LIFE MAGAZINE
LOVE IN A SILENT WORLD
A YOUNG COUPLE BRIDGES A CHASM OF COMMUNICATION IN THE DEAF CULTURE
September 1982
BY ANNE FADIMAN


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Mike Rose and Monika Valgemae share a peaceful moment between classes on the Gallaudet campus.


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Monika, shown signing with Mike, calls American Sign Language "the language of feelings."

It is one of the noisiest college bars in the world. There's the standard clink of beer mugs, the scrape of chairs against linoleum, the clatter of dishwashing from the back. There is also the squeal of feedback from poorly fitting hearing aids; the hoots, clicks, grunts and hums that pop out unbidden in the middle of conversation from the throats of people who cannot monitor their own voices; the thwack of hands slapped on the table to attract the attention, through low-frequency vibrations, of friends who are looking the other way; and the raucous, uninhibited rumble of deaf laughter. Loudest of all is the rock and roll that blasts at Max Volume from the jukebox in the corner. Most of the students at this campus hangout cannot hear the voices of the Sex Pistols, but they can sense the deep, resonating beat of the drums and electric bass, and many of them are tapping their feet.

Something else is strange about this bar. It's bright. The patrons cannot talk in the dark. Hundreds of watts pour down on their hands, which wave, point, slice through the air in an excited chatter its practitioners call "windmilling." Among the windmillers is a young couple, a boy with dark curly hair and a blond girl who sit at a table in the corner. In this room even casual acquaintances gaze at each other with the intensity of lovers because if they glance away for a second they are likely to miss half a sentence. But Mike Rose and Monika Valgemae are the genuine romantic article. Mike, 23, is a sophomore, Monika, 20, a freshman at Gallaudet College in Washington, D.C. They met last fall, when Monika was taking Gallaudet preparatory courses between high school and college. They are thinking about marriage. If they marry, they hope their children will be deaf.

A polite audiologist would say that Mike and Monika were both born "hearing-impaired," probably from genetic causes. They prefer "deaf," signed colloquially by sticking a thumb in the ear and flapping the hand down like a trapdoor. Because either the cochleas or the auditory nerves in their inner ears are malformed, sound waves never get as far as their brains. Neither can hear the sounds of human speech. Monika's hearing loss is classified as "profound" and Mike's as merely "severe," which means, he says, that although he cannot tell the difference between a violin and a piano, he can distinguish between a violin and a lawn mower. Or, as his hands would put it, Violin piano sound same same boring, piano lawn mower different--a sentence that when translated literally makes strange English (as do sentences in Latin and Chinese if their original word order is preserved) but is perfectly grammatical in American Sign Language.

At Gallaudet, the only liberal arts college in the world founded expressly for the deaf, relationships are often intense. Four out of five deaf people choose to marry other deaf people, and these students know that once they graduate into the hearing world the pickings will be slim. What is unusual about Mike and Monika is not the seriousness of their commitment but the fact that, out of all the people in the deaf community, they happened to choose each other. Mike, who has deaf parents, does not speak and communicates only through sign language. He was raised as a "manualist." Monika has hearing parents; though she is now an eloquent signer, she was sent to schools where speech and lipreading were taught and sign language was forbidden. She was raised as an "oralist." Manualists (or "deafies," as they are sometimes called by oralists) and oralists (or "rubber-lips," as they are sometimes called by manualists) have traditionally been about as sociable toward each other as the Montagues and the Capulets. Mike and Monika represent two sides of a bitter 200-year-old debate whose combatants call it the War of Methods. It is ostensibly about the best way to educate deaf children but is in fact about the role of deaf people in their own society and in the society of the hearing.

Blindness cuts one off from things, observed Helen Keller; deafness cuts one off from people. Hence the blind have been seers and poets, while "deaf-mutes," because they did not speak, were long assumed to be incapable of reason. By Roman law they were denied all legal rights; in the Middle Ages they were thought to be barred from heaven because they could not say the sacraments.

