Not a word was Spoken
Around 1990, the Amherst School for the Deaf started a pilot program which saw its high school students integrated into their regular, home high school. I was teaching at Kennebecasis Valley High at the time and had the good fortune of having Sarah in my homeroom and period 1 class (Computer Studies). Her interpreter’s name was Angela and she had a desk immediately beside mine. Sarah sat at the front of the room with an unobstructed view of Angela and me. Angela’s job was to interpret everything for Sarah: morning announcements; student questions; my instructions; and, of course, to translate Sarah’s signing for me. I saw this as the opportunity to become the student.
Sarah was punctual and, each morning, was seated at her desk before homeroom began. During this time, and for the first several weeks of the semester, I had her teach me the alphabet in American Sign Language. She taught me a letter a day. Once I had the alphabet somewhat mastered I could spell the words I wanted her to teach me. After a few weeks I could sign, “Please teach me the word for” and I would proceed to spell the word I wanted to learn. She and Angela looked forward to this part of the day. I was learning so much and my workday, technically, hadn’t even started.
As my proficiency in ASL increased I would actually practice, while seated at my desk, what it was I was going to communicate to Sarah. Because I wasn’t making eye contact with her I assumed she knew that I was just practicing. While I would still ask her to teach me me specific words, sometimes I would ask her questions such as, “What did you do on the weekend?” or “What is your favourite movie?”.
I think the question I intended to ask was something like, “When were you last in the city?” As I practiced, I know I was confusing a few signs; but hey, if you don’t make mistakes you are not practicing hard enough.
If you ever watch a person signing, you notice that much of the communication is actually done through body language such as facial expressions and shoulder and arm movements. While the actual signing is most of the communication, it is not all of the communication.
Just as I finished my practice I happened to look up at Sarah. The expression on my face was one of uncertainty; ie, I wasn’t sure I was using the correct signs. She interpreted my look as a question. Angela started laughing rather loudly.
I quickly looked at her. “What’s so funny?”
“You just asked Sarah if she has had sex.”
“WHAT, are you serious?”
I looked back at Sarah. What I saw was a prime example of what one imagines when you hear the term mouth agape, and I immediately followed with the same expression. I quickly started waving my hands from side to side, mouthing “No, no, sorry, no.”
That was twenty-six years ago. I wonder if she is still telling this story?
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