The woman’s mouth flopped, open and closed, open and closed, just like a fish. The sour smell of her breath puffed out each time it opened and I turned away.
She was upon me in a flash, grabbing my face and turning it roughly back to face her, the mouth contorting even faster. She pressed my hand upon her flabby neck. It was damp from sweat and vibrated with an odd rumble. I tried not to shudder.
I watched for patterns between the mouth movements and the vibrations. I knew they were there, had even learned a few of them. “The dog…” something “…the ball.”
Or maybe it was a hog that was doing something to a man.
She was getting frustrated with me. I could tell by the way she held her body, the way her eyes intensified. These things I did know how to read.
A man, another of the teachers, walked into the room. The two conversed easily, their lips flapping in turns.
I turned to a classmate, raising my hands to sign, “You think we’ll ever be able to talk that easily? It—”
A sharp slap fell across my face. I grabbed my stinging cheek and turned to the teacher. Her face was red and words I saw everyday formed on her lips.
“You want to look retarded all your life? Flopping your hands around like a dead fish?”
I didn’t think fish did much flopping once they were dead. Maybe she meant a fish out of water. Of course, what did I know? She was the hearing one, the one who knew everything. Especially everything about sea life. Her father had been a fisherman.
I let my hands drop. All the children around me were focused on making their vocal cords vibrate, moving their lips just right. Except me, sitting over here waving my hands like an idiot. Maybe I was one. I’d communicated just fine with my hearing sister and my friend, but here at the institution they explained those gestures were useless. We must focus on being like hearing people. Blending in.
But something inside me refused to just drop my signs. Thoughts welled up in me and came out through my hands, refusing to use the world’s standard path through a throat; the words stuck around a tongue that did not know how to shape itself.
So I was stupid. Just a stupid child who would never learn a real language.
Time passed and I watched these hearing teachers around me. They were smart and tried so hard to help me understand. Help me to fit into the mold the world demanded of me. Yet despite the welts on my hands, across my face, even on the tip of my tongue, my hands would not be stopped. I learned to sign only in secret, learned better how to keep from being caught as the emotions of my heart spilled out in gestures. But I did not learn to speak. Could not, no matter how hard I tried, make enough sense of the flapping lips, gaping mouth, and vibrating throat.
I felt like that fish out of water, flopping frantically, but knowing it was just progression to a slow death.
Then one day a book arrived at the institution. Of all the books at this school, this one was different. I didn’t understand the letters that marched in complicated combinations across the cover, but one thing I did understand. It was a dictionary…of my gestures. The author—a linguist, they called him—had studied signs. He’d declared it a language. A real one. Just like English.
My fish flops were words.
And maybe, maybe I wasn’t an idiot.
Our school was proud of being progressive. At the end of the year they held an event to show off our skills to our parents. Some children spoke into the microphone, uttering sounds, some recognizable as proof they’d learned some English.
I was chosen to showcase our newly legitimized language. This one that flowed out of me so naturally, expressing exactly what I thought, my hands dancing through the air so effortlessly.
When I’d finished my presentation, my teacher cupped her hands around my cheeks, gently this time. “That was beautiful. You sign with a soul’s thin face.”
On reflection, perhaps it’s more likely she said I signed “with a dolphin’s grace.” Either way, I swelled with pride and kissed her, right on her flabby cheek.
The history behind the story:
After 1880, signing was forbidden in most schools for the deaf, and the children were punished if they were caught using it. Then in the mid 1900s a linguist named William Stokoe studied American Sign Language and in 1960 published a dictionary, announcing ASL fit all the qualifications of a real language with a full and unique grammar system. Since then, ASL has slowly become more accepted and recognized. Research has shown it to be the most effective language for deaf people, and gives them an understanding of language to build upon to then learn written English easier. However, even now in 2010, many doctors and teachers discourage parents from using sign language with their deaf children, which often leaves the child with no language at all because they are unable to successfully access spoken language.
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