came into my life. It was a dome-shaped walnut box that had a dial. “When I turned that dial, a miracle occurred. Normal adult voices came into my home, voices that were warm to the touch, voices that etched themselves into my head. I connected to hearing voices. I heard the news and programs for children. I heard music for the first time. The music made me uncomfortable. I didn’t feel that I should listen to music’s magnificence. My parents would never hear it. I moved the dial.

On Monday, my class was changed. The children were laughing and bright. And then without warning, my new teacher called my name and asked me to come to her desk. I obeyed, timorously.

“This is Ruth Sidransky, everybody. She is new. And she knows something we do not!”

My body faced the class. My eyes were cast to the floor.

This nameless teacher bent her large teeth to me and said in a piercing voice, “You know another language. You know sign language. Class, little Ruth’s parents are deaf and dumb.”

I felt the heat rise from my ankles to the backs of my knees, up my back, crawl into my skull until my ears were red with shame. I stood there motionless.

She continued to chirp, “Now, show us how you sign, how you speak with your parents.”

I did not move. Teacher, without name, pressed on, “Tell the class, ‘I am happy to meet you all.’”

Exposed, my arms dangled at my sides, speechless. Her voice strident, she commanded once more, “Say something for the class.”

My fingers were limp. She put her hand on my shoulder, a demand to sign-speak. My arms lifted, my fingers fumbled incoherent letters.

“That’s a good girl. Now tell us, what did you say?”

I whispered, “Good morning, all.” I looked at this young woman and begged, “Sit down, please?”

This teacher, I presume, spoke in ordered sentences all the rest of the morning. I only heard the hiss of syllables, meaningless sounds, spitting from the open slit in her face, I turned my head from her mouth, turned my ears from her soundings and sucked on the pain—my lollipop. Her callousness held me captive. I had nowhere to hide from her open gaping, from her fascination with freaks. She was no different from the staring passerby from whom I could escape, at whom I could stick out my tongue, but I was powerless before this master of spoken language.

Slowly, in the passage of days and weeks, I began to see this teacher, whose name has disappeared from memory, as a friend. I watched her mouth, heard her syllables and formed them into spools of meaning; sentences wound one on the other—language tunes, arias, andante, pianissimo. And after that, school was as promised by my father and by my mother, wonderful.

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