Born severely hard-of-hearing due to a bulid-up of fluid in my ears as a newborn, I underwent a fairly simple surgery at the age of five that mostly corrected my hearing, and a repeat of that surgery at age six. The story my family told me was that I learned to speak largely through learning vowel sound combinations and lip reading consonants, much as Gerald Shea describes in his book, Song Without Words. As a result, I was always curious about sign language–I felt it “would have been my language” if the surgery hadn’t work or if my hearing challenges had another cause.
Then, I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago watching Linda Bove on Sesame Street–so I learned my ASL ABCs almost as soon as I learned them in English. Plus, there was a CODA named M—- in my class in my elementary school, and her older brother was a few years ahead of us. We all signed any little scrap of a word M—- would teach us. Mostly we fingerspelled, but sometimes she taught us words that were funny to all of us, like “cheese.” At winter concerts, her parents sometimes came to teach us a song in ASL. I remember most vividly learning “Let There Be Peace On Earth” in third grade.
By sixth grade, I was an avid learner who’d already done a year of French and a month-long exchange program in France. It had convinced that language learning was my path in life–I intended to become a “philologist” like C.S. Lewis before me. I was also fully addicted to summer soap operas with my Aunts and my Grandma. That was right around the time that Kayla went deaf on Days of Our Lives, but long before the internet. So I went to the library, figuring I could learn “sign language” through books.
I started with Linda Bove’s Sign Language Fun, Cathy Rice’s Sign Language for Everyone, and a little yellow book called Signing Signed English: A Basic Guide. And even though our library had it, I found The Joy of Signing way beyond my capacity as a 6th grade kid–so back to the library it went.
Although I read Cathy Rice’s careful explanation of how ASL grammar was different than English grammar, she also made it sound as if that was a defect in ASL rather than a feature. My best memory is of her explanation for how a Deaf person would say “Me deafy, you deafy?” instead of “I’m deaf. Are you deaf too? So I “corrected” ASL grammar with words from Signed English, inventing a pidgin sign language that would have been completely incomprehensible to my classmate M—-, let alone her parents!
But I had no idea what I was doing. I was 12. I did NOT understand conceptual signing. I did NOT understand ASL as a visual language. I got frustrated so easily because there often were “no signs” for words I wanted.
I also didn’t have a teacher OR a systematic way to learn the language, so I decided to approach it the same way my French teachers had approached our “crash course” year with us before going to France:
- Learning basic introductory conversations and manners
- Learning objects and common phrases for my daily life
- Learning a series of songs, stories, and poems
- Studying the culture
Studying the culture? That’s how I came to be reading Deaf Like Me on the bus to day camp.
Learning songs? That’s why I spent the interminable minutes with my parents at the car dealership “translating” the pop songs on the speakers into my strange pidgin-sign language. The man who sold my parents the car asked my parents if I was Deaf. “No,” they said. “She just does that” [they found it kind of weird and annoying].
His daughters were both Deaf, he explained. He and his wife had been looking for a babysitter. Did my parents think I would be interested?
As a bonus, he and his wife offered to pay for me to attend a sign language class with them.
Their sign language class required the purchase of a textbook called Signing Exact English by Gerilee Gustason. And so my work with SEE-II began. I studied in the class and then I babysat Brandi and Samantha on weekends. I did this for about a year. In the process, I learned it was *not ASL* and *not trying to be* and that I had to keep the two systems separate in my mind. I kept up with SEE-II on and off over the years, but only ever met one other deaf person who used it. He expressed a lot of regret that he hadn’t been taught ASL because he felt SEE-II shut him away from his peers and the Deaf community.
In high school, I saw dozens of Dramatic Duets that used a famous scene from Children of a Lesser God, and I became a huge Marlee Matlin fan. But none of the actors ever knew any sign beyond what they needed for their scene.
When my son was diagnosed with a significant speech disorder/delay (we didn’t know which at the time), and sign language was going to be helpful, I went straight to ASL–but it was an honest relief when we discovered we were dealing with a delay that would likely be remedied by speech therapy over time. Not because I didn’t want to continue to learn ASL, but because the learning was overwhelming with two toddlers and a full time job teaching high school!
But I never stopped WANTING to learn ASL.
Then, right as “early quar” began, I came upon an article about brain science, focused on preventing or delaying dementia as long as possible. It said there are two highly effective ways to expand our brain’s plasticity and promote cross-network connections. One way? Learning a new language.
I started following Deaf folks, interpreters, and outspoken CODAs on TikTok and Instagram. By August, I started to understand that “hearies” like me learning ASL is a useful way to promote access for all people. As a teacher who bases my classroom practice as much as possible on Universal Design, that made good sense to me.
SOLD. In September, it was finally my time to learn ASL.