This piece was originally published in Voices of Youth Advocates, in their “Notes of the Teen Underground” Series in April 2015. I was 18 at the time of its publication. I still stand by the intentions and main kernals in these early essays. However, I was new in my development of my opinions and the language needed to properly express them. These pieces can be clumsy, and contain missteps.
My language, eloquence, and beliefs are continually refined, and hopefully my writing mirrors that improvement now.
For this essay specifically, there are several ways I’d change this piece if I were to write anything like it now, and there are many ways I feel like I haven’t learned enough to revisit any of these ideas. This article makes me feel for several reasons that I’ve left things unfinished in developing this relationship with the culture I was learning about, and with the learning itself. I hope to have the mental and physical means to invest in deepening my knowledge and interaction.
This iteration is lightly edited for typos and clarity only. Enjoy.
I think I’ve always had a little knowledge that sign language existed, but it wasn’t really on my radar growing up. I’m not deaf or hard of hearing. My dad had his hearing damaged, but it never seemed to be really noticeable or problematic. None of my relatives or friends were deaf and no one knew any kind of sign language beyond the ever influential middle finger.
When I was about eleven, I was volunteering at a local library putting stickers on new young adult books, and I found one that looked interesting. I remembered it and later I read it. It was called My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger. It said on the jacket that it was about love, Mary Poppins, and Fenway Park. This book is still, six years later, one of my all time favorite books.
It was about two best friends, T.C. and Augie, and a girl, Alejandra. And then T.C. met a six year old boy. His name was Hucky, he was deaf, and orphaned. Learning sign language became a priority for T.C. as he learned more about the stubborn and sad boy who was obsessed with Mary Poppins. Along the way T.C. and Alejandra fall in love, Augie falls in love with a boy named Andy, and a little magic happens.
This book proved to me that a happy book can be just as powerful, meaningful, and beautiful as one that uses pain to find its epiphanies. My Most Excellent Year opened my eyes, and what I saw was the world I want to live in.
It’s a place with sadness, true, but it’s also a place with delight, friendship, brotherhood, love, and happiness. It’s a place where you can be yourself and have people around who love you. That’s the world I strive for when I write, fiction or opinion.
Later on, my Sophomore year of high school, I took American Sign Language (ASL) for the year, primarily because of the influence of My Most Excellent Year. I learned a bit, mostly that I wanted to know more, and I was more successful at learning ASL than the other languages I had previously attempted. My high school class never managed to keep quiet and it was hard to learn to actually hold conversations because of that.
So the next year, my junior year in high school and my first year in college, when I signed up for ASL 1 I didn’t expect to know anything. My college level ASL class was taught by a deaf professor, and a few times the class had a substitute, who was another deaf professor. This made the classroom environment much more conducive to learning ASL. I was pleasantly surprised to realize that I remembered some of the signs, and the rest were pretty easy. Except, it was hard too. It’s a language, it’s complex and varied and has its own rules, dialects, and conventions. And it’s attached to a culture that’s complex and varied with its own rules, conventions, and nuances.
It’s fascinating to learn about, it’s amazing to be a part of even in a peripheral way. But it’s scary to talk to other people in ASL. You’re afraid to say the wrong thing, to forget a sign, to mix up signs, or not be able to understand any signs. ASL looks good on resumes too, but what if you’re expected to know it well and then you freeze and remember nothing when you need it?
I am taking ASL 2 now, from the same professor. It’s once again one of my easiest classes and hardest classes – at the same time. I think I understand the language more than I did before, but the same fears plague me. I hope to take ASL 3 soon if I do well enough in ASL 2. Someday I hope I can sign fluently enough to ease some of the fear of letting myself, and those I want to communicate with, down.
When you begin learning ASL you feel very isolated, and quite often confused. You don’t know enough sign to talk with your classmates, you can’t speak out loud because it’s a deaf-friendly environment and a classroom environment, and you can’t always understand the professor without the help of the teachers’ aid or an interpreter. It feels similar to what I imagine it feels like to be deaf amongst a group of hearing people. But slowly, very slowly, it begins to become clearer.
As you learn and understand more and more, there’s a moment you cherish. When you are watching a conversation in ASL, and you finally understand. Some of the signs are unfamiliar, some of it doesn’t exactly seem to be signs, and some is just too fast. But you understand. The story unfolds in front of you.
ASL is an entirely visual language, and sometimes, especially when I’m watching someone tell a story, or sign to a song, it’s as if the air around the signer becomes animated with the concepts of the signs, gestures, and finger spelling. It’s amazing.
This language and culture isn’t something I can claim, but I am a better person for knowing even the small amount about it that I do. I would wish this understanding and opportunity on everyone who wanted it, in the world I write for.