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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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The Rising of Lotus Flowers: Self-Education by Deaf Children in Thai Boarding Schools

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Being “Smart”

At the pinnacle of the social hierarchy of the mind are those whom the students call “smart.” Although the sign is made at the head (an index at the forehead rapidly changes to a thumbs-up handshape), the term is not entirely synonymous with intelligence. The common attributes of “smart” youth were the ability to grasp and express ideas well and the daring personality to do so in public. After Winai finished a satiric tale, some of his audience enthusiastically came up to him and made the “smart” sign right on his head. Patipol then bubbled on about how his smart friend could repair mechanical devices. In practical terms, the smart child is an outstanding member of a group.

The quality of being smart is in the eye of the beholder. That is, groups of boys and girls at the regular and senior status levels variously bestow the term on those with whom they associate. As their cohort ages, these students often retain their respected positions, even into adulthood. Some, but not all, smart students achieve notoriety not only within the larger gender or dorm group but also within the whole student body. Considerations of age and gender are often suspended when a child is identified as smart. On numerous occasions, the older students pointed out precocious youngsters who had impressed them.

The youth value mental ability in many forms, using the sign smart for the few youth who excel in academic skills.8 Given the choice, they will bestow authority on those who do well in the official realm of knowledge. At Kulaab and Dok Khoon Schools only academically successful youth won the student elections. Pornthip Wannuwin of Dok Khoon recalled:

Researcher: Would someone who ever flunked be a head?
Pornthip: Not that I know of. . . . They picked who they liked, who wasn’t lazy. . . .
Researcher: Suppose there was an older pupil who was an orderly person, who wasn’t lazy, and who had a good heart. Would the children pick that person if they failed [academically] repeatedly?
Pornthip: No, they had to be smart.
Those who have played the academic game well are allowed to mediate between the school and the student body. When girls do well academically and have a tolerant personality, they can do well in student elections. In 1991, the students elected a girl as president against the wishes of teachers, who thought a boy would better maintain tough discipline. But the students favor intelligent and good-mannered official leaders, even if that preference contradicts adult gender expectations.

Outside the realm of academics and supervision, the children in the smart category are often at the center of public student gatherings. In these creative and participatory settings, they are alternatively described as “signs-well.” These highly articulate “sign masters” function as storytellers, broadcasters, and interpreters. Sign masters are creators and sources of knowledge in an institutional life that has little stimulation. Whether explaining or fabricating, they are imaginative and rely on colorful language and verbal twists. Some sign masters are chiefly entertainers whereas others are broadcasters and interpreters of information. Above all, they are natural teachers who help make experience meaningful for their fellow students. They talk about happenings outside the institution and about the intrigues of life. Their interpretations of speech from the television screen help youngsters understand the actions of talking people. They create new signs that nurture the conceptual and vocabulary growth of the younger pupils.

The sign master is central to the intellectual development of deaf youth in Bua School. Other Thai deaf schools also show evidence of this role. The craft of sign mastery has been passed down over generations of deaf schoolchildren as an honored practice. And its contributions are remembered into adulthood. Kampol Suwanarat (personal communication, July 2003) recalled a sign master named Thongchai Sanitphan when in the first cohort of Thailand’s deaf students in the 1950s:

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