Tuesday, July 22, 2008

22: Deafhood and Reflection: My Experiences as an ELA Student

My earliest memory of an English teacher is Ms. Finley, from 6th grade. I remember some other teachers before this, but vaguely. When you're a Deaf student you look at an interpreter most of the time. The teacher is a vague voice lurking static-filled in the background. Ms. Finley was one of those small but powerful Italian women; she taught English Language Arts, and I was infatuated with her and her energy. One day at the end of class I tried to go up to her and share poetry I'd written. Instead of looking her response was "You shouldn't write that in front of other people."

Oh well. I tried to connect. My interpreter thought the poem was nice.

I'd always done exceptionally well as a reader and writer. In Elementary School I was mainstreamed, on the strength of my native intelligence, with no interpreter in the classroom. I had the natural ability to put sentences together without thinking too much about it. My writing flowed cleanly and clearly, and I was able to well reproduce tone and rhythm. I expect my teachers thought this was enough, especially when I was compared to other, more troublesome students; I was often left alone and unchallenged in the classroom. I'd be given assignments that were simple for me; I wrote quickly and neatly, read speedily, finished whatever, and spent the rest of my class with a book hidden beneath the desk, in my own world.

In Middle School the state was finally kind enough to give me a "resource room" period and an interpreter. I was unique; the only student both in Advanced classes and Special Education. The school had to invent a new code just for me. The interpreter, Denise was, unfortunately, terrible. The state has much more stringent standards for interpreters now, with all types of certificates and experience required, but back then the only requirement was that you breathe - the first interpreter they'd hired, if you can believe it, was actually Italian, and translated my French class into Italian at me. (I am, to this day, grateful for the wide lenses of my glasses; his moustache blocked NADA. Nothing's fair in sixth grade.) Denise at least knew some American Sign Language, but her interpretation consisted of listening then saying, "Okay, you know, he's saying something about writing an essay, it's not important." Then she'd tell me stories about her children, which I found more interesting than a class I couldn't understand.

During this time my grades and motivation slipped severely. I understood nothing that was going on in class, the material was getting more complicated in every class and, as another teacher later told me, it was starting to reach the level where modelling was required, and when the student is looking at the interpreter, not the teacher, modelling doesn't work. I could no longer rely on my reading skills to catch me up, because I had to look at an interpreter ALL THE TIME instead of just reading the textbook, and nobody had taken into account the exhausting nature of staring at a single person eight hours a day. It was all new to me, and so was sign language, and I was learning several things at once, from a woman barely competent in the language. I had to unlearn several linguistic skills from that time, years later.

My fellow 6th, 7th and 8th grade students began exploring the concept of writing as a process. Reading as a process I certainly understood; I'd come to enjoy the concept of re-reading. But re-writing? Remember, my responses up till now had been hurriedly written, facile answers to facile questions. The questions were more complicated now. I do not think, in retrospect, that I did very well; as I said, my grades slipped somewhat, although I continued to do work. (Now, being a teacher, I know that simply getting students to finish work is a challenge, and I wonder how much of my good grades were due simply to compliance, or even pity.)

As a result my challenge in life has been developing the skills to meet challenge. When I want to write a story, my struggle isn't coming up with things to say; I have plenty. My struggle is obtaining stick-to-itiveness, in following a process where I have to do things step by step, after a life where all the assignments have been clear and the answers have been relatively easy. It's difficult to Get Things Done. This became exceptionally clear in 9th grade, when I had Ms. Rae Johnson in AP English. I'd made the conscious decision to attend a school for Deaf people in Washington, D.C. I left my family in the process, but I think the exchange was fair, if somewhat depressing.

Like Ms. Finley, Rae Johnson was a small woman, but Irish and English where Ms. Finley was Italian, calm where she was energetic, considering and private when others were public and thoughtless. I'd been put into the Senior AP English class, on the strength of my excellent test scores. I was emotionally unready for the class material, but intellectually I could deal with it - a weird combination. Now I go back and read texts I'd read at that time and see all the sexual innuendo I missed. Life experience is a big part of reading. Numbers make it easy to forget that.

Anyway, Rae (she bade us call her by her first name, the first teacher in my life to do so) challenged me on every level. She was a Deaf woman, with high competence in both languages, and criticized my ASL skills as well as my English skills, and was the first person in my life to ever offer me constructive criticism on signing. I may have learned the bones of writing from public schools in New York: I learned the meat and flesh of it from Rae. Everything after that class was just icing. The continual writing - being forced to achieve certain levels of work and maintain certain levels of communication - I was challenged in a way I'd never been challenged before. As I said I didn't understand everything. I didn't understand King Lear, or insanity. But writing as a process, the firming of my reading skills, exposure to challenging literature - yes. I learned.

And (he says, wryly, returning to the beginning, as all good essays are supposed to) it was the first time in my life I'd had a teacher who spoke directly to me, in her own words, and saw mine. She was still my friend at graduation, and I saw her a few years later when I returned to the school for a visit. I do not know where she is now, though I wish I did. When you're young you're flippant about such things. Only after you've grown enough to see a bit do you realize how rare such connections are, after years and years of not seeing and not being seen.


Anonymous said...

This is a beautiful essay. I don't know if you read your comments, but I have two questions:

1) "...it was starting to reach the level where modelling was required, and when the student is looking at the interpreter, not the teacher, modelling doesn't work." I don't understand what you mean by "modelling" in this sentence.

2) How did you learn about the Deaf school you transferred to (and how did you find the courage to go, if that's not too personal)?

JR said...

I don't know if you'll see this response, but:

1) Modelling is the practice whereby teachers are teaching skills by first explaining, then demonstrating, then giving them the opportunity to copy. This process falls apart when an ASL interpreter is present because there is no way for the teacher to verify the exchanged information. All they know is that they have said something to an ASL interpreter, the interpreter has done an on the spot translation, the student responds, and the interpreter answers the question. Is the skill truly taught? Maybe, maybe not - the teacher can't access this information without some sort of communication strategy to directly assess the student. For example, if my chemistry professor in organic chem said something, and my interpreter has never had chemistry, my understanding of the question and my professor's understanding of the answer is affected by the presence of an interpreter. Especially between languages - and especially with on the spot translation.

2) I found out about the Deaf school I went to through a guidance counselor. The counselor told me not to go because ASL makes people retarded. They were wrong.