Saturday, June 03, 2006

309: before deafhood

Join me today on a trip through Wikipedia.

This morning as usual I checked the weather, and found a reference on Weather Underground to a Great Storm of 1703, which was recorded by Daniel DeFoe and was the only hurricane to make it across the Atlantic to England. It destroyed homes. Never heard of this sort of thing before. It impacted the Dutch; I pondered a list of Dutch names and came upon a list of names which, when clicked, revealed that there were Dutch people in one of the places where I grew up.

Staten Island was where I was before I went to MSSD. I knew some sign language; they'd placed me in a Special Program or whatever in Neptune, NJ. when we moved to the Seaside Heights/Seaside Park area. It wasn't a rich place; about 20% of people there were really poor. We survived largely on my mother's strength. A lot of things I go through now, I know she went through then.

Anyways, we moved back to Staten Island to be near my family. Now, the thing about Google Maps is that the satellite pictures they use are much older, to ensure our safety in the case of terrorism. So, curious, I went, and looked back in time, and saw my childhood. even my Grandmother's garden is still there, from far above. Are yours?

On Staten Island I went to Myra S. Barnes Intermediate School for three years where I met the infamous Ms. Peel. Mainstreaming was never kind to me. I was always in special programs, lucky enough to attend programs with the hearing kids with an interpreter. Most of the other kids there were, like me, social misfits. My most vivid memories of school, every year, were the thrills inherent in discovering new libraries. I became friends with librarians - or, at least, they pitied the poor Deaf kid (they were not quite sure whether to believe I could read so much; I would take out ten books a week, unable to pick just one-no interpreter in my classes, what was the point to paying attention to the spit leaker?) I played library games (we had scrabble clubs and chess clubs.) It wasn't yet nerdy; for some reason there it seemed accepted.

It was there I met the books of Robert Heinlein and learned to fall in love with science fiction, even as I was looking towards books of alternate philosophies, including paganism and wicca, to explain my place in the world. Why, after all, was I such a weirdo?

This is generally what my mind was like before I went to MSSD. I want to explain this because in a lot of ways this was pretty much all of my world. I had no real interaction with other kids in school. I knew few names. I was D E A F mothafucka... with nobody to teach me self-esteem and me pretty much accepting the whole situation, which is the worst part (although I had my moments of rebellion)... and the only reason I lucked out with the English skills is because I had nothing else to do. That this translated into a serious love of reading was almost accidential. But I had no Deafhood. I had nothing. All I had was a little yellow bus and a bunch of other children, most of whom weren't deaf, who I was in classes with, and not a whole lot of knowledge about the real world.

The whole cochlear implant thing makes sense to me, in a way. There's not enough interpreters, and before the implants there were probably thousands of kids like me, really deaf but otherwise pretty normal thanks to a supportive family, who were in inappropriate special education environments solely because of the diagnosis of deafness. Could deaf schools even handle such numbers? Could hearing people handle the idea of their children being deaf with cochlear implants being dangled before them? Who really tracks those numbers? Would I even have put down "deaf" on a census then? I don't know. I wasn't lucky enough to meet many other deaf kids. But I knew some sign language, so when they offered me the opportunity to go to MSSD, we accepted. And too we accepted the opportunity for me to go to camp the summer prior - I signed up to study history with the Young Scholar's Program which was kind of a cross between camp and summer school. So I was lucky to begin my journey to deafhood (god, I'm cringing at the corniness of this line, will return to edit later) with a group of Deaf kids, many who already knew each other, who were interested in learning stuff and getting ahead, very motivated young people. A lot of them, I found out later, would be MSSD students.

Of course I was totally f-ed up for this environment. Of course everyone signed way too fast for me - it took me a few years for my eyes to develop to Deaf level (there seems to be research which indicates the pupils of Deaf people, or anyone who begins to learn sign language and use it before the age of 31-33 (when the eyes stop growing) develop into a teardrop shape, slightly wider at the bottom than those of hearing people, to accompany the increased field of vision someone who watches both the face and signing areas will need to fully access communication. This is what I mean by Deaf level, and I didn't have it then.)1

So this is the start of my road to Deafhood. Notice the "place" I am. I have been told quite a few things about Deaf people, sign language, and I have internalized many assumptions about Deaf people from my oral upbringing. In fact one of the reasons my family encouraged my move to MSSD is because they could not find anyone willing to teach a Deaf person to drive.

I also have little experience with and being a Deaf person myself.

I was also pretty chubby from long hours of sitting on my ass reading chunky-monkey books. You have to PAY for what you learn, trust me.

But I am also pretty eager and I like DOING stuff. So I think I was kind of charming, in a weird way, which was nice. But I had those preconceptions, and like Wayne Betts, Jr's video of Clark school students, they caused much merriment!

1. For this reason, if you are learning sign language, take time to eat and consume vitamins of the most healthy eye-licious kind, to give your poor orbs the chance to develop.

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