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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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for monitoring the newcomers. Ten years later, the school is home and familiar, and the now senior students face a return to family and society. How much colder the family hearth looks now, where few can communicate with them. These students may sense that their best years of human fraternity are behind them. Many migrate to the big cities and form deaf cliques. Meanwhile, for the majority of pupils, the school is the center of life. The labor is lighter and the food more abundant than in some homes. They have others with whom to speak. “I’m lonely among hearing people” is a commonly expressed feeling. Many hasten back to the school after holiday because “there is no one to talk to at home.”

This sense of the institution as the proper place to be stands in sharp contrast to the feelings of children who are institutionalized because of their ethnicity. Mydu Indian children in Northern California took great risks to escape from the boarding schools (Dobkins 1994). In Oklahoma, Native American children displayed a variety of reactions toward the Chilocco boarding school, including escape but also forbearance and even appreciation of the place (Lomawaima 1994). William Stokoe wrote in a set of papers on the boarding school experience:

[A] major difference was most salient. In an alien culture, that of the school, the Native American children wanted to leave (for life on the reservation, restricted as that was) so desperately that they would risk their lives. But . . . for Deaf children—at least in those that allow scope for children to interact in their own sign language—the children were and are reluctant to leave when their school years are over, and even to leave their companions during vacation periods and visit home where no one uses their language. (1995, 86)
The deaf students have accepted being inside as a normal and moral situation. Minor escapades are a rite of status, but a real escape is not normal. The few youth who run away are considered by their fellows to be maladjusted. To run away is to turn away from camaraderie and shared understanding with others. Most students at Bua School find this course of action an undesirable one, which accounts for the rarity of runaway escapes. Nevertheless, some deaf children wish to be elsewhere than locked away in the school.


At Bua School, a child’s intellectual and linguistic condition is a key to his or her status in the student body and, thus, to his or her opportunity to engage in its interactions. Social status is a complex concept used by the children to structure their everyday relations with one another. Status determines which activities the child will be privileged to join and what the nature of their participation (role) will be. At its root are the children’s ongoing assessments about individuals’ intellectual condition and linguistic skills. Age, gender, and personality also influence status assignments.

This study is not a full explication of the students’ social organization. The focus here is on the intersection of an individual’s cognitive skills (including language) and social status. This study is an attempt to suggest a theoretical perspective on the case of Bua School using available data, my prior experience and that of my assistant, as well as interviews with deaf people. The process of intellectual and social growth by specific children was not directly studied. Still, a typical “learning pathway” is suggested, including how children are treated educationally at each status level. Particular attention has been given to the cognitive breakthroughs on which promotion to the higher status level depends.

Pupils at Bua School have created a three-tier social organization, which is illustrated in table 6. Every pupil is ranked in the hierarchy as a newcomer, a regular, or a senior. The school’s delegation of authority to older youth bolsters the relationship between age and social status. Higher age brings greater rights and responsibilities to older students. Younger students are disadvantaged by their nascent learning of language, smaller body size, and lack of experience in the school regimen. In general, the greater the gap in social status, the rarer and more authoritarian are face-to-face encounters between the oldest and the youngest children. Seniors talk to newcomers only when they must, and they often chase youngsters away from their conversational circles. During dorm meetings, the heads tend to step in only after deputies have reduced the lively mass to a docile, subdued lineup. These type of “distant” encounters tend to involve didactic and restricted language.

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