Do You Hear What I See?
Writer’s comment: I was terrified when I realized that, in order to teach English, I had to take not one but two upper-division composition courses last summer. I had horrible memories of college classes thirty years ago, of trying to squeeze out papers on my manual typewriter the night before they were due. Revision, obviously, was an alien notion then. I think that two things saved me from failing this time: the concept of “freewriting” that both Donald Johns and Susan Palo required, and the glorious invention of the personal computer. I learned to let my thoughts flow and then organize and refine them (an easy task on the computer!).
This essay started out to be my reflections on the self-serving nature of volunteer work. The week that I was at school writing this essay would have been my sixth year at the Lions Camp Wilderness for Deaf Children, and perhaps that contributed to my need to write the essay. As I wrote about volunteering at the camp, I found that incidents revealing my growing awareness of—and admiration for—the deaf culture kept intruding into my writing and messing up my concentration. But when I sat back and looked at my ramblings, I realized that the paper had just about written itself—what had seemed to be irrelevant intrusions was, in fact, the real story I had to tell.
Instructor’s comment: During the summer of 1995, the Lions Camp’s loss was my gain: instead of working as a volunteer in the kitchen there, Christine Lindberg appeared in my English 103A class, ready to work. I learned that she would be teaching high school English in the fall, that she was a talented writer, and that she felt intimidated by writing and just a bit rusty. Six thousand words later, jettisoning the inhibiting views of writing we’d both once learned in college, Christine produced a second revision of her final paper, just so I would really get a joke in it. Here’s the paper—no rust, all polish. What a pleasure.
—Susan Palo, English Department
It was the first night of camp, and the kids were lining up for dinner. Most were still showing signs of adjusting: the older, seasoned campers were renewing friendships and checking out possible new ones, the girls carrying on animated conversations while their eyes strayed ever so slightly, sweeping the area like radar, acknowledging the presence of a teenaged boy with a blip in the eyes; the younger campers were more reserved, fighting nervousness and apprehension. I noticed one boy, who looked about eight years old, harassing the others in line and refusing to follow his counselor’s admonitions to keep his hands to himself. He kept bothering other campers and just turned away each time his counselor tried to tell him to stop. I watched the battle of wills with a detached interest while carrying on a conversation with the other kitchen staff volunteers. We had finished preparing the meal for the two hundred campers and staff, and we now just relaxed and waited for them to eat. My attention strayed back to the miscreant in line, and I noticed the counselor grab him by the arm to turn him around so that he could look him in the eyes while he emphatically signed, “Stop it.” The boy still would not listen; he turned his head and put both hands up, edge to edge, as a barricade between his eyes and the counselor’s words. I laughed at my sudden comprehension of sign language, that wonderful, poetic movement of hands and facial expressions that the deaf use to communicate. I saw myself as a child, covering my ears to block out my mother’s scolding words. Without conscious reflection I remarked, “These kids are perfectly normal. They just hear differently than we do.”
I had come to volunteer at Lions Camp Wilderness for Deaf Children after hearing about it for several years. I had always felt warm and fuzzy about the project, about how nice it was for the deaf kids to have a “normal” experience in the wilderness, just like any other kids. For several years, with other members of my Lioness Club, I had enthusiastically voted to contribute part of our fund raising revenues to sponsor children at camp. This summer, though, I had finally made the commitment to spend a week here, working in the kitchen at almost 6000 feet altitude, near Pinecrest, California.
As the week progressed I observed the kids frequently and marveled at their “normalness.” Although I was in the kitchen preparing and cleaning up after meals for most of the day, I still had time late mornings, afternoons, and evenings to follow the campers and the counselors at various activities. I got to know several of the counselors, who worked directly with the kids, and the staff, who oversaw the projects and activities. (The adults in camp consisted of the staff, some of whom were deaf; the counselors, most of whom were deaf; and us, the kitchen staff, all of whom were hearing and were members of Lions or Lioness clubs in California. The staff and counselors were paid; we were all volunteers.) Many of the deaf counselors could read lips and speak with us in that particular muted, husky monotone that all deaf speakers seem to share. Others could not or—as I found later—would not communicate with us.
One of the deaf staff members, Andy, was about to graduate from college and enter graduate school to study for an MBA. He would have been considered good looking even without his persistent and infectious smile. He was Activity Director, and when he wasn’t working with campers on plays and skits to perform at campfires—or wasn’t plotting a snipe hunt or other outrageous activity to bedevil the campers—he would stop and talk with us. (He was naturally outgoing and very funny and liked to talk to us; it was just a coincidence that we were also guardians of the candy bar stashes and leftovers for midnight snacks.) His ability to read lips and speak belied the difficulty of these tasks. (I tried to read lips once by turning down the sound on a TV newscast. I found it impossible, even though I already knew what the speaker was talking about.)
Listening to Andy speak, I thought for the first time how easy it was for us who hear to learn to speak. We just imitate the sounds we hear and know immediately if we’re close or not. I remembered watching my son when he started to talk. He had spent a year assimilating sounds and attaching meanings to them before he started to voice them himself. What would it be like to try to voice sounds we never heard? In my study of French and German I worked intensively with phonemes, phones, and the seemingly limitless combination of lip, tongue, and jaw positions to develop a “native” accent. I remembered repeating sounds over and over in the language laboratory until my ear told me that I had found the magic combination to produce the right sound. I tried to imagine doing the same exercises without hearing and could only marvel at the achievement of anyone who did. I wondered how the deaf could manage such a feat.