Indeed, it was on this theological technicality that a French Catholic cleric named Charles Michel de l'Epée founded the first public school for the deaf in the mid-18th century. At his lycée in Paris, he systematized the homemade gestures of his deaf pupils into "a visible form of language" through which, if they could not actually speak the sacraments, they could understand and sign them. A deaf student from his school brought the language to America and, in 1817, helped found the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Conn., which Mike Rose attended 150 years later. It was here that Epée's signes methodiques were combined with the gestures already used in America to form American Sign Language. When Gallaudet College was founded in 1864, it inherited both the manual language and the manualist philosophy.

But many educators believed that deaf children must be taught to speak because, in the words of one German professor, "clear thinking is possible only in spoken language." It was considered one of the most important philosophical questions of the day. In 1880, when leading authorities from all over the Western world convened in Milan to resolve the oral/manual controversy, their progress was reported daily in the London Times. The oralists, after shouting 'Evviva la parola!" (Long live speech!), won by a vote of 160 to 4.

Oralism prevailed for the next several generations--and most deaf leaders were outraged. Said one of them, "To deprive a deaf-mute of the sign language is like clipping a bird of its wings." Their viewpoint was largely ignored until the handicapped rights movement of the mid-'60s, which brought a new philosophy called Total Communication. Agreeing that a smorgasbord of media would offer deaf children the widest range of communication, the old manualists began to support an integrated combination of speech, lipreading, hearing aids and sign language, with emphasis on sign. Though oralism is still the rule in most other countries, Total Communication swept the U.S. By the mid-'70s, sign language had become so trendy that President Carter flashed the "I love you" sign during his inaugural parade. (Vice-President Mondale attempted to do the same, but he mixed up a couple of fingers and made an obscene gesture instead.)

The irony of the War of Methods is that both sides are equally sincere and well-meaning. The oralists argue, reasonably enough, that since most people in the world communicate by speaking, the only way for deaf people to participate fully in society is to do likewise; if they do not, they will segregate themselves in a self-imposed ghetto. If deaf children are taught to sign, the oralists say, they will have little incentive to learn to speak and lip-read. Sign language makes an invisible handicap visible, gives a child crutches when he might walk, albeit with a limp, without them.


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Members of the Gallaudet Dance Company keep precisely on beat through hundreds of hours of practice Monika (above) says, "I have music inside."


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Every morning Mike wakes to a flashing bulb triggered by his alarm clock.



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At Gallaudet's audiology lab, Monika finally responds to a 110-decibel blast.


 
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A friend teaches Mike to sign the lyrics to Devo's "Through Being Cool."


EVEN THE DOG KNOWS SIGN LANGUAGE


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Two-track conversation: Monika and her brother, Sven, sign while their parents talk.


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Round-table discussion: the Roses and their five children "windmill" on a Sunday afternoon.


Most advocates of signing would respond that lipreading--or "speechreading," as it is often called today, since the reader must watch the tongue, the throat, and the teeth as well as the lips--is simply too difficult. Because at least 60 percent of the sounds of English look like other sounds, one researcher has suggested calling it "lip-speculation." "Where's the baby?" "I put it in the dustbin": as the deaf British poet David Wright notes, "baby" and "paper" look exactly the same. So, observes deaf educator David Anthony, do bed and mad and pad and mat and bat and pat and met and bet and pet. So do "Where there's life there's hope" and "Where's the lavender soap?" Lip-readers are further stymied by mumblers, bad light, distance, mustaches. After many years of oral training, most deaf lipreaders catch between 25 and 50 percent of a rapid conversation. And as for speech, the imitation of sounds one cannot hear is so difficult that fewer than 10 percent of the people who are born profoundly deaf can easily be understood. The great majority of deaf people who have intelligible speech either have some residual hearing or became deaf after they learned to talk.

But the real turn of the screw, say the signers, is that oral skills are acquired so slowly that during the crucial early years a deaf child may be deprived of any means of communication. Every healthy hearing child, however dull or shy, learns language effortlessly because he is bombarded by it. By the time he is five, he has a vocabulary of 5,000 words. An oral deaf child may know fewer than 50. He may therefore have no way of learning, when his parents leave the house, whether they will be gone for an hour or a month; no way of knowing why presents suddenly appear on his birthday; no way, if he is scared or sick or excited, of telling anyone why. He has no effective way to communicate either with his parents or, perhaps more important, with himself.

