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.

:)

Paotie

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Posted at 11:15 PM under Crumblings of Stuffs. Follow responses through the comments feed, Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your site.


Comments

This is a wonderful story! Thank you for sharing. Please know that I admire you as a person in your own right.
Lois

Lois

I enjoyed reading your autobiography… so you must be around 40′s or older, since you mentioned Star Wars, Farah F., etc…. meanwhile I assumed (ha) that you must be in 20′s. You are a little boy in your heart ;o), having a “kick back and enjoy life” attitude shown through your writing

Karen Mayes

I don’t think many kids dwell on being “deaf” or “hard of hearing”, Most tend to be kids being kids and learning to survive and just being kids. Although I must admit that being HOH in a deaf family, I did strive to show the world I’m not like them. That, I called being in an “embarrasing stage” of my life. The stories that goes with them is funny, to say the least. My siblings still joke about it to me, even to this day. But, then that embarrassment period passed. Your story put a smile on my face, for I know many kids in regular public school or mainstream school went through pretty much the same thing and we wondered how the heck did we manage to make it in school without an interpreter. I hated spelling test the most because whenever a teacher failed to look at me, I missed that one word, alas, I manage to figure it out by using elimination method and knowing my spelling list before hand. Always managed to get 100% every time. Whew.

At least you appear to be yourself against all odds and I guess being a guy is easier to deal with than being a girl. Girls are much more meaner.

So, you never went to any deaf school? not even Gallaudet or NTID? or did you?

C

This was a wonderful story of survival. I also liked reading about the love and support from your mother, Paotie. I have died laughing at some of the stuff my boys did over the years. At times I had to go into my room and laugh my head off before going back to their rooms to discipline them. Growing up has never been easy. Raising kids has never been easy.

Kim

Lois,

Thank you for the kind words of support and encouragement. A little praise is sometimes the nicest gift a person can receive.

Thank you.
:)

Paotie

Paotie

Karen ..

Nope, not 40. Not in the 20′s, either.

Try mid-30′s.
;)

Paotie

Paotie

C ..

Nope – never went to any type of deaf school. It was never an option. If there were more choices with regard to deaf schools in New Mexico, then who knows?

Ironically, my VR counselors practically forbid me from attending Gallaudet in the early 1990′s.

Go figure.
:)

Paotie

Paotie

Kim,

Thanks for the kind words.

Both of my parents endured a hell of a lot just for me.

Glad you liked the article and hope you continue to write your own reflective narratives as a LDA.
:)

Paotie

Paotie

Karen,
haha! I know how old he is, cuz he told me once. :-) Must have been having a weak moment. I’m not tellin’ He likes his secrets.

I love my parents, but my dad was an alcoholic while I was growing up. A lot of my issues surrounding my deafness play off that. I respect my dad in many ways. He was never violent or anything, but being the child of an alcoholic parent comes with many complications I won’t go into here. My mother had too much going on to support me when I needed. That’s not to say they weren’t good parents, or didn’t love me. They were both surviving the best they could. When you develop a disability, and you can’t put your trust in others, this can cause problems down the road.

Sometimes other disabling factors enter in besides Deafness, which can alter one’s adjustment. We shouldn’t judge each other, because we each have varying abilities to cope, depending on our resources.

I developed some inner strength as a child that helped me later when I learned how to harness it.

Kim

A wonderful post on the realities of the differences in each and every person who struggles with the challanges of deafness. Thanks for sharing!

Thanks for your story. I do find it ironic that deaf children in public schools must have to learn to “survive”. Our family moved so my daughter could specifically go to a Deaf School. It was not a “bad” thing but instead was the “best” thing that ever happened to her and our family.
She never had to learn to “survive” in school. She simply went and enjoyed it like all her other peers. This is what hearing children do in public schools. I wish more parents would understand that Deaf Schools can provide a well rounded education not limited to academics but including social and emotional growth and well-being. Academics are only a very small part of the learning that goes on in schools.
School should never be a place where children have to learn coping mechanism and survival skills in order to learn. If this is the case, then the parent and the school ARE to blame for not monitoring things more closely. Children in those situations do not know the difference; they don’t know that what they are experiencing is not normal.
I would never expect my hearing daughter to go to a school where language was not accessible and the same goes for my deaf daughter. It is time to change this thinking and not continue to “settle” for the unacceptable.

Tami

I nearly died laughing over the Christian school incident– went to Catholic school for a couple of years myself and those nuns didn’t hesitate to use either a wooden ruler or a ping-pong paddle for discipline in the ol’ days. And girls were not exempt either.

