Watching the minute hand on the clock creep by, I hid my surprise that there were still 40 minutes left. Concentrate on her hands, I told myself, but they moved like a magician’s, nimble and too quick. The woman’s few words did not make sense. I banged on the table. She did not hear me. I banged harder and louder. Finally, she stopped and turned around.
Seated in our Oregon City charter school’s American Sign Language class along with my 9-year-old and 12-year-old daughters, my plan was to learn ASL right along with them. If my daughters needed help, I would be there. As the only mom in class, I’d learn, too. How hard could it be?
The deaf teacher asked if I had a question. “Miss Patty, I just got lost … again,” I sighed. She explained her answer in words and with deft hands showed us the signs as well. Class continued.
Our tiny class had a variety of students in different grades. I wondered if any of the other students were lost. I studied their faces trying to find the same confusion that must have showed on mine. Did they understand this? As an adult, this class was tougher than I had imagined. So I elected myself to be the class nerd and struggled with overcoming my embarrassment to ask questions. I rationalized that my many queries helped the other students.
Not only did we learn signs in class, but we also learned about deaf culture. Born deaf, Miss Patty spent her early years in numerous speech classes to refine her pronunciation. At the age of 50 she had cochlear implant surgery. Sounds she had only dreamed of became real. Every once in a while, within her own personal stories, I heard traces of sadness and pain from her past, and then they evaporated.
Using games and the strict no-talking rule, Miss Patty showed us a glimpse of how someone who was deaf would feel in the hearing world. During a tea party we dipped our tea bags and played with honey, sugar, lemon and cream. Our goal was to communicate what variety of tea we liked and how we preferred it. As the semester came to an end, the class became closer, and we just wanted to use our voices. Regardless of the rule, complaining and whining abounded. We squirmed in our seats because we needed an easier way. Everything took twice as long as it should have. My frustration level always seemed high and my competency rather low.
I wasn’t too proud to cheat. When Miss Patty’s back was to us, sometimes we mouthed the answers to each other. We knew if we were quiet enough, Miss Patty would not hear us. Giggling would give us away.
Not all of American Sign Language was difficult. Some signs were easy to learn. Around the dinner table my girls and I talked about the fun games we played in class. We taught Dad and my other kids how to sign the song “Happy Birthday.” Various math games cemented the signs for numbers in my head. Other kinds of games were hilarious, too. I now know how to sign, “I suspect the butler killed Mrs. Green with a lead pipe.”
Often it was the younger children who got tired of constantly watching the teacher. Miss Patty would pound on the table or wave her arms at a daydreaming child to get her attention. In a soft voice, she reminded the child to watch her. In “normal” classes, students have the option of looking away to think and still hear the teacher talk. In ASL class, that strategy did not work.
As with any class, I took home the lessons I learned. Over the months, I started to become sensitive to my own children’s frustration with learning a new skill. As a parent of five, I often defined resistance to homework as a poor attitude. The rolled eyes, slamming of books or eyes laden with tears exhausted my patience. I assumed it was a behavior issue. I am not so fast to judge now.
Until this ASL class, I forgot how it feels to learn — let alone master — a new subject. My kids sometimes don’t have the maturity to say, “I just don’t understand this science question.” Slumped shoulders and downcast eyes are the way they communicate their frustration. “Can you help me?” would be so much easier for my children to say if I put myself in their shoes.
In deaf culture, pounding on the table in class is not seen as impolite or impatient. Rather, it is a way to capture the teacher’s attention and let her know you have a question. I suppose at times my children want to bang their hands or heads on the desk when they get frustrated with school work. Now I listen for the pounding.
by Jan Udlock
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- Encouraging Your Child’s Strengths | September 1, 2011