Chapter 2: Welcome to Our Planet, Part III

PIP at Kendall School The Kendall School’s Parent-Infant program is housed at Gallaudet University, in Northeast DC, a relatively easy drive from our house. As we passed through the entry gates the first time, I tried to imagine the world suddenly going silent. We had entered a very different place from any we’d been in before. We drove up to the guardhouse, and I felt a flutter of panic– wondering if the guard would speak or if we would somehow have to convey the purpose of our visit through gestures. Was everyone who worked on the campus Deaf? Would people automatically find us unpalatable simply because we were non-signing, hearing visitors?

But I’m pretty sure the guard at the gatehouse, though quiet, could hear us fine. And when we said we had a meeting at the Kendall school, he waved us through, pointing us in the right direction. We drove past old, red brick buildings, and playing fields to the right. We saw students walking along the road, signing with one another. Then we found Kendall elementary school, located on the campus just across from the football field – a large building with lots of windows at ground level and a playground off to the side. Jason and I walked in, and found Debbie Kushner, the director of the program, in her office. She was small and kind, and her earnest face and gigantic smile put me immediately at ease. She was hearing. Debbie told us she had a daughter named Gracie, too. She told us a little bit about the PIP program. Then we went out into the classroom, if you can call it that, to officially start our meeting.

As soon as we entered the big, sunny room and sat down on the couch below the window, I immediately felt a sense of warmth, compassion, and support. Another PIP teacher joined us, a Deaf woman named Brenda. She was sweet, patient and affectionate. We had already completed an application form, and had brought, as well, Grace’s audiogram, and other diagnostic paperwork, to “prove” that she was deaf. The application asked us about our concerns, what we hoped to get out of the program, and what we perceived as Grace’s strengths. I had written that it seemed as if Grace had surveyed her world and given it her stamp of approval.

Within a week, we were registered in the program. I was able to take family medical leave from work so that I could bring Grace twice a week. There was always an interpreter at PIP, sometimes two. We met parent and kids, in that sunny room with lots of windows, great toys, and many comfortable places to sit. Babies of all ages came, from infants to toddlers, and at times, their older siblings as well. A fantastic ASL specialist would come in sometimes, drifting through the class. At any given time, any number of professionals from Gallaudet would come into the room and engage with parents and babies. The Kendall School (the elementary school where the PIP program is housed) is a demonstration school, and it often felt like a family-oriented open learning environment, where language specialists, teachers, audiologists, reading experts, and other faculty and staff were drawn to come see early learning happening.

There were about a dozen families who attended the program. Most of the parents in the PIP program were deaf or hard of hearing, but there were a fair number of hearing parents as well. One hearing family had a son only a few months younger than Grace, and they joined the program around the same time we did. I spent a lot of time speaking with W’s mother, S. Her son, who was also their first child, was lovely, with large brown eyes, long eyelashes, and a profound hearing loss, like Grace. S told me that during the first trimester of her pregnancy, her husband experienced an unexplained sudden onset of total hearing loss in one ear, out of the blue. Later, after W was born, S said that the smoke alarm went off at their house, but W didn’t wake up or even stir. She called the hospital where she had delivered him, and asked what the results of his hearing screening had been. “Oh,” they told her, looking through his file, “We didn’t do it.”

I quickly came to depend immensely on the PIP program at Gallaudet, and reminded myself constantly how fortunate we were to have such a unique and supportive program available to us. But I still always felt a bit nervous going into that building. I wanted so badly to not be sad for us, for Grace – and maybe subconsciously I feared that those Deaf adults there would sense that I was. Maybe it was just nerves, because I wanted so much to sign better than I was able to. I have always been conscious of the link between who I am and how I use language to convey that self. So when, upon walking in the door, I had to pay really close attention just to understand the person who signed to me, simply: “Cute baby!” you can imagine my frustration with my own faltering and elementary – at best – ASL skills.

We had open playtime at PIP. We learned Infant Massage techniques from an expert on staff. We had parent-education sessions – about Literacy in the Deaf community, and Deaf education. We had music time (I know, I know, but we did, and lots of kids love it. Many of the kids in the class were hard of hearing, rather than deaf, and even Grace loved to put her hands on the smooth surfaces of the drum and feel it quiver when it was pounded). We celebrated birthdays with cake, and I learned to sign the Happy Birthday song. We took the kids out to the playground, compared notes as we watched kids hit their milestones in various orders. I found myself noticing which parents opted to give their kids hearing aids (the hearing parents) and which parents didn’t (most of the deaf ones). And I wondered if the Deaf adults and parents who came to the class frowned internally at the idea that we were bothering with hearing aids at all.

Learning to Sign

I love sign language. It is beautiful and intuitive and expressive. As part of the Kendall School program, we were able to enroll in free ASL classes, offered every Saturday morning. There was childcare available while class was going on. It was here, as well as through the real-world immersion in PIP sessions with other deaf adults, that we, Grace and I, began to learn to sign. Sometimes, I brought Grace with me to ASL class and dropped her off with Brenda, warm and beloved, and the other childcare providers. Other days Grace stayed home with Jason. There were about ten other people in the class, though only about half of them came regularly. Our teacher was a beautiful, deaf Swedish woman, who, when I started class, was a little bit pregnant, and when I attended my last class, was about to give birth. She was fluent in ASL, Swedish sign language, spoken English, and spoken Swedish. She smiled a lot, and had a deep, throaty laugh. She used overheads – as well as the chalkboard - to visually list out words, and then taught us the signs for each of these words.