I’ve had a lot going on in just the last two days that I haven’t had the time to respond to articles lately, my apologies. But your story of growing up deaf is a sweet one. “Multiple tools” to understanding life is an excellent point to bring up for parents struggling to raise a deaf child. Like my old man used to say, “There’s more than one way to skin a polecat”. And don’t ask me what a polecat is, go figure that one out yourself.

Ann_C

Your words there at the end were the most profound:

“…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.”

Kudos!

~ LaRonda

Ann– HAHA! Brought back memories for me too. I do not know how old you are, but when I went to public school girls were still required to wear dresses and skirts. I **think** that was changed while I was in junior high, maybe by eighth or ninth grade. In seventh-grade I wanted to wear mini-skirts to school. Naturally MY parents required my skirts to be worn just below the knee. Ugly, ugly, ugly! All the girls at my bus stop rolled our skirts at the waist to make them shorter–waaaaaaaaaaay tooooooo short, I’m afraid. If the prinicipal saw you, he’d make you kneel on your knees in the hall and if the hem of your skirt didn’t touch the floor you could get a whack with a wooden paddle. I lived in fear of this but never got caught.

Kim

Wow! Incredible! I only went to public school for 4 months in my life. My teacher knew my deafness. She was always at front of my desk so I could lipread her. My teacher told my mother that I should go to deaf school which was near public school. So I went there. You seemed to have an ability to go through public school without an interpreter. I know some deaf people who had gone through public school and college without the interpreters in old days. Amazing! Now Deaf students have an easier life in public school. Your life is interesting!

JMA

[...] Read the rest of this great post here [...]

Yes, JMA, some oral deaf/hh went thru the public school system without interpreters. As I didn’t know ASL then, I didn’t have interpreters. I’d taken piano and dancing lessons as a kid, so I developed a musical rat-a-tat with a pencil on my desktop to remind the teacher that I couldn’t lipread her if she was turned to the blackboard while talking. LOL I used to get disciplined for that at first with a new teacher and funnily enough the kids I grew up with in grade school would point out the reason why I used this tactic.

“Survival” in school did make me a little tougher when I went into the hearing workplace. There are times when the parents’ or a school’s protection is not going to work when a deaf person is in the hearing environment, whether playing outside during recess with the hearing kids or working a job as probably the only deaf employee amongst hearing bosses/employees.

As Paotie pointed out in discussing his early education, you learn a lot about yourself very quickly when you have to rely on your own resources. Kim has pointed out that with family problems besides her increasing deafness, she had to develop inner resources as a young child. I have an older sister who developed some psychological problems which consumed much of my parents’ attention while I was growing up. So, there is family background that plays a factor as well. Kids just don’t think too much about what is “normal” to them, they usually don’t know better. Then as adults, they do realize what they went thru was not normal, and wonder “How the hell did I make it through?”

Ann_C

HA! Ann- I never realized my childhood wasn’t “normal.” A psychiatrist had to point that out. My son has a learning disability and he was on a 504 through school. One of the stipulations of the 504 is the student must claim some responsibility for his accommodation by requesting it. He/she is never offered it. I always liked this because it gave my son control over when/where/if he needed it. It was a learning opportunity for him to determine his own limitations, which I think we all need to do when we’re disabled in some way.

I do not **always** need this specific accommodation for every meeting for example. Sometimes it’s OK if I do something else. It is best for the individual to determine what should be done in each situation— with the options spelled out ahead of time.

Certain parents I know have complained about the 504 because they felt their kids should automatically be given accommodations without asking for them. I disagree. My son enjoyed challenging himself by trying to work without accommodations as often as possible. This way he had a better handle on his capabilities. Yes– he failed some assignments. Yes– this brought his GPA down. Frankly I was fine with that because in the long run I figured he learned an important lesson about managing his disability better. He’s in college now living two hours away. I don’t have to worry about how he’s managing. He knows what he needs to do and I’m confident in his ability to succeed.

Kim

Kim,

Seems to me that your son recognized early thru relying on his own resources that he was the one who knew best how to navigate the hearing world, who else was gonna do that for him? He knows his hearing loss the best, he knows best what he has to do to create an optimum hearing environment, he knows what works for him as far as communication mode goes. Just how does a deaf/hh KID know all that? I really think a lot of it is I WILL GET THRU THIS. That’s what I told myself many times over.

Ann_C

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Chris

Paotie, I’ve enjoyed reading your many posts on this blog, both for their content and style, but golly, that Spiderman lunch box anecdote is the best. We should all be similarly armed for the type of occasion you described.

JS