In oral schools, argue the signers, the same dismal pattern is repeated. If a deaf child catches less than 50 percent of the spoken language and his teachers do not sign, how much will he learn of mathematics, science, history? As one deaf teacher puts it, "What good is it to be able to talk if you have nothing to say?"

But a deaf child who is surrounded by signing builds a manual vocabulary at about the same rate as a hearing child builds a spoken one, often starting even earlier because the muscles of the hands are easier to control than the muscles of the mouth.

Signers say that in order to lead emotionally satisfying lives, people need more than speech. They need a language they can master completely, one that confirms rather than conceals their identity. They agree that signing isolates the deaf from the hearing; but because the difficulties of lipreading are compounded when deaf people attempt to converse in speech, oralism isolates them from each other.

Betty Miller, a well-known deaf artist, distressed many hearing people at Gallaudet when she mounted an exhibit of drawings in which the fingers of deaf children are being chopped off as a result of the oralist teachings of heartless "hearies" (a term of derogation analogous to a black's "whiteys" or a Hispanic's "gringos"). Under a picture of two small girls, both of whom wear enormous hearing aids and have their hands in stocks, Miller wrote the following poem in the syntax of American Sign Language:GOD/MADE ME DEAF/BUT THEY/ WANT ME LEARN/ TALK TALK/ HEAR HEAR ... LIKE HEARIES./ NORMAL?/ ME TRY HARD/ EQUAL NORMAL/ UNTIL ME FREAK/. . . FAIL.../WHY... ?

It is not only Mike Rose's parents--Richard, a carpenter, and Maureen, an assembly line supervisor--who are deaf. So are Mike's older brother, Ricky; his three sisters, Sandra, Debra and Noreen; three of his uncles; two of his aunts; and two of his cousins. All of them use American Sign Language. Even the Rose family dog, a schnauzer named Smokey, knows the signs for "stay," "sit," "shake" and "roll over." When he sees the sign for "bang," Smokey plays dead.

When someone rings the doorbell of the Rose house in Glastonbury, Conn., a light flashes on and off. When the phone rings, another light flashes. The telephone is actually a teletypewriter on which the Roses type their conversations rather than speak them. They can converse only with other teletypists, but that's not a problem since virtually all of their friends are deaf and own similar devices. In the morning the Roses are awakened by light bulbs set off by their alarm clocks. In the evening they sit in their living room watching two television sets, one on top of the other, one turned to movies for the Rose women and the other to sports for the men. Without competing sound tracks, they say this is not distracting. For many years television was inaccessible to the deaf; now, by means of a special "decoding" receiver, they can tune into 40 hours of specially captioned programs each week.

MONIKA BLEW AT FEATHER TO LEARN "F" AND "V"

Strong deaf is the way Mike describes his family. When Maureen and Richard Rose recently celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary, the children threw a surprise party with 130 guests. "There were two groups at the party, hearing and deaf," says Maureen, who has a fair amount of residual hearing and speaks in an intelligible though toneless voice. "More deaf, of course. Deaf stayed longer and had more fun. Hearing stayed only a short amount of time." On each of his legs, Richard wears a tattoo of a large open eye--his way of saying that most things that cannot be heard can be seen.

And on his arms Richard has five tattooed babies, one for each of his strong deaf children. Ricky was the first. As a baby, he paid little attention to the clatter of pots and pans, so Maureen matter-of-factly took him to the doctor and had his hearing tested. She was neither surprised nor disappointed to find that he was deaf. Mike was born the next year and turned out to be deaf as well. At that time the Roses could not afford a "baby-cry signaler," a flashing light triggered by a microphone near the crib, a standard appliance in most deaf homes. During his first year Mike slept next to his parents' bed with his mother's right hand resting on his chest to pick up the sounds of crying. (Crying and cooing are reflexes not dependent on auditory stimulation, so deaf babies sound exactly like hearing babies during their first year.) All five Rose children started to sign when they were less than a year old.

