Green Light: Fearless Leader

This is the third post of my autobiographical series on my experiences with hearing loss. You can view the first (here) and second (here) ones as well. Posts appear every other Friday. 

II. Fearless Leader

When you’re a little kid, so many things can mean the world to you. You may be unable to explain why, but it can something, one thing, that you’ll want—nay, demand—more than anything else you’ll ever be able to get. It might not make sense. But you’ll want it anyways.

For me, at age 6, it was a badge that said “Fearless Leader.”

I thought my kindergarten teacher was the most beautiful and kindest person I’ve ever met. I didn’t speak. I didn’t hear. She understood me somehow. I knew this because she would calm me down when I would enclose myself in the corner of the classroom, lost in thoughts and tears streaming down my face, pretending to play with the toys in front of me or mindlessly flipping through the pages of a book. Nothing made sense in that classroom. She spoke, but I heard no words. I saw in her eyes what she was trying to say, her patience, and her struggle to make this little girl understand and feel belonged. There was no belonging in a classroom full of children who taunted and laughed, pointing fingers, and ignoring pleas to play.

I made up my own stories in my head, games to play with. Recess was me running after children who had no desire to engage in my game. Or sitting on the swings. Staring at the sky. Years later, I had a conversation with a friend about what it was like to grow up deaf in a hearing classroom. She told me the children were mean, bullying her for being a “freak,” for not speaking or listening, and especially for the days she sobbed uncontrollably in folded arms on her desk. “What about the teacher,” I asked, “didn’t she stop them? Didn’t she help you?”

“The teacher,” my friend replied, “was the worst of them. She had no patience for me, would scream and yell at me as if in the loudness, I would suddenly understand her. Of course, I never did. How could I? I’m sure she hated me, though I never knew why.”

My teacher was not like that. Her blue eyes, earnest, soft with sympathy, connected with mine. She stroked my hair one day, telling me how much she liked my braid. I turned away from her. The kids were still mean and I was still left out. Nothing she ever could do would make me feel like I had a place in the classroom, or that school was a place for me. My mind’s reality and the reality I lived in never matched up to me, so how could it for her?

Then she did the most astounding thing of all.

Every week a child was chosen to be the leader of the classroom. The child would lead storytime, choose what games to play, receive first dibs. You had to be smart, popular, and creative to be chosen the leader. And once you were chosen, you were bestowed a button that said “Fearless Leader,” and all the other children in the classroom were your friends, respected you, wanted to talk to you, and play with you.

I wanted to be the leader so badly. My heart soared and sunk week after week as I was cast aside and another child gasped and giggled, running to the front of the classroom to be pinned with this precious jewel. Some got to go up more than once. Each time I had to hold back tears. This was never going to be mine, no one could understand me, so I could never say how much I wanted to have this.

But she did. She knew I wanted it. She knew I had to have it. And perhaps most importantly, she knew it would make me feel the sense of belonging I always wanted to feel; that I was not alone, that I was not a “freak” or undeserving of friendship.

I raised my head one day when I felt her tapping on my shoulder. She smiled so warmly at me and I was momentarily distracted by her beauty that I didn’t realize she held in her hands the badge for me. That feeling stays with you. The kindness that breaks the dividing line between your mind’s reality and the reality of the world.

She gave me the badge on Picture Day, a permanent reminder that I was not alone.

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The Deaf & Dumb in Manchester

Back in May, I stopped by Manchester, UK, for two days, to see some friends before heading to Cambridge and London. Many scholars of history of science were in the city for the 24th International Congress of History, Science, Technology, and Medicine, including some of my friends, who were presenting papers at the Congress. After dinner, we decided to head to The Deaf Institute for some drinks. Blame it on jetlag, but it didn’t occur to me until we were actually standing in front of the bar, the historical significance of the building. It was formerly the Manchester Adult Deaf and Dumb Institute, founded in 1877. Located on Grosvenor Street, and designed by John Lowe, the elegant gothic building was built at a cost of about £6000, opening its doors on June 8th, 1878.

The Deaf Institute, Manchester, with 19th century signage still visible. Photo by Jai Virdi
The Deaf Institute, Manchester, with 19th century signage still visible. Photo by Jai Virdi

Just the previous month, I was doing some research at the Wellcome Library and came across a diary of James Patterson (b.1832), who was a teacher at the Manchester Institute for the Deaf and Dumb (est. 1824). James was the nephew of Andrew Patterson, who spent nearly 50 years teaching deaf students. Beginning his career as a schoolmaster in Devonshire, Andrew Patterson later worked as assistant master at the Manchester Institute, at the urging of his friend, H.B. Bingham, then the headmaster. Patterson left after five years of service to establish the Newcastle Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Schools. In 1832, Patterson returned to Manchester to take up the headmaster position upon Bingham’s retirement; he held the post until 1883.

James’ diary is particularly revealing in regards to the day-to-day life of teachers. He writes of his daily excursions, his interests in painting, his experiences in London over Christmas break—and, most notably, how important it was for the children to learn the “School of Art.” Some days, James encouraged the children to draw for 2 hours daily in conjunction to their lessons in arithmetic and letters. He also made note of his own talents (and struggles) in drawing.

Page from James Patterson's diary, Christmas 1858 detailing his travels in London.
Page from James Patterson’s diary, Christmas 1858 detailing his travels in London.

Some of the passages also tell us about how hearing teachers and perceived sign language as a method of instruction. In extraordinary passage, dated November 8, 1858, James writes:

I have been very much annoyed with Cordingley this morning, he was signing to the girls & I told him not to do so & he had the impudence to tell me that I did the same.

In another, dated May 14, 1858, James outlines a conversation he had with Mr. Goodwin, another teacher employed at the Institute:

After supper Mr Goodwin  and I had a long chat about different subjects. He gave me an Account of how he became deaf and dumb it was brought on by fever one evening he thought his ears were burning and he begun to scream and all of a sudden his earring (sic) and speech were gone; he was only 4 years old then he said that before he came here to School he thought the Moon was God & he used to kneel down & worship it & when his parents saw him they were angry with him & would make him get up. when he saw the moon he always behaved himself well, but when he could not see it he used to make all sort of fun & make people laugh who saw him that was one of our chief things what we talked about.

Atomic Age Artifacts

A group of history students at the University of Ottawa prepared a Prezi based on their research in the collections at the Canada Science and Technology Museum, under the supervision of David Pantalony.

This is an excellent way to integrate artifacts into the study of history, encouraging group work and fun at the same time!

Visit the flickr group for more Atomic postings.