In the 1998 Flower Valley Elementary production of Peter Pan, I was cast as J.M. Barrie’s mute American Indian Tiger Lily, daughter of the Chieftain Great Big Little Panther, who is captured by the Pirates, then left to drown on Marooner’s Rock before Peter Pan comes to her rescue. My mother, appalled that I had been typecast as a mute character because of my deafness, pled with the coordinators to give me spoken lines. I could speak, after all. To appease my mother, they offered me three, but it was too late: the narrative had already been written.
In a picture taken on the day of the play, I am wearing a headdress my mother lovingly crafted from elastic, pieces of suede, brightly beaded patches, and real black, white, and gray feathers. Compared to the other girls whose headdresses are suede and fake-feathered—less ornate versions—I am the exotic, primitive, quiet one. I don’t know how I feel about this. You can see it in the ambivalent expression of my nine-year-old face streaked with paint, neither frowning nor smiling. Shy. Confused.
I learned to speak from my mother, but learned to speak clearly with Mrs. Smith, a petite speech and language therapist. Our sessions took place in her office at Flower Valley in Rockville, Maryland: a tiny, cement-blocked room that contained her desk and a low, wooden table. We sat at the table listening to a cassette player emitting overlapping voices—one male and one female—as I guessed at the words of the higher-pitched female voice. We also recited and laughed at the poetry of Jack Prelutsky and Shel Silverstein, and rehearsed letters and common blends, most of which came easily enough for me. It was “s” that eluded me—the alliterative letters of my maiden name, Sarah Segal—and year after year, the sound remained an unsolved puzzle for my mouth. Hard as I tried to follow the steps—“hold the tongue down, bare the teeth, and blow”—I produced instead, the alternative sounds of “tch,” “juh,” or “shuh.”
“You’re close,” Mrs. Smith would say, assuring me with a placating smile. When I performed well, I received a fruity scratch-and-sniff sticker for the day, which I sometimes applied to the front of my glossy speech binder, and other times in neat rows on paper, which, after the ten-sticker threshold, promised a trinket from the much-enamored prize basket. But these short-term incentives didn’t alleviate my fears about what I had noticed in my peers’ reception of me: the birthday cards I received from my classmates each year were innocently addressed to variations on my name: Sharah, Shara, Tara, Chara. It didn’t matter that the clarity of my deaf friends’ voices ranged widely—indeed, some of them didn’t speak at all, preferring to sign or use Cued Language, a visual communication system that conveys spoken language. An uncertainty still lurked as I read the cards in the silence of my bedroom, giggling at my hearing classmates’ mistakes. What if their mistakes exposed something wrong about me? What if I couldn’t really be seen for who I was? Would I always be judged for my speech’s slight deviation from the norm, at least according to those invisible but pervasive aural rules about speech acts, and therefore unintelligibly alien?
These questions became unavoidable as I grew older. At times, I have seen my difficulty pronouncing “s” as a greater source of power than the ability to say it. My tchs, duhs, and shuhs catch others off guard, leading to squinting, searching expressions, and sometimes these reactions have led me to conclude that I am attractive—extraordinary, in my way. Other times, I have felt silenced by the public narrative of my body—of my “funny” and “nasal” speech—which talks over me before I have said anything at all.
“She has no language,” Helen, a social worker, tells me from the head of a conference table. It’s a sweaty summer in 2011: I’ve just graduated from college and I’m volunteering at a resettlement agency as a health advocate for displaced refugees with disabilities.
Reading her narrow lips, whose shapes whirl and zip as she speaks, I learn that she’s referring to my first client: a sixteen-year-old child named, coincidentally, Sarah, who’s deaf, but entirely language-less. Not only that: Sarah B. has come from a war-ravaged province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to start anew in Maryland. And not only that: as Sarah B. acclimates to American culture, Helen wants me to help her learn American Sign Language.
No language, I repeat to myself, the idea working my abdominal muscles into snarls. Most of us speak without thinking twice about the complexity of the action; how language moves our hands, or the parts of our mouths and throats and bodies, into shapely and idiosyncratic significations of thoughts and feelings, connecting two people whose experiences would otherwise never link up. And this child has no language? Unfathomable. What was she even capable of at this point in time, with so many of her critical development stages behind her?