One by one they left home at the age of three to attend the American School for the Deaf in Hartford. Mrs. Rose cried at each departure, but she was confident her children would be happy. I lonely first, signs Mike, but fun soon, many deaf friends same like me, pillow fights, sports, playing cards, captioned movies every week. Kids with deaf parents all leaders because teach other kids sign. Kids with hearing parents jealous me because in my family good communication, their parents not sign so communication terrible. They say, wish have mother father deaf! They not want home on weekends. Mike and his siblings loved to go home on weekends. Every Friday night the Rose family would sit up for hours, catching up on the week's events, windmilling like crazy around the kitchen table.

Mike and his friends called the nearby Mystic Oral School the Mistake School. They hated the aspects of their own Total Communication curriculum that smacked of oralism. In speech class, he remembers, everyone sick, absent, avoid avoid. One kid got special award for best speech then goes out and hearing can't understand him, says but I best speech award! What point practice oral oral oral if it never gets you anywhere?

When Mike passed the entrance exam to Gallaudet College, the Roses were delighted. Deaf people Gallaudet very impressive. Congratulations! Good! Proud of me! He decided to major in business administration, but his greatest interest was his part-time job counseling deaf secondary school students. Once again, his family background made him a natural leader. He would have been a desirable catch for almost any girl on campus, but he chose someone raised on the other side of the War of Methods, a young blond dancer.

Monika's parents, Mare and Mardi Valgemae, are Estonians whose families fled to the United States after World War II. Mardi, her father, is an English professor at New York City's Lehman College; Mare is a financial librarian. Mardi's father was a cellist, and at one time Mardi himself considered a career as a concert pianist. "I weep over Schubert," he says. "Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik will get me to do anything." Since the birth of their two children, Monika and Sven, both of whom are deaf, he has given up the piano. "I listen," he says. "I can't bring myself to play anymore."

The Valgemaes both speak four languages, all with great rapidity and expressiveness. When Monika was born, a tow-headed infant of unusual beauty and vivacity, they decided she would start piano lessons at the age of three and, by having a Russian nanny on Monday, a French nanny on Tuesday, and so on, would learn five or six languages by the time she was six.

"When Monika was three months old," he says, "we wheeled her bassinet into the kitchen and slammed the refrigerator door by mistake. Loudly. She was right next to it and she didn't wake up. I said to Mare, 'Don't you think that's a little strange?' " Eighteen months and four doctors later--by which time Monika screamed whenever she saw a man in a white coat--they took her to the audiology lab at the John Tracy Clinic in Los Angeles. After a sophisticated battery of tests, they were told that Monika was profoundly deaf.

"No music. No languages." Eighteen years later, Mare's voice still cracks. "Those were the first things that struck me. No one in our families had ever been deaf. It was the most shocking thing that had ever happened to us." Mardi wipes his eyes, "We went home," he says. "It was three o'clock in the afternoon. We went to bed, pulled the covers over our heads, held each other, and wept."

The Valgemaes enrolled Monika in the John Tracy Clinic's oral preschool, the most famous in the country. Monika blew at feathers to learn the difference between "f' and "v," "p" and "b," "k" and "g." She fogged panes of glass, blew out candles, looked at her mouth in a mirror, and for an hour each night put her hand on her mother's cheek and her thumb on her lips to feel the vibrations. Mare held up a red ribbon for voiced sounds, a blue one for breath sounds, a brown one for nasal sounds. Monika tried thousands of permutations of lips, teeth and tongue, and whenever she pronounced or lip-read a word correctly, her mother placed a small red heart on her forehead.

According to the John Tracy philosophy, deaf children cannot grasp the meanings of words unless they actually experience them. It was not enough to show Monika a picture of a cow; she was driven to a farm to touch the cow. She was driven to the mountains to learn "snow," "frozen" and "mitten." She was given two goldfish to learn "fish" and "swim"; when they died she learned "death" and "sad." It worked. Monika became that rare commodity, an oral success. She loved school. She appeared in a Tracy film in which her father thanked her for a flower she had given him, and she replied, in a soft, labored, but clearly comprehensible voice, "You're weh-com!"

