Saturday, June 16, 2012

29: conversations on education, over a year

A co-teacher and I walked down a quiet school hallway.

"You need to share your methods with other teachers," she urged. "They're effective. Students are improving."

They were. In the past several weeks I'd seen many positive developments in my so-called "special education" students. These kids were linguistically delayed–an amenable disability, often created by society, when a Deaf child remains extremely unsophisticated in their language use. This disability is caused by many things, but primarily by a lack of two-way communication in the home. Deaf children are talked to or told to do things, but rarely taught to themselves communicate. The literature blames this on lack of speech, but it's more correctly lack of language; ASL, or other signed languages, are equally effective at preventing language delay. I believe this disability can be repaired with an appropriately structured teaching curriculum. It's a question of teaching them to fish and giving them a rod, instead of teaching them to come to you to get a fish. Most people just give them fish because it's faster. But it isn't permanent.

I was frustrated for reasons I couldn't quite name. "I don't know," I said. "There's just so much-" a thought flashed by, and I grabbed it. "It's about support," I babbled. "Some of those teachers don't even believe these kids can succeed–"

"But we have evidence," my friend complained. "They saw the results."

I sighed. My frustration didn't vanish, but it sort of greyed out a bit. "Listen," I said. "A couple days ago I was on a bus and just had a conversation with a strange woman. We talked about a few news items and things. It was pleasant and we understood each other well. Then I took off my hat and she saw my hearing aids and asked if I was deaf. When I confirmed it was as if a switch turned off–she could no longer understand me, no matter what I said or how loudly I spoke–"

"It's okay, I got you," my friend signed, holding up a hand to stop me from continuing. Her face had gone slightly grey. But it's true. Sometimes, who you are and what you do doesn't matter. Sometimes, it's the label that gets in the way.

I think this is unfortunately true for Deaf people in public education. You can have as many degrees as you like. You can learn to speak their language perfectly, even imitating accents. It doesn't matter because what really needs to change is not the Deaf person but the other person's perception of the Deaf person. This perception–maybe conviction is a better word–can sometimes supersede even the evidence of their own eyes, like the Moon eclipsing the Sun. Their perception of the Deaf student and colleague is eclipsed by the perspective of the Deaf student and colleague. You can wash this off, like dirt from a window, but it comes back, inexorable as waves.

I remember two people, one hearing, one Deaf, conversing by notepad, and then the Deaf person's expression of surprise as the hearing person–and this was after a conversation writing about weather and politics and books, mind you–asked the Deaf person if they could read and write.

The Deaf person finally wrote, No. And put the notebook away and left.

Now you could say maybe the Deaf person should have stayed, laughed at the situation, played the clown as we are wont to do. Maybe they should have just waved the papers and conversation in the hearing person's face and asked "What do you think?" Maybe they should have spoken–people sometimes assume you need to speak to be able to think or read or write. I found the actual response more elegant. Smile, write No, and leave. When I spoke with a Deaf writer, once, who I won't name without permission, I asked them if they thought it was possible for hearing people to experience Deafhood. I mean, it did seem to me in many ways to be a range, like sexuality. The writer said something very telling. Whether they did or not, he said, that experience would always be superseded by the hearing person's privilege in society. The private law of society (privilege, I believe, comes from private law) eclipses and distorts the dynamics of reality and experience. In the example I gave, the Deaf person made their own law, embraced the paradox of their own existence in larger society: for, I ask you, if you couldn't write, how could you write No? Or read and respond to the question in the first place?

Sometimes we get exhausted of making peace. Sometimes even embracing the paradox is hard. Sometimes we get tired of always waiting for hearing people to catch up. (And imagine–always, while they're puffing and screaming behind, they're reminding us how slow we are. And don't forget to laugh.)

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