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Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 – Advanced)
Topic: Foreign Language (12/09/10)

TITLE: From Flopping Fish to Dolphin Swish
By Amy Michelle Wiley


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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This article has been read 1399 times
Member Comments
Member Date
Lizzy Ainsworth12/17/10
This is a great piece based on the history with a bit of imagination
Shann Hall-LochmannVanBennekom 12/17/10
This is so beautiful and so sad at the same time. I fell in lOve with your MC and I think you did an exquisite job!
Noel Mitaxa 12/18/10
Thanks for sharing your insights so descriptively, and for the history lesson as well.
Mona Purvis12/18/10
Great job Amy on a story you have such an insight to appreciate. You made it come to life for me.
Verna Cole Mitchell 12/18/10
You presented so clearly the frustration that the MC felt. I was appalled by the meanness of the teacher. Good job.
Virgil Youngblood 12/18/10
On topic and delightful to read. Well done.
Sarah Elisabeth 12/18/10
Very interesting history. I thought ASL had been the accepted rather than the exception. Great writing as you brought this story to life!
Nancy Bucca12/19/10
Wow! I really hurt for the poor deaf child trying to learn how to read lips. You drew a very vivid word picture. Delightful read!
Yvonne Blake 12/21/10
Great descriptions! It's so sad...but with a happy ending.
Michael Throne12/22/10
Excellent story! Pulled me right in from the first lines. Loved the word play. I was convinced early on that the author lived this story - very authentic and interesting. Well done!
Theresa Santy 12/22/10
Provacative, beautiful, sad, and heartwarming. I loved this.
Catrina Bradley 12/23/10
As I was reading, I was sure this was all fiction. I gasped at your footnote when I learned how much if it was based in truth. I had no idea! Thanks for this wonderfully written, heartbreaking story. And Congrats on your EC!!
Rita Garcia12/23/10
Unique and touching story. I hope the deaf children continue to be taught sign language!
Great story, Amy! CONGRATULATIONS on your editor choice award!!
Shann Hall-LochmannVanBennekom 12/23/10
Yay!!! Congratulations on your great story and your well deserved EC!!!
Barbara Lynn Culler12/23/10
This is an interest-holding story with a good ending. It bothered me that the child was being abused, but realized, hopefully, it must have occured in the past.
Joni LeRette-Flores12/23/10
Excellent. I loved how you used conveyed research through a short story and was so glad for the vindication of your "signing" character in the end.
AnneRene' Capp12/24/10
This broke my heart. What a great job moving the reader and enlightening us to the struggles of what is now...a most beautiful language! Congratulations Amykins on a well deserved EC.
AnneRene' Capp12/24/10
This broke my heart. What a great job moving the reader and enlightening us to the struggles of what is now...a most beautiful language! Congratulations Amykins on a well deserved EC.
Justina Page12/29/10
This is an amazing story. Beautifully done. I had no idea that happened. I was really touched. I have two special need kids who are speech impaired. I can't imagine it.
Lisa Johnson12/31/10
WOW!!! I was drawn into this story from the start. The story was so vivid, I almost felt the slap on the MC's cheeks. Great job!!!