When Monika was three, her brother Sven was born. This time Mare was certain he was deaf before she even left the hospital. She readied herself for more years of feathers and cows, more sports and art and photography lessons to take the place of music. She and her husband, she concluded, must both carry recessive genes for sensory-neural deafness. Since the Tracy school did not permit more than one child per family to attend, the Valgemaes decided to move to New York. There Monika and Sven could go to the Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens, the first pure oral school in the country.

Though sign language was then forbidden in the classroom (Lexington has since changed its policy), the students used it among themselves on the playground, and at first Monika, then six, did not know what it was. Never saw that, she explains now, in rapid and elegant sign. Cried, cried, could not understand. Before I did not know deaf what it was. Now my friends said, 'you are deaf, name of school Lexington School for the Deaf.' Difference is hearing can understand even if you cover mouth, deaf must see. Oh, I understand, I am deaf. Deaf use sign.

Monika soon became fluent in sign language, but her parents did not allow her to use it at home, even with her brother. "Monika, talk to Sven," her mother told her. "Sven, put your hands down!" Sven and Monika tried but found their speech mutually indecipherable. They signed in secret. They told each other everything. Finally, when they were eight and 12, Mare said to her husband, "Look, Mardi, they have a world of their own. Let's let them sign."

Monika was a brilliant student. She did so well at Lexington that her parents decided to mainstream her at a public school. Mastering all her subjects through lipreading, with the aid of a resource room where she and a handful of other deaf students could get special help, she won several major academic awards and graduated second in her class of hearing high school students. Glad I mainstream, she signs. Good education, fun in sports. Sometimes social life not so fun. I went only one date with hearing boy. Awful! Too dark to lipread. Every day after school I went to Lexington School to see deaf friends, use sign language for enjoyment, comfortable and happy.

Four years ago, the Valgemaes bought their children a doorbell flasher and a teletypewriter. Last year, with great hesitancy, Mare Valgemae started to learn to sign in order to communicate better with her son, Sven, whose oral skills are less highly developed than Monika's. Mardi, at least for the present, has decided to stick with the spoken word.

The Valgemaes are as convincing an advertisement for oralism as one is likely to find. Mare and Mardi have avoided the trap most hearing parents fall into--what one Gallaudet psychology professor called the "I love you but I hate your deafness" syndrome. Monika, far from being a bitter and maladjusted "oral failure," is a confident and successful young woman with skills she never would have acquired had she had Mike's parents and Mike's education. Yet, says Mare Valgemae wistfully, "The only thing we don't have in our family is the kind of conversation where somebody tells a joke, and everybody laughs, and then everyone starts talking and laughing at once... and I bet Mike's family has that."

GALLAUDET IS LIKE A FOREIGN COUNTRY


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Monika offers reinforcement to Mike as he phones home on one of Gallaudet's teletypewriters.

Though Monika could have gotten into a college for the hearing, she decided to go to Gallaudet and major in mathematics. Her parents are content with the decision; Gallaudet, they say, is the Harvard of the deaf. For Monika, Gallaudet was the answer to a question she had been asking herself for some time: Would she stay in the world of the hearing, or would she join the world of the deaf? I chose Gallaudet because learn about deaf culture, deaf people, she signs. Oral lonely. At Gallaudet, meet Mike Rose, learn love what it is. Talk talk talk with him every day, all night long, talk about feelings deep inside. Mike very skilled, very beautiful signer. For me, important communicate. She repeats the "important" sign--a sphere described by two cupped hands, thumbs touching forefingers--but alters its meaning by making the motion more emphatic. Essential communicate. That why I love Mike.