Helen, her silvery hoop earrings springing about her waiflike face, can’t explain why Sarah B. has no language, but later I would discover that people in the Congo believe individuals with disabilities are either sorcerers, or were visited by one.
“We think you’d be an excellent role model for Sarah,” she continues. A tear slicks down her face as she says that Sarah B. will receive hearing aids for the first time.
A role model—of course I’m a role model, I scoff to myself, without noting the troubling significance of such an idea. My deafness didn’t prevent me from using language almost as well as my hearing peers, I think, and I can write better than most of them, too. Hell, if anything, language is my area of mastery.
The first time I arrive at Sarah B.’s house for our sessions, she’s cleaning. Garbage bags, broken china, books in Swahili, and a cornflower blue rocking horse clutter the balcony. A red bandanna wraps her hair, and an African wrap skirt sashays around her bare feet. It’s blindingly hot out: steam rises from the sidewalks, and plants hang dead-still. I’m standing in the kitchen, let in by Sarah B.’s younger sister, Ruth, when Sarah B. opens the sliding door, her face sweat-soaked. She’s holding an old-looking broom in her hand.
“Hi,” is all I can think of to say.
Sarah B. leaves the room before returning again with clothing to add to the mound on the balcony. Behind me, a half-naked toddler sits on the carpet watching cartoons on a small TV screen. A sister, I guess. I feel clumsy in the private space, unaware of the usual goings-on, and a thought looms into my mind’s eye: is Sarah B. cleaning for me? Beginning to sweat, I stumble about toward the dining room table, where I wait.
“She’ll be a minute,” Ruth says, motioning to her sister to hurry up. When Sarah B. returns, I remove one of my hearing aids from my ear to model changing the batteries of her new hearing aids.
“First, you open the small compartment on the bottom, here,” I sign, pushing open the door, then tapping the battery out by gently hitting it on the table. Then I open a new pack of batteries, let one small battery fall into my hand, remove the orange sticker appended to the back, and deposit it where the old one had been.
“How about you try?” I sign to Sarah B.
Sarah B.’s dark-lit eyes seem to announce her recognition, but she remains motionless. I remove her hearing aid and repeat the steps, but to no effect.
“What do you like?” I ask in sign language, changing the subject. “Do you like living here?”
Silence. Ruth, who has started to clean nearby, approaches her sister and asks a version of my question in their home “language.” With her index finger, Ruth draws a heart on her own chest and lifts her eyebrows into heart-shaped arches. It appears too limiting a question for Sarah B., welcoming, as it does, too many different answers.
When Sarah B. doesn’t reply, I gesture for her and Ruth to walk with me toward my car. “Here’s my car,” I sign, pointing to my maroon-colored, four-door sedan in the heat-hazed vastness of the parking lot.
“You?” Sarah B. asks by pointing her finger at me. Taken aback, I nod and watch Sarah B. and Ruth take off toward it, their sandals slapping hot concrete.
Sarah B. continues to startle me with her competencies in the ensuing weeks. During our second session, she shows what she’s learned at her school for children with learning disabilities: she can fingerspell the ABCs in slow-moving but precise hand shapes. She counts to twenty in sign language. She also remembers the signs we have practiced—“happy,” “sad,” “angry,” “cooking,” “insect,” and so on—which were whatever we could reasonably manage to fit into our one-hour sessions. With every disclosure, I see a child who isn’t silenced into an obscurity of an untenable kind—exotic, quiet, primitive, as I had imagined—but one whose body promises her a voice no matter the extent of language deprivation.
Still, would anyone who isn’t deaf recognize her voice and its value? Probably not, I decide without really thinking: If a deaf person wants to be seen and understood by a hearing person, I think, then she better learn how to speak a spoken language as I had from Mrs. Smith.
It’s for that reason that, during our third session, I try to get Sarah B. to speak aloud. Sarah B. and I sit at her dining table, me on one end, her on the other. I spread out our “I SPY” picture cards, and, sliding her a card of a bee, fold my lips into my mouth. “B” buzzes in my throat where I hold Sarah B.’s hand before moving it to the front of my mouth, where I release the necessary air from my lips.
