Seven weeks ago, I started learning ASL with my thirteen year old daughter, Yazzy. She started taking classes a year ago and was inspired. Her teacher said that she was ready for a college level class so she decided to dive in. Of course that meant that I would be taking the class with her.. she wasn’t about to be on campus without me! I figured I would limp along and support Yazzy. Little did I know that I would fall in love!
After six weeks in the class, we had an assignment to go to a signing event, the local “Deaf Starbucks.” This happens once a month, where for four or five hours, the cafe is filled with Deaf people and ASL students. I was really excited about the event; I had a feeling I would really love to be immersed in the language. Last year, Yazzy’s teacher Celene let us know about an event at our local pizza joint, where the college professor and his students would gather to sign. I went to expose Yazzy, but fell in love with ASL that day. We had also been watching a show called Switched at Birth, which is a teenybopper show, but the storyline surrounds a Deaf girl and includes her Deaf culture and its politics. It is really fun to watch, but seeing signing in person that day was exhilarating.
So I was excited about the Starbucks event.
Until about two hours before we were going to drive down the hill..
It then hit me like a brick wall that I would be signing with Deaf people! And with five and a half fingers in all! I felt nauseous and terrified.
I had a million and one reasons to cancel that evening. I had been working on taxes all day and my head felt like it was about to pop off. My wife Myshkin encouraged me to take the night off, that I had been working too hard that day. Believe me, I was tempted.
But I got us in the car, and Christina, my friend drove us to Palm Desert. As we were pulling into the drive of the mall, I again panicked. My powerful friend said, “Just imagine how empowered you are going to feel after facing this fear.” I took that in and said, “OK, but go do your errands and come immediately back so we can leave!”
When we walked in, I had no idea how to proceed. I realized I was not prepared enough. I saw people signing and wanted to stare because it was so beautiful, but felt that I was being rude, that I was eavesdropping, so kept looking away. I didn’t know how to engage someone in a conversation, because Yazzy and I didn’t know anyone, and I thought it would be rude to just walk up to someone and interrupt them to get them to communicate with us.
I asked Yazzy how it was done and she informed me that Celene always introduced her to people. I sighed and realized that, as I am the mom, I needed to guide us.
So I took a deep breath and walked toward a group of people that looked like students. I figured they would understand my awkwardness. Luckily, a couple of sweet, young women were receptive to us and we signed for a good half hour with them. I felt uncomfortable about my hand, and found myself holding my pinky down to show a W or a 6, because, while in the classroom I seemed understood, I wasn’t sure how new people would respond. There were only a couple of stares as I was communicating with those women.
After a bit, Yazzy and I wandered to the other side of the room and started signing with a Deaf woman, Nora I think her name is. She was very sweet and patient with us. But after about ten minutes, I became fatigued and sat in an empty chair. I soon realized that Yazzy and I were surrounded by Deaf people.. I had unwittingly sat in the Deaf corner! I was sitting next to this wonderful woman named Carol and we signed for a long time. Yazzy and I didn’t catch everything she said, but we understood much more than I had thought possible. There was also Tom, who spent a bunch of time telling us about his baby (an Indian motorcycle) and his gorgeous home in Anza, showing us pictures of the snow he got up there. He also told us he had attended an oral school. I was moved, remembering what we had learned about the abuse that was common in those schools, and asked him how it was. He said it was very strict. He said it made him a good foreman, because he knew how to be strict and mean, and his bosses loved him for that.
There was another gentleman that asked me, after I signed and pointed to my teacher, if he was my husband. I laughed, thinking he misunderstood my signing. I said, no! He is my teacher. He asked again if we were married, and I laughed while fingerspelling that I was gay. He had a huge reaction. He started signing really fast, asking if my teacher was gay, and I suddenly realized that that I was clumsily stomping around in a different culture, and that I may have outed my teacher. Of course I adamantly signed that it was I that am gay, that I have a wife. He signed so fast that I only caught bits, and I asked Yazzy to help, who looked helplessly at me. He even pointed to the sky a couple of times, and at that point I was sure he was not loving this revelation. Our new friend Carol, who had come with him, kept waving him off, as if to say, don’t listen to him.
While I was again in conversation with Carol, the man waved Yazzy over twice to confirm that I am indeed gay and that I really did have a wife.
After a bit, I mentioned to Carol about how nervous I had been before arriving to Starbucks. She asked why and I fingerspelled ‘hand,’ then held up my right, fingerless hand.
She waved away my concern. Then the man who was surprised that I am gay asked what had happened to me. I fingerspelled ‘sepsis.’ He asked what that was and I fingerspelled ‘infection.’ There was some conversation about how terrible that all was, me telling them that, while my life is more difficult, I am genuinely happy. Then Carol told me and Yazzy about her friend that lost a leg from infection; that she did not survive sepsis in the end.
Before Yazzy and I got up to leave, we made plans to try and come to the next event, because Carol and I wanted to see each other again.
As we were leaving, Christina, my ride, laughed at me, as we had made her wait almost an hour. She said, “So much for sweeping you away right after my errands!”
There is something very meaningful happening with me as I learn ASL and about the Deaf culture. My heart feels deeply drawn to both. I understand this culture, as I am Palestinian, and we also have a high context culture. But there is something even deeper happening for me. I have only been an amputee for four years, and learning about how empowered a Deaf person can be has helped me to feel my own strength, feel my own empowerment. It is helping me embody my own ‘otherness,’ my own unique body. I am beginning to understand my prosthetic legs to be just a tool, something that helps me get tasks done and can make people feel more comfortable around me. But I am coming to embody myself, feeling that my body without my legs is my true body.
I know this may sound a bit garbled, as I am just coming to understand it myself, but I am coming to understand that I am being deeply transformed by ASL and the Deaf culture.