In the land of the blind the one-eyed man may be king, but in the land of the deaf, the deafer you are the better. Hard-of-hearing students are suspect at Gallaudet, as are the "post-lingually deaf"--those who lost their hearing after they learned language and can therefore speak well without having spent thousands of hours blowing at feathers. Explains Monika's psychology professor, King Jordan, both of whose auditory nerves were severed in a motorcycle accident when he was 21, "I haven't heard a thing in eighteen years, but to most of my students I'm not deaf, I'm deafened. Unlike them, I know what it is like to hear. It's both a blessing and a curse. I remember music, the sound of the 12-string guitar I used to play, rain on a metal roof, wind. I think I remember what it sounds like to run through autumn leaves. I know it's not like grass or a road. At Gallaudet, all these memories make me a hearing person with deaf ears."

Gallaudet is not just a college. It is an international resource center on deafness, with model primary and secondary schools, an audiology center, a center for the study of sign language linguistics and a center for law and the deaf. The entire campus is geared to the fact that its students cannot hear. All classes are taught simultaneously in speech and sign; the classrooms are specially designed so that every student's hands are visible to every other student. Graduates are instantly identifiable by other deaf people because they sign with an upper-crust "Gallaudet accent." To an outsider from the hearing world, the campus seems rather like a foreign country, and indeed last year a language student from Georgetown University spent his junior year abroad there.

Some of the hearing members of the faculty (who must pass sign language proficiency tests to obtain tenure) complain that Gallaudet is too solicitous of its students' needs, too intensely enjoyable, too much like Eden and too little like the real world. Says audiologist Stephen Lotterman, "You can go through five years here and never leave the campus--and never speak a word."

Only problem with Gallaudet, according to Mike Rose, nobody want leave. This credit, that credit incomplete so stay with friends little longer. Graduation sad day. Once Gallaudet students do graduate, some discover that they can find only blue-collar jobs. But others have become physicists, chemists, teachers, lawyers, computer programmers. About 40 percent remain professionally in the deaf world. In one study of the deaf elite, more than 80 percent had degrees from Gallaudet.

"Of all physical disabilities," writes psychologist Hans Furth, "deafness is the only one that makes its members part of a natural community." There are deaf alumni associations, deaf social clubs, deaf churches, deaf athletic teams, deaf magazines, deaf newspapers, deaf senior citizens' homes. The same could be said of blacks or Jews or Italian-Americans, but the deaf community differs from these other minority subcultures because its membership is passed down not from parent to child but from peer to peer. Since about nine out of 10 deaf people have hearing parents and nine out of 10 have hearing children, most of them acquire and share their identities--and their cultural language, signing--on the playgrounds of residential schools or in the dormitories of Gallaudet. To many signers, mainstreaming deaf students in schools for the hearing is not a welcome form of integration but a step toward reducing deaf pride and fellowship. Says deal administrator Jack Gannon, "For the majority of our students, Gallaudet is the mainstream."

Some members of the community draw a distinction between "deafness," a description of hearing loss, and "Deafness," a description of cultural identity. Professor King Jordan, for example, is deaf but not Deaf. Carol Padden, a deaf (and Deaf) linguistics researcher, gives this example: "A deaf person grows up in an oral environment, never having met or talked with Deaf people. Later in life, the deaf person meets a Deaf person who brings him to parties, teaches him sign language and instructs him in the way of Deaf people's lives. This deaf person becomes more and more involved and leaves behind his past as he joins other Deaf people."

Mike Rose is Deaf. From him, Monika Valgemae, who used to be deaf, is learning to be Deaf.

"Dream," sign the dancers, "not possible dream." Dressed in long white dresses with swirling skirts, the Gallaudet Dance Company turns and leaps and sways and signs, while the old dance department stereo crackles out a schmaltzy version of "The Impossible Dream." If they could hear the record, the dancers might find the lyrics sentimental, but in the condensed, poetic language of artistic sign the song has extraordinary power. Hell! Heaven! Look towards. Know! True! Shining! Glory! Myself, calm, death. World, better. Man, cast off sadness.

