311: deafhood diaries part ii
And so my trouble begins: Life is a lot easier when you're a smart deaf boy in a room of students with mental problems. You finish the work easily and spend the rest of your time hiding behind a desk with hobbits. It's a lot harder, and you learn a lot more, when you're in a room with kids just like you... which is something hearing people will never get.
When I left mainstreaming, I had no idea what it was like to have a conversation. I had only ever called someone once on the TTY. Her name was Irene Kambos, and she along with Paul Derevjanik and two other guys (whose names I never managed to lipread) were pretty much the only people I knew. It was a small and very comfortable world. I wasn't allowed to be in a lot of extracirricular programs - I tried to get onto West Side Story (like Greg Scheuer without the shiny shoes) but they didn't want a Deaf person there. I tried advanced courses but they didn't want a Deaf person there.
I made the decision to go to MSSD instead of Stuyvesant or Tottenville Science, which is where I was accepted (we had to apply for high schools.) Once I made it, I stuck with it for four years, but I still remember spending so much time in my dorm room in Dorm C hiding! INFORMATION OVERLOAD! Can you imagine going from a girl named Irene I played scrabble with - that was the extent of personal interaction - to HUNDREDS of Deaf kids, all of them wild and crazy and amazing and individual and, yeah, beautiful?
To this day I still cherish the feeling I had in my first few hours.
It went away the minute I went to the gym, that first day, when everything was overwhelming and full of new papers and new people...
See, my goal was to play football and baseball. But the idiot running athletics, Tim Frelich, didn't realize that I had no idea how to sign. He asked me if I wanted to play sports, I thought he was saying something else entirely. Now, many years later, I wonder if he was a deaf elitist who figured I was just a stupid oral boy and didn't think I was worth taking the time to talk to. Sucks to be him.
Eventually I learned to play soccer, which was my revenge on American sport. But I never got over being shoved out of the room like that and not understanding the look of disgust on his face (I think I must have answered some questions in a really weird way. My signing suxxored at 13.) For me it felt like, great, I go from one place they don't let me do things to another place where they STILL don't let me do things. Of course this wasn't really true - it was COMM BREAKDOWN AWFUL! that's all - but it's what it felt like.
That night I went to an icebreaker. We had to play silly games in the gym in which we, Deaf children, had to run around holding hands. Of course we couldn't talk to each other while holding hands, so I'm not sure what ice exactly we were supposed to break. There I met Mel, darling Mel, who is still the sister of my heart. She was rather annoyed by me, I think, but also equally nonplussed by the chaotic activity around us.
I remember Gallaudet was PRETTY. It really is a pretty place. I was a city boy, so I guess it was like being bussed out of the city on one of those Fresh Air vans. I would wake up early to leave the dorm and go sit in air that smelled different, bathe in the stench of the ozone. There were so many plants, and little hidden places around the building which were very cool for young kids to discover. (One day maybe I'll go back and teach a younger generation some of my places.)
So I had a lot of reasons not to pay attention to communication. And, let's face it, when you don't get ASL, it looks like a lot of flapping - just like hearing people describe foreign spoken languages as a lot of uneducated grunting.
I rebelled by fighting to hold on to English. I managed to hold on for about a year. I'm stubborn.
That year, a teacher, Rae Johnson, would break through my walls by forcing me to stop speaking and signing at the same time. Once I began to sign independently of speaking, I began to see ASL for what it was - a real language. (In 2006, it's easy for me to see SimCom as a technique hearing people use to control and oppress Deaf people, but back then, all I knew was they were making me give up English! They were making me give up English! Would I become retarded? WHO KNEW? WHO KNEW?)
Around the same time I began to see theater. Drama was the artistic form of Sign, in some ways the same as poetry is the artistic form of English. I'm a writer, so it's natural maybe I was attracted to that. With the help of Tim McCarty I became involved in a few performances and signed very badly on stage. I got made fun of a bit, but it was all part of learning to be more of a Deaf person to me - unconscious, blind, head-banging-on-walls learning, but learning.
Even if I felt like a bull in a china shop.
So year 1 in a Deaf school saw me go from refusing (indeed, being unable to use) ASL, to learning drama and trying to PERFORM with it.
I guess I've never done things by half measures.