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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 found Dawson Street. It was a wide street that curved up a steep hill. The modern red-brick building at 891 Dawson Street fanned out over a courtyard flanked with dusty green privet shrubs. All the apartments faced the courtyard or the street. There was one vacant apartment available with three sun-filled rooms.

“Fine,” my mother said. “Tell super we take rooms.”

“Thirty-nine dollars a month. Too much money,” my father balked.

We moved into the apartment on the first day of the new month. My mother and father gave me and my brother the bedroom. They slept in the living room on a cot. My father made the mattress for the cot with his own hands. He sewed each cloth-covered button into the mattress with his curved needle. I watched him do this, needle in, needle out, until it was done. But the mattress, the metal cot, and the buttons soon became a source of disgust. The metal coils that supported the cot’s frame were infested with bedbugs. In the evenings before we went to sleep my father removed the bedding and, with a lighted candle in his square hand, he burned the bedbugs from every crevice he could reach. We watched him as he caught them in his bare hands and squashed them. The acrid smell was sharp. No one spoke during this ritual.

But the kitchen was the first kitchen I ever saw that had sunbeams on the table.

I was eight years old that summer and longed for school to begin again. My English was fluent. I spoke like other children, but I was not like them. I developed other sensitivities. I listened to the inner voices of people, aware of their unspoken words. I could hear what I could see. And I saw. I saw an eyelid lower fractionally. I saw the unseen tremor of a lie within a cheek. I saw a lip quiver when no one else did. I heard and understood the pause, the search for the right word that would mask the truth. I knew people. But they did not know me; I did not reveal myself.

My mother reminded me often, with a clap of her hands, that the essence of life was to “open eyes wide and to see all, to see language speak,” as she laced the sign for language through her fingers. She taught me to pay attention to life, to be a mystic.

Summer ended in September, and I was admitted to Miss Chanin’s third-grade class for gifted children. She was an old lady with faded yellow, tightly curled hair that dropped clumps of scaly dandruff on her navy crepe dress. Her worn black shoes were tightly laced on her large feet. Although she was slim and short, she waddled. But I loved her and her deep voice that rolled words distinctly from her bright red rouged mouth. At the end of each schoolday I waited eagerly for the fairy tales with the happy endings that she read aloud to us.

I wanted a book of my own to read, a book I could take to my bed and read until my eyes closed with sleep. I longed to know more about Hiawatha and his old grandmother Nokomis, who lived together in a wigwam on the shores of the Gitchee Gumee. I read only the story of Hiawatha’s conquest of the wicked magician who brought suffering to the tribe. I asked Miss Chanin if there were any more books about Hiawatha.

She answered, “Yes, there are more books in the library.”

“What,” I asked, “is a library?”

Patiently she explained that I could join a library where there were hundreds of books, perhaps thousands, and that I could borrow a book whenever I wanted to read.

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