I found part of the answer talking to John, the Assistant Camp Director, who was hearing and worked with deaf high school students in the L.A. School District. He explained to me that in order to speak, each deaf child would have to work one-on-one with a speech therapist, the child concentrating on the therapist’s mouth formation with his eyes and hand and trying to imitate the sounds he thought he saw or felt. They would work for days, weeks, or sometimes months to get a sound right. (Note that about eighty percent of a sound is made by the formations inside the mouth and thus is not visible to the person studying the therapist’s face.) I was astounded when I thought of the effort—and ability—involved for a deaf person to come to a point where she could produce a number of sounds only by the feel and look of those sounds.
John also explained the aloofness of some of the deaf counselors. He said that many deaf resented interference—masquerading as help—from the hearing community; they wanted to maintain their own community and culture. He told me most deaf parents hoped that their children would be born deaf because they knew that they would eventually lose a hearing child to the hearing community. While deaf children can grow up normally in a deaf household, John told me that deaf children of hearing parents are more likely to be victims of child abuse than their hearing siblings. I was beginning to get a clearer understanding of the deaf and their abilities, as well as of us, the hearing, and our deficiencies in our perceptions.
I spent the rest of the week with the kitchen staff and, when possible, with the campers. I watched them at the lake, swimming and canoeing. From a distance I could not tell the deaf children from the others. They cheered and screamed and waved their arms furiously to urge their teammates on. The best game they played, however, was new to me: blind volleyball. They hung blankets over the net so that the opposing sides could not anticipate when and where the ball would be returned. They already were playing without the ability to call out to each other and coordinate their efforts; they now took away half of their visual ability as well to make the game challenging for them. Poor little deaf kids, indeed!
Campfires and skits provided additional insights into the deaf children and the deaf community. All campfire activities were signed, but one of the staff members would voice a translation for those of us with impaired sign language abilities. We sat and watched and laughed with the campers, waving our hands wildly over our heads—as they do—to applaud the efforts. Some of the skits the kids presented were the same ones I remembered from 4-H Camp many years ago. Others were not familiar: some dealt with issues and concepts I didn’t see as humorous, such as a skit with all the kids dying, one by one. The campers loved it. Some skits dealt with bodily functions; one had a scatological punch line that would have mortified my dear, sweet grandmother. I had to admit that it was funny. One skit, presented by the ten- and eleven-year-old boys, was particularly memorable: the boys held up an imaginary frog and asked in sign how far it could jump. They put it down and voiced, “One, two, three, jump!” They turned to the audience and signed that it jumped four feet. They signed, “A frog with four legs jumps four feet. How far would a frog with three legs jump?” They proceeded to remove a leg and repeat the process; the frog jumped three feet. They continued until they had removed all the legs. They voiced, “One, two, three, jump!” and nothing happened. They looked at the audience, shrugged their shoulders and repeated the command, only louder. Still nothing happened. One boy turned to the audience and signed, “A frog with no legs must be deaf.” It took me a while to “get it,” even though the campers around me laughed immediately. Then I did get it and laughed, as much at my own ignorance and limited viewpoint as at the wonderful insight the skit gave of the deaf view of the hearing world. I thought about how blithely we put labels on people. I wondered how many times I had told a frog with no legs to jump, and then when it didn’t, assumed it was deaf and couldn’t hear me. I saw how absurd it was for me to judge these kids, or the adults, and pity their deafness.
My observation of the first day came back to me, and I truly saw how normal the deaf were. They hear extremely well in their own language. (My definition of hearing is not far-fetched: in French the word entendre is used to mean both “hear” and “understand.” There is no confusion, even for a native English speaker, between the two senses of the word. In English we, too, recognize the inherent connection and say, “I hear you,” to mean we understand.) When I saw groups of campers or staff members in animated conversations in sign, I envied their obvious skill at communication. There seemed to be a cohesiveness in sign language that allowed several in a group to speak at the same time and not drown each other out. Only a visual, spatial language allows this possibility. We, the hearing, are the ones to be pitied when we cannot hear the communications in sign language.
I started to doubt the necessity of a camp such as Camp Wilderness when I saw the richness of the deaf culture. Then I remembered that most of the campers came from families with hearing parents and siblings. This camp was often the first experience for such a child to be in a group where she was normal. The counselors and most of the staff members were normal, too, and provided her with her first deaf role model. I had seen hearing brothers and sisters with a deaf sibling at camp. They had been very confident and almost arrogant at the beginning; they became subdued and more willing to follow as the week progressed. For many of the hearing children, this camp was their first experience as the different child. They could not avoid leaving camp without a new appreciation for their deaf sibling.
I realized that our perceptions of people, especially the “handicapped,” made us blind to who they really were. Before the end of camp a father came to pick up his daughter. It was afternoon, and none of the campers was in the immediate vicinity. He asked us where he could find her. We asked how old she was so we could send him off towards the younger or older kids as appropriate. He held his hand, palm down, at his waist and said, “She’s this tall.” When we didn’t immediately react, he attempted further to identify her: “She’s deaf.” We said nothing and directed him to the Camp Director’s cabin, and when he was far enough away, a volunteer chuckled and said, “She’s deaf, huh? That really narrows it down in this camp.” While we all laughed, not so much at the father, but more at the absurdity of his remark, I could not help but feel regret for the child who was reduced to her deafness in her father’s view. And for the parent, who did not know his daughter as a person. Didn’t he know that she was a wonderful, normal child? She just heard differently than he did.