A Deaf Education
Colorado Springs – The first day of first grade found me fleeing the playgrounds of my school and heading for an exit that lay ahead directly across a baseball field. I ran – fueled by a mixture of fear and excitement – from a woman and her son.
It had been just moments before that the hearing boy and I had been arguing over our lunch boxes. He had made a very unqualified statement that the Hulk would kick Spiderman‘s ass any day of the week. I would’ve told him he was stupid, but his mother arrived, and our little circle of two became a crowd of three as the woman stood behind her son with a hand firmly planted on each of her son’s bony shoulders.
His mother asked my name and I told her, and then she asked about the hearing aid I had in one ear. “That .. umm .. thing on your ear?” she had asked. I gave her an explanation that I was deaf and couldn’t hear and with sympathy oozing from every pore in her face, she nodded solemnly. And then the boy made a comment about my speech.
I looked at him and shrugged.
And then I cracked him flush across the side of his face with one end of my Spiderman lunch box. In the next instant, I ran for my life, narrowly escaping the mother’s brief grasp on my shirt and dashing toward my older (hearing) sister, who was waiting for me at the exit by the baseball field.
So began the very public education of a deaf boy named Paotie.
In first grade, school administrators had warned my mother that there was a possibility that I wouldn’t be able to muster the skills needed to keep up with my hearing peers. In fact, it had only been two years before I clocked the kid on the playground with my lunch box that a doctor had told my mother that there was a good possibility I would be developmentally retarded.
Somehow, I flourished in first grade: I starred in a school musical production, and was quite popular for birthday parties, and I had girlfriends before I even knew what a girlfriend was. And I fought a lot, too. When boys would taunt me on the playgrounds, I would endure only so much before brandishing my form of vigilance: an ass whooping.
In elementary school, I was almost always a teacher’s favorite student. I did well because I worked hard to keep up with my friends. I memorized as much as I could from my mother’s encyclopedia collection so I would always at least have some knowledge of what went on in school. My teachers were reminded gently quite often to face the class when they gave lectures so I could read their lips, but being human as teachers are, they would forget and at times, I would find myself at a loss for what was going on in class.
But I worked at school and became a great student despite the lack of support. In fact, if anything, my ability to do well as a deaf boy in a public school system actually made things worse, especially the older I got.
Once, while a student at a private Christian school, I received a series of paddlings (imagine a rowing oar, and using the wide part of the oar for spanking purposes) after not hearing a teacher inform the class that the next person who spoke in class would be paddled. Not hearing the teacher’s warning, I asked a classmate nearby if I could borrow a pencil since mine had broken. I was immediately sent to a private office where I had to drop my pants, bend over for a male PE teacher and say a prayer while he repeatedly clubbed my ass as if he were driving a golf ball. All this because I didn’t hear the teacher.
In high school, my Mama was frequently called into classes by English teachers who believed that I shouldn’t write so well – especially for a deaf boy. My mother was accused of writing my English papers for me. Other times, I was accused of plagiarizing writings when I turned in papers for other classes. I even had to re-take a couple of final exams because some teachers thought I had cheated.
The only speech therapy I had in high school came in the form of a college textbook on linguistics. All I did was learn the symbols and the meanings behind them – I had no actual speech therapy (which was in stark contrast to my elementary school years – I had regular sessions with speech therapists until I transferred to the private school in 7th grade for a year).
While taking a test in a geography class in high school, I developed a stuffed nose and began to breath with increasing difficulty. The worst thing about it was the fact that I became acutely aware that I was in a quiet environment and had no idea how loud I was breathing. So I began to obsess over my breathing, wondering if everyone could hear me in the early stages of hyperventilation. It got progressively worse until a red-faced and extremely angry, male teacher yelled – in front of class – and asked if I needed to blow my nose, which I found embarrassing as some kids laughed.
