Feb 19, 2008

culture and innocence

When I was 10, I bought an ASL dictionary, signed up for ASL I at the Finger Lakes Independence Center in Ithaca, NY, and totally fell in love with signing. I hung out with a bunch of Deaf 45-year-olds at FLIC and I volunteered at a Deaf school, teaching 4 and 5 year olds simple math. I signed my thoughts by accident on the school bus; I signed "Happy Birthday" to my father instead of singing; basically, I drove my family crazy.

This is somewhat remarkable. First of all, most 10-year-olds don't hang out with 45-year-olds. 10-year-olds are generally considered irritating. They ask a lot of questions and they are a bit grubby behind the ears. Most Deaf schools are not inclined to let 10-year-olds become volunteer teachers, either. And perhaps most strangely, I expect that most adult education ASL programs are disinclined to admit little kids.

But somehow, for reasons that I've never been able to explain, I was a part of the Deaf community in Ithaca back then. I had no obvious reason for wanting to be there (I knew zero Deaf people beforehand), and I had no practical goal in mind (still wanted to be a physicist), but it didn't seem to matter. I was a child, and nobody suspected any impurity in my motivation. I just liked it, that was all.

When, 2 years later, I finished all the ASL classes that FLIC had, I found there was no place else in town (except Cornell, which cost a lot) that I could study. I tried to find some kids my age who signed, but failed to make any contacts. The woman who'd been working with me at the Deaf school moved away. There was nobody to talk to, so I stopped signing. For 10 years.

Now, finally, I'm signing again. My reasons this time around are very similar. I love ASL - and I've missed it - and my face practically falls off from grinning so much every time I go to Deaf events around here. My interests haven't changed much since I was 10, honestly. Signing just makes me happy.

But I'm not a kid any more. I'm not a cute little 10-year-old. I'm a biological engineer now - scary! I'm 22, and my overloaded academic life has nothing to do with interpreting. I still don't have any practical reason to learn ASL. Nobody in Boston knows that I was once an accepted member of the community in Ithaca, of course.

So it's different. I find myself a definite outsider to a group I used to be part of, and that's weird. When I was younger - and fluent in ASL - I really felt as though I was "one of the crowd". That degree of comfort with the community is almost impossible for me to imagine now, but I guess it's a testament to the adaptability of children. These days, I'm incredibly conscious of the insularity of the Deaf community and the fact that I will probably never be "one of the crowd" again. It's frustrating. As a child, and as many children do, I plowed right through the cultural boundaries that I didn't realize existed. Now, as an adult, I can't ignore them, but that doesn't mean I've lost any respect for the group I used to be part of.

Obviously, in the process of growing up, I've learned that such boundaries exist, and that's been invaluable. There's no way I could have ever grown up to be an aware individual without recognizing the boundaries of the Deaf community (and others) for the ideals and causes they represent. But it makes me a little bit sad that I missed my window of innocence during which I could have settled myself in to that world, for no particularly good reason, and stayed.

It's not as though I'll never fit in again. There are a lot of steps I can take to bring myself back to the signing world - just as soon as I stop being shy about it! It may never be quite the same, but waving from the outside - or from a seat in ASL III here in Boston - sure is better than nothing :)

1 comment:

Ian said...

Nobody in Boston knows that I was once an accepted member of the community in Ithaca, of course.

There's at least one deaf person who knows. ;-)