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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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They hanker for new sights, smells, and tastes, as found in the bustling farmers market. Because the staff members do not arrange town excursions, the pupils resort to their own devices. The Thai schools for the deaf have a tradition of porous boundaries. The gates are rarely barred; the walls have gaps. Leaving the school without permission is referred to by the children as “escape.” An “escape” includes a quick run to the corner shop for sweets, a late-night trip to the cinema in town, and running away from school. The children use the sign depicted in figure 3 for this concept.

Only those adventures that endanger life or limb of the venturesome child are unanimously opposed by adults. Most educators are tolerant of daytime jaunts into town by children whom they deem to be sensible. Through the teachers’ differential treatments, they acknowledge that their charges are individuals who have varying levels of capability and judgment. They also demonstrate their own flexible interpretation of central Ministry regulations. This informal policy, interpreted and enforced also by senior students, is the operative “border law.” At its root is a Thai belief system about the hierarchy of age and gender in terms of personal freedom.

In short, newcomers (“know-nothings”) and girls are much more confined and regulated than older boys. Total physical confinement is a basic condition of the newcomers. Even a five-minute sojourn earns those deemed “too-young” a stern reprimand and even a mild caning. Every responsible guardian, including older students, cooperates in their confinement and in their intensive instruction about rules. For most students, the inevitable increase in age brings a gain in linguistic skill and normative awareness and, thereby, increased status and mobility. After a few years, the supervision is lightened. The “just-old-enoughs” may walk a few meters outside the gates and buy sweets, but may go no further.

Girls can never escape their subordinate position relative to boys. The divergence in treatment and standards of behavior between boys and girls becomes evident once youth have moved out of the newcomer status. In Thailand, while all girls are felt to be vulnerable, speechless girls are assumed also to be prime sexual victims. Thai adult deaf women report many assaults to their confidants.1 Deaf girls are warned endlessly from an early age to stay inside the school and to beware of inappropriate advances by a male. The concept of vigilance to thwart a faceless menace is taught unceasingly in many forums. Most pertinent to this study is the self-instruction among girls. As will be detailed later, every girl grows up seeing normative messages repeated nightly during long-winded lectures by elder girls. Girls are exhorted to conform to conservative standards of dress and behavior. They are encouraged to report on one another’s escapes and indiscretions (and they do so more than boys). Only very senior and reliable groups of girls are permitted rare departures from the grounds in daytime.

Boys become “qualified” to leave school at a younger age than do girls. Boys are kept on a looser leash because the general agreement is that they cannot be restrained anyway, especially once they get wanderlust. Their violations are treated less severely, with a “boys-will-be-boys” attitude. A proof of individual daring among the boys is to sneak out at night. The river is spanned at


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