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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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“Numbskull”

Mentally deficient youth are denied ascendancy to regular standing in the student body. The class of social outcasts include the mentally handicapped and those who never escape the retarding effects of years of communicative deprivation at home. To this group of children, the older students apply a sign that translates as “weak-headed” or “numbskull” (an alternative translation is “pea-brain”). Figure 7 shows this sign.

The older students had an astute ability to discern the difference between a child who was in transition and one who was not learning at a normal rate. Intellectual incompetence is treated like an age reduction, with a diminishment of respect. For example, when the top seventy-five children were away for ten days during the games, a third grader was chosen for leadership of Boys Dorm 4, although he was younger than many of his charges. Nipapon interviewed him (Boy D in the following excerpt). Pointing at an eighteen-year-old boy who was still in first grade, she asked whether he was a dorm head:

Boy D: He helps. He helps collect clothing. During free time, he watches, he’s good, he watches, and gathers people and things. [The boy on right says “helps.”]
Nipapon: Why is he not a Head?
Boy D: He flunked Grade 1. He’s not yet out of Grade 1. He is a “know-nothing.” He’s a failure (thumb-down). [He grins for a long time.] Failure. [The boy on the right says that the Big Boy “can’t get ahead in school.” Boy D tells him to desist.] Let it go. Don’t be ambitious. To each his own. We don’t want to make him embarrassed. Be careful. [Boy on right repeats that Big Boy has failed and hasn’t improved.]
These slow youngsters are often harassed and ridiculed by their fellows, including both boys and girls. (Several brutal incidents evoked the scene from W. Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies where the marooned boys smash the fat boy’s glasses.) Their “victimization” is a key example of how the student hierarchy is built on assessments of cognitive capability. To the researcher’s knowledge, all of the victimized youth had a mental, not physical, handicap. An albino boy at Dok Khoon School might also have been a target of antagonism, yet he was a youth supervisor and was respected for his mind. Two of the teenage boys were so small that they stood at the front of the line with the little boys, yet both were clever and could “talk-the-talk” of their age group. Although they were shoved about, they nonetheless were treated as near-equals. The students might have taken advantage of “different” youth such as those who are gay, physically handicapped, or deformed. Children with these characteristics were sometimes singled out but were spared the unceasing degradation reserved for the dimwitted child. The classification as a “numbskull” is a status assignment based on properties of the mind alone; age, size, gender, nor personality make a difference if the child is lacking mental acuity.
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