"EYES THAT REALLY SEE"

Monika may not be able to weep over Schubert and Mozart, but through dance she says she has music inside. She started ballet lessons at the age of four, and since coming to Gallaudet she has also mastered "sign language dance," disco,jazz and tap. She does a Fats Wailer tap number with two other profoundly deaf dancers, and when they shuffle through their flap, grapevine and buffalo steps, the clicks of their taps on the studio floor are exactly synchronized. Their sense of rhythm does not, as most hearing audiences assume, come from vibrations. "How could they keep track of the music through their feet?" asks dance director Diane Hottendorf. "They're in the air half the time!" It comes, rather, from hundreds of hours of practice, first with a bass drum pounding out a low-frequency beat, ultimately with just a couple of introductory bars signed in tempo offstage. Says Hottendorf, "I don't know exactly where rhythm is, but I know it's not in your eardrum. Once you explain the mood of the music to these dancers their whole bodies become the mood. The deaf world is a moving world. Their language is movement. Their eyes are eyes that really see. They wear rhythm."

Both Mike and Monika agree that deaf people are more at home with their bodies than hearing people. Explains Monika, Deaf communicate with whole body, hands, eyes, face, chest, not just moving lips up and down one quarter inch. Since they can't call out, deaf people touch constantly to get each other's attention. (They also wave, stomp and, at Gallaudet in the springtime, shoot each other with water pistols.) Mike does a little pantomime to explain the difference in body language, gently tapping the shoulder of an invisible hearing person. Oh no! he signs. Hearing shocked, jump, terrible! You touched their body! Trespass invasion!

Mike and Monika do make occasional forays into the hearing world. Like any young couple, they go to movies together (usually foreign ones, because they are subtitled), athletic events, restaurants. First try voice, signs Monika, and if waiter not understand use paper and pencil. Better than getting wrong food. Monika, because she grew up among the hearing, is usually in charge off campus; Mike is clearly the leader at Gallaudet. On campus they are rarely apart. When first meet Monika not have high hopes, signs Mike. Very beautiful girl, family very different. But soon talk about deaf world, sign language, families, travel, many many things, she felt same way me. Before had puppy love with other girls but with Monika is not puppy. Signs Monika, See Mike every day since last fall and never never yet bored!

Mike and Monika often talk about the relations between hearing and deaf. They tell each other about the dreams they have both had in which they can communicate easily with hearing people. Signs Mike, Usually my dreams no conversation, just pictures. Moods, colors, red, blue, angry or sad. Sometimes in dreams deaf and hearing can read each other's minds, not have to sign or speak. I wish.

If they had the choice, would they want to hear? Nice to hear music, signs Monika. Mommy sometimes describes me sounds, wind, bird songs, cat purrings. Would like to hear nice, beautiful sounds. But speech, no. Would hear sounds but could I understand what they mean? Too late to learn. Signs Mike, Sure, good to hear if speak. Easier communicate, communicate most important in world. But only if could sign too. If had to stop sign, prefer deaf.

American Sign Language--generally called Ameslan or ASL--is a linguistic anomaly, a language without a written form, a language that dries up on paper but in person is as graceful and intoxicating as a well-choreographed ballet.

Translated sign by sign into English words, Ameslan sounds like a children's language, a primitive language, a pidgin. It is none of these. It sounds that way because it is simply not English, not even a visual representation of English. British and American sign language, for example, are completely different. Ameslan is an entity unto itself, as syntactically complete (according to linguistic researchers) as any spoken tongue.

But it has no articles, no agreement between subjects and verbs, no inflected plurals, no tenses. Time is indicated by the position of the hands (the future lies in front of the shoulders, the past behind) or by modifiers such as finish, up till now, later, not yet, long time ago. Pronouns are generally omitted. Rather, if a signer is telling a story about two people, he sets up A on his left and B on his right. Whenever he talks about A, his hands move to his left; when he talks about B, to his right.

THE SIGN FOR STREAKING IS "NUDE ZOOM-OFF”

Each sign represents a word or concept, comparable to the ideograms of Chinese or Japanese. But signs are not static pictures frozen in space. They move. Bears scratch their chests, elephants wave their trunks, rabbits wiggle their ears. Some signs have historical origins: girl comes from tied bonnet strings, cheese from the workings of an old-fashioned cheese press. New signs to represent new concepts are constantly being added to the vocabulary. When the streaking craze reached Gallaudet, a sign was immediately invented that translates literally as nude zoom-off.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of Ameslan is that it always presents information in the order in which it happened. Take the English sentence, 'It was a thrill to watch the sunrise this morning." Mike Rose would sign, Now morning sunrise, I look at, thrill. First the sun must rise; second, I look at it; and third, I am thrilled by it.