When I took the ACT college entrance test at the end of my sophomore year in high school, I suffered another bout of phantom hyperventilation, in which I thought I was going to either die of a breathing phobia, or I would be kicked out of the test and forever banished from college. And then of course, I was almost disqualified because I continued to work on a section of the test after a bell rang to indicate all test takers put their pencils down and stop working on their tests.
So, it was hard. This isn’t one of those, “woe is me” articles. Instead, I want to tell you something: for all the accomplishments I’ve had over the years, none of it would’ve been possible if I hadn’t figured out at an early age that I needed to do certain things to survive.
I read everything I could get my hands on. In the days before television was closed captioned, I would watch the local news each night (especially the sports segment) with my parents and not understand much of what went on (besides the sports scores). In the morning, I would always be the first to rush out and grab the newspaper in our driveway, and immediately set out to reconcile what I had missed on the previous night’s news.
I was driven by an obsession to understand life and gave little regard to much else, other than what boys my age found fascinating: bugs, snot, sports, motorcycles, auto racing, Farrah Fawcett, and the movie, Star Wars. The focus of my life in the early years was all about understanding the world. I spent so much time missing out on the simplest of things on television or in school, or even in regular, everyday conversations that I began to obsess with finding ways to overcome the gaps in understanding conversations, or the world in general.
It was never about being deaf. In elementary school, I was driven by a fear of failing and being sent to the deaf school in another city, and in those days, I was extremely close to my Mama. My Mama taught me much about life as a little boy, such as the time she became quite alarmed when I had – after watching a PBS special about Benjamin Franklin – ran outside during a thunderstorm and launched a kite in hopes of discovering what the fuss was about. It was my Mama – who came running through sheets of a torrential downpour with lightning flashing and thunder crackling through the neighborhood – that rescued me from near-certain and instant death.
Mama also taught me to never let anyone tell me I couldn’t do anything I wanted. I wanted to succeed in public school and it had nothing to do with deaf educational paradigms, oralism or ASL, or anything else. I wanted to succeed because I wanted to survive. More than anything, I wanted to understand.
I never spent time worrying whether or not I was deaf or Deaf. I never spent time worrying about my ASL skills – taught to me when I was 5 – rusting because I rarely met other deaf children. Most of my friends were hearing, and all that mattered to me was having fun and understanding what went on. We were children, making messes and pulling pranks on one another; we were a bunch of hearing kids and a deaf boy.
I am older now, though still very much a boy at heart. I have endured incredible defeats and earned amazing victories that still tug at my heart today. I am forever amazed that I somehow got through public school without sign language interpreters – a thought that seems unfathomable to me today. And I marvel at the things that I had to do to survive both in school and on the streets (I was briefly homeless at age 17, surviving by living in my car, showering at a fitness gym, and eating in soup kitchens).
I would not be a survivor if I had not the will to understand. I did everything I could in my power to find new and innovative ways to understand what people said, how the world worked, and most importantly, why. And today, the most common reaction I get to my speech is that I sound a bit like an Australian, mate.
In the end, deaf children don’t care about the implications of their future lives if they’re in a deaf residential or public school. To shame parents into believing that any one educational platform, whether ASL or bilingualism, is the only way to educate a child is wrong. I used everything I could get my little hands on as a boy and it made no difference to me whether it was through ASL or through my Mama’s encyclopedia collection.
If you’re a hearing parent with a deaf child, please don’t fall victim to warring factions with regard to educating your child. Please just consider the most important and fundamental thing you want for your child: to foster an ability to understand. Simply teaching a child English or ASL, for that matter, is not enough; arm your child with multiple tools to use in understanding life, and you will have a child self-sufficient and independent, and able to find any and all ways to understand.
Nobody can ever tell me that I’m “not Deaf enough,” because I went to a public school and learned English as a first language. Nothing about my education was about trying to be “hearing” or like my hearing friends. And it wasn’t about being, “Deaf,” either because I never had time to dwell on it.
I was always too busy trying to understand the world.
Be good .. or be good at it.