Then, twice a week, I’d do my best to apply what I’d learned in my little real-world test-lab that was the PIP classroom. In the beginning, I had to rely heavily on the interpreter. But as the months passed, I forced myself to try hard to converse on my own, without the interpreter. To turn off my ears, when anyone was interpreting, and just “listen” by watching. I am a quick study at languages. Some days, I felt like I was moving forward fast. Then, inevitably, I’d become overconfident and realize my limitations when I was mid-sentence in a conversation I wasn’t really capable of carrying to its desired conclusion. It was up-and-down. Still, in a few short months, though I could by no means have a particularly sophisticated dialogue, or keep up with the conversations flying fingers-and-hands around me, I had more than enough to get going with Grace.

The earliest signs I clearly remember Grace responding to were animals: Monkey and Elephant and Dog. One night when Grace was about six months old, we were lounging in our den on the third floor. Grace and I sat on the futon bed we used as a couch. I signed, “Where’s the Frog?” to her. Her eyes were glued to my face, penetrating, eager, avid. She looked around and pointed to the book lying open on the futon, a picture of a frog on the page. I nearly yelped I was so excited.

Everything I learned, I tried to incorporate into my signing life with Grace. I worked hard to so that I could begin to feel we were communicating. I was desperate to give her language. I was ravenous to know more so that Grace could have names – for things, movement, colors, me. She was so clearly intelligent and motivated to engage, to interact, to communicate.

In the Deaf community, people give each other sign names. Grace’s sign name was complicated: It was a finger-spelled ‘G’ that started at the corner of the mouth, moved up along the cheek like a smile, and then ended in a little curl in the middle of the forehead. It was meant to encompass her name, her grin, and her remarkable curls. Her signed “nickname” was just a finger-spelled G and a curl.

Milk. Bottle. Diaper. Change.

Mama. Daddy. (Early on, she would sign “daddy” for both Jason and for me). When I heard Jason coming in the door, I’d sign “Daddy Home” and Grace’s round face would light up and she’d kick her legs. For simplicity’s sake Pilot was simply signed “dog.” I signed bird, cat, sleep, cow, pig, mouse.

Mine. Yours. Bath. Water.

Later: happy, sad, school, hurt. Girl, boy. Ana's sign name, the same as the word for butterfly.

Blue, red, green, yellow. Black and white. All I learned I signed with her. Kept it simple but gave her everything I could. As I improved I would sign to her in sentences. “I go work now.” “Sit down in bath!” (with eyebrows knitted together in concerned parental seriousness). “Look! Airplane!” (With exaggerated wonder in my eyes). “See? Rain outside.” “Ana here.” Apple. Canteloupe (well, I had to sign Orange Fruit because I didn’t know the sign for ‘canteloupe’). Run. Dance. Kiss.

If I needed a word right away, I went to my favorite signing website at Michigan State University’s Communication Technology Lab. Their ASL Browser is like a video encyclopedia, with little Quicktime snippets of someone signing pretty much any word you can think to click on.

When my signed sentences got longer, Jason said, “She can’t understand all of that” and told me not to confuse her by giving her too much. He thought it made sense to only sign the key words she really needed. But the way I saw it, we’d have been speaking to Grace in full sentences if she had been hearing, even when she was a tiny baby. She’d have pulled out whatever she was ready to use and subconsciously absorbed the rest--the syntax, the overall--to put into her brain for later use. Why should I sign differently than I would speak (aside from the obvious difference that I was completely incapable of signing even nearly as well as I could speak)?

The Deaf Community is a strong, solid entity. Individuals in the signing deaf world have support, success, and power in numbers. We were welcomed into this world with smiling faces and open hands. People were patient with me, inquisitive and genuine and caring. It was a good place. A happy place.

But it was a place outside of the realm where I’d lived my whole life. I continued to struggle with suddenly, unexpectedly being tossed here. I was aware constantly of how successful these deaf adults could be, and yet how isolated from the hearing world. I took tentative steps toward the community, conscious always that it could adopt us, that we could adopt it, but that it was a world apart. While still muddling through my sadness, I was also groping desperately to understand all the other, less physical aspects of what Deafness meant. I made efforts to learn about the Deaf community, about Deaf culture, about Deaf pride, by reading, to some extent, but mostly by immersing myself in the world at Gallaudet University. I was going through serious culture-shock, trying to learn the medical terms, the educational options, a brand-new language I felt compelled, by lack of any other choice, to master as quickly as I could, and to understand the world I was beginning to think we were all going to have to inhabit if we wanted to give Grace access to a full and happy life. I saw beauty there, from the very beginning, but I was filled with conflicting feelings. There was a family in the Deaf Community, and it was a family that would willingly embrace Grace; embrace us all.

But it was not my family, it was not my world, and I was struggling with the knowledge that we’d have to exchange one for the other. I read several accounts in books from hearing parents who explained it this way: They felt the Deaf Community offering itself openly to newly identified deaf children (as well as to their families). The sentiment these hearing parents perceived coming from the Deaf community was something like “Your child will be happy here. Just give her to us.”

And, as all of this was sinking in, there was something else I was learning about: Cochlear Implants. What they are. How they work. Their often miraculous outcomes. And the Deaf community’s multifaceted and often deeply held resistance to the surgical procedure necessary to make use of them, and to the technology itself.