Ameslan has puns and visual rhymes. It has racial and regional dialects. It can be signed faster than words can be spoken. But can it really do everything English can do? Most signers would agree that although abstractions can be expressed in Ameslan--at Gallaudet, after all, the classes in epistemology and sociolinguistics are taught in sign--English is superior. For conveying emotions, describing the physical world or telling a story--"it's a wonderful raconteur's language," says Romance language professor Catherine Ingold--Ameslan comes out ahead.

But because Ameslan isn't English, when most deaf people write, the result is a strange pidgin in which articles are omitted, prepositions are mixed up, and tenses and parts of speech are irreparably mangled. And people who cannot write English cannot read it. The average deaf American reads at about fifth-grade level. This cannot be blamed just on sign language, though Ameslan users certainly make errors that would never occur to anyone else. Oralists, because they decode sentences not by lip-reading every word in the right order but by catching one out of three and conceptually filling in the rest, often do even worse. Monika Valgemae, who scored in the top 7 percent nationwide on her math SAT, did as badly in the verbal section as if she had marked the answers completely at random.

What is the solution? Some educators are promoting various forms of "signed English," which use Ameslan signs in the word order of English, and with English grammatical inflections. The trouble is that this is an artificial language. It jerks laboriously through its signed "-ed"s and "-ings," losing all the grace and expressiveness that made sign language admirable in the first place. Another possibility is "cued speech," a method of making lipreading easier by using hand signals to distinguish among sounds that look alike. By all reports, children who are raised on cued speech do have superior English, but most deaf adults reject it out of hand. As Gallaudet instructor Carole Frankel says, "It reeks of oral."

So the War of Methods comes full circle to the original oralist argument, that sign language isolates the deaf. It does. More accurately, deafness isolates the deaf. Of course, to a deaf person, who may feel that the spoken language of hearing people is emotionally impoverished, the same could be said of English. The fact that there are more than 300 million English speakers and only a half million users of Ameslan is not an issue for anyone who believes that in the land of the deaf (or rather, the Deaf) he can find everything he needs.


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Monika and Mike dress up punk.

Mike and Monika are at a punk dance, another earsplitting Gallaudet social occasion. As one of their classmates commented, if you not deaf when go in, you deaf when come out. The floor is sticky with beer, the air is musky with marijuana, and for once it's dark, though strobe lights flash in time to the music to help the revelers keep the beat. Mike is wearing blue lipstick and bright red stretch pants that he bought in a Georgetown punk store after the salesman, who had never met a deaf person before, took one look at him and said, "I see you in spandex." Monika is wearing a purple minidress, purple socks, green glitter eye shadow and blue hair spray. She looks absolutely beautiful. As she wraps her arms around Mike, plants purple kisses on his cheeks, pats his spandexed midriff, leaps, wiggles and does little bunny hops around him, she glows with the electric radiance of someone who knows she is the most desirable woman and the best dancer in the room.

A pudgy girl wearing heart-shaped sunglasses jumps up on the bandstand and starts to sign to the music. "Rock and roll interpreting" is a favorite Gallaudet activity. First you learn the words from someone who is only hard-of-hearing, then you practice signing them to whatever muffled beat you can pick up when you turn the volume to Max. This interpreter is a master of the art. She signs and dances simultaneously, whipping her fingers through the air with such precise and frenetic rhythm that the sound of the music becomes, in some punk fourth dimension, visible. The song she is interpreting is by the Go-Go's. It is called "This Town." When she gets to the chorus, Mike and Monika and most of the other dancers start clapping along with her. This town is our town ! This town's so glamorous. It is clear to everyone in the room what this song is really about. The dancers go crazy with movement. Bet you'd live here if you could/And be one of us.


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Whenever she and Mike argue, says Monika, "we talk, hug and forget it."

END