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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 fingered the sound of sound into my hands. I spelled the letters of the word into myself, into my body. When spelling was too difficult for me to discern instantly, I made up a sign for the new word, signing and saying, saying and signing until the word was mine, an immutable possession.

I searched for an oral-speaking mother, any mother would do. Beguiled by the prospect, I flirted with the girls in my class, charming them, wheedling an invitation for milk and cookies “on the way home.” I chose my friends on one pretext and one pretext alone. Would their mothers sit and talk, oral talk with me? Would they sit at the kitchen table with me and ask me about my school day? Would they respond to my vocal speech? Could I pretend for the moment that this woman was my mother, pretend just for a little? But I could not abandon my mother, Mary, and left abruptly each afternoon, running home, all the way home to Momma. Mothers with speaking mouths painted in different shades of scarlet slipped into my dreams . . .

I lay in bed at night, waiting for someone to come, someone to hear my cry. “I am lonely, my tooth hurts. I am afraid, I have to go to the bathroom. Does no one hear me cry?” I had a nightmare, the monsters came and I screamed. And still, no one came.

I left the warm wetness of my bed, left the security of my sheets and went with cold feet to my mother’s bed. I touched her and woke her. Without a sound, she raised the covers and pulled me into her bed, surrounding me with her sleeping body. She held me but she didn’t hear me. I didn’t speak my urgent fear. She was asleep. And I slept with her, safe from the silent darkness.

Silence struck me broadside. It was my secret catastrophe. I was the unmarked child of affliction. I was neither deaf nor blind nor lame. I was imprisoned within myself, within the shroud of silent days and nights, within the sense that no one responded to me. I found human response in fantasy, with word games and sound games; it was my refuge.

I pigeonholed sound, forcing it into a square shape. It didn’t fit. I rolled sound in my hand, rolled it into a ball as I rolled wadded gum that had lost its sweetness. I rubbed my hands together as I rolled clay, shaping sound into a cylinder. It was unshapable, amorphous. It eluded me. Sound was an illusion. It had no substance.

I had a voicebox that could accurately speak sounds that I heard. But there were stumbling blocks. I looked at objects, and when I couldn’t name them, I chose creation. I structured my own words. I called crunched paper “gribble balls.” Mashed potatoes were “shalamus potatoes,” a washcloth was a “wepp” (my vocal translation of wipe). My vocabulary was studded with words that suited me.

I was a child inventing a child’s language, cutting paper dolls out of ten-cent paper doll books, giving names, speaking words that were mine alone. I shared them with no one after my futile attempts to teach my hearing friends the new words. They looked away from the strange combination of sounds.

I collided with sound; I whispered to its thunder and asked, “Why do you crash from the sky?”

“Bertuple!” was God’s answer.

It was a serious word, and no one understood it but me.

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