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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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this point by only a narrow suspension bridge. Teachers, who live on the grounds, frequently zip back and forth to town, crossing the bridge on their motorbikes. The youths’ talk of meeting a teacher on the bridge echoes like tales of the headless horseman and Ichabod Crane.

Traversing the bridge over the River Ping is an act of passage from junior to senior status among boys. Success separates the big boys from the little boys. The counterpart to bridge-crossings among the girls is sneaking out at night to stay with girlfriends in a nearby dorm. These escapades are equally noteworthy within each gender group. Owen Wrigley noted that the stories that the youth tell about their escapes are themselves a vehicle of instruction. Like mythical tales, they can help youngsters grasp the idea of the expanse and bounds of their universe and their position in it. They are differentiated as individuals by their failure or victory to cross the bridge.2 Both the effort and the social recreation of the adventure by recounting it to peers are educational. The children are creating their own set of meanings to deal with their conditions, and they teach these to others.

Senior pupils go on jaunts to town, with and without permission. Apparently, the child who has learned the unwritten rules, especially about avoiding incidents that cause trouble for teachers, earns the freedom to leave the school. The relaxation of rules is concurrent with a pupil’s assuming supervisory authority on behalf of teachers. The reward is a limited right to re-join the community outside the walls. Because seniors run the dorms, they interpret and modify rights of escape as they see fit and decide whether and how to mete out punishment for violations. The usual form among girls is criticism in public gatherings. Girls are taught to care deeply about how they are judged by their fellows and teachers. Head boys usually overlook escapes, unless they are enacted by the youngest members. Like the girls, the head boys conduct discipline according to the expectations held for their gender. They are very strict about matters that concern their own quality of life, such as the cleanliness of the bath house.

Sometimes, they exert control over school boundaries as a way to demonstrate their power. In an after-hours meeting of Boys 4 dorm, those youth who had left the school without permission were called to the front of the bunkroom.3 More than half of the fifty residents eventually voluntarily stepped forward or were identified by others. Their “crimes” were denounced with great flair by the dorm head, a ninth-grade boy. He paused melodramatically to ponder punishment. Without explanation he paired each offender with another about the same size. Pair by pair were handed a stick and told to administer beatings to each other. The scene was handled in a whimsical way, like a game whose rules were being invented as it went along. The first boy whipped his partner on the buttocks and then they reversed positions. The number of strokes was determined whimsically on a case-by-case basis by the dorm head. This ritual of mock-punishment embodies the spirit of “boundary law” as a matter of status enforcement.

Running away from school is an inexcusable form of escape to teachers and peer supervisors. The older students and deaf aides punish runaways, partly because they themselves are held accountable. The public chastisement of a runaway was videotaped at Dok Khoon.4 In the videotape, Mrs. T, a deaf aide, stands in the playground and holds the preadolescent boy by the arm. She pushes children away to give our video camera a clear view. Mrs. T exclaims, “You know, you must stay inside. We love you. Stop running away. Enough already.” In a melodramatic aside to me, Mrs. T laments: “This boy always runs away. Makes me regretful.” Older boys stand around like a choir of vigilantes, echoing her rebukes. Again she demands of the boy, “Do you know? Stop running away. Stay in.” He looks down sheepishly. She shakes him gently. To the camera, Mrs. T says: “Sheesh. He’s run away six times!” She pushes the boy away with a defeated look. An older boy holds up fingers and ticks off the names of runaways. Mrs. T recites her own list of escapees, which includes different people. This vignette suggests differing definitions of a serious escape—and hints that perhaps even a deaf adult does not learn of some incidents.

Most deaf students at Bua accept their captivity in school without protest. Only those who are closest to life outside (i.e., the new pupils and the near-graduates) express anxiety about being inside. The newcomer feels wrenched from the arms of mother and tossed into a cruel and unfathomable place. Some newcomers cry day and night, but mother does not return. Youth who themselves entered only a few years ago often are extremely kind and soothing to the newcomer, who can be communicated with only through pantomime. When the tears have eventually dried, the soothing manner becomes commanding; the slightly older pupils take charge


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