“Bee,” I say.
To my astonishment, looking right into my eyes, Sarah B. responds with an attempt: “Puh.” Puh! Wonderful! It isn’t “bee,” but it’s “puh,” and that’s just fine!
But Sarah B.’s mother, Belvie, whose face suddenly materializes where we had been sitting, wears a bemused, rheumy-eyed expression. Raising herself up from the table with her two hands, her elongating body like the rising spine of heavy machinery, she winches her neck toward Sarah’s ear and unchains the word again in a resounding roar: “Bee!”
Jolting to her feet, Sarah squeaks at her mother in frustration, remonstrating her in angry-toned gibberish and holding her hands in front of her—the universal symbol for “stop.” But Belvie appears impervious to Sarah B.’s frustrations, her mouth curled into a smile of vindication. It’s as if Belvie doesn’t even hear Sarah B., I think. No matter how hard Sarah B. tries to speak to her aloud, nothing of what she says will worm through.
“Sarah doesn’t like that,” I feel myself whisper through a strained face, to my own surprise. Belvie examines me for a few moments, her face still an unreadable map of a smile, until she soundlessly decides to leave us to the room, where I continue the session with Sarah B. in a daze.
Questions riddle my drive home. If Belvie believes teaching Sarah B. language to be futile, or even funny, then what am I doing here? Isn’t this a weird kind of colonialism anyway: me reversing the supposedly “barbaric” measures the family had taken to prevent Sarah B. from learning language? Furthermore, as in Barrie’s story of Peter Pan, whose forever father-boy isn’t merely enacting a charming fantasy, but violent conquest and colonization of American Indian and African people, am I enacting my own “speaking” privilege over Sarah B.? Does she really need me to help her pull her deaf voice out of the shadows and into the hearing person’s gaze?
The third session happens to be the last time I see Sarah B. for years. For three Sundays after the event, I drive to the house at the usual time and knock, but nobody answers. Maybe Belvie’s English language classes overlapped with the schedule we had set, or perhaps they started to go to church earlier. Or maybe Belvie was trying to tell me something that day: that Sarah B.’s state would be one of mutism—that she would be the exotic, primitive, quiet one—and that I didn’t need to meddle in their affairs. In any case, on Helen’s recommendation, I stop trying.
In the months and years after, I anguished over my earlier decision to act as a role model for Sarah B. Indeed, how could I have helped her when it seemed that my own spoken language worked against me? Even if entering spoken language would give Sarah B. a voice that would reach both hearing and deaf people, the embedded narratives in spoken language still had the power to oppress her.
Perhaps, after all, speaking couldn’t give us—Sarah B., and me—the freedom of being seen for who we were. Perhaps I had fallen prey to audism: the notion that speaking in spoken language is superior to speaking in an unspoken language. Maybe Belvie was right, then. Maybe I couldn’t help Sarah B. cast off the costume of exile as long as I writhed in it myself.
When I went back to visit Sarah B. last summer, it was a couple weeks before a pivotal point in my narrative: I was preparing for my wedding to Jonathan, a hearing man I met in a gelato shop at around the same time I began working with Sarah.
After three years of loving and being loved by Jonathan, a guy who was inevitably experientially unlike myself, I had started to accept—even love—my body as my own. At the same time, perhaps because of the symbolism of changing my name from “Sarah Segal” to “Sarah Katz”—we would be uniting our lives—an insistent wonder about Sarah B.’s awareness of her relationship to her body troubled me. Even though I knew that Sarah possessed an inherent identity—that she didn’t need help with becoming a particular “kind” of deaf person or fulfilling narratives external to her experience—I worried that her capacity to express her thoughts and feelings to another person, deaf or hearing, might still be limited.
I didn’t expect to learn that in those three years we hadn’t communicated, Sarah had competed in the Special Olympics as a runner. Trophies ornamented the table beside the family’s television set, and when I picked one up, Sarah signed about her successes.
“I run, run, run very fast,” she said, stressing the word “run” with kinetic intensity. “Throw discus, no. But run, run. I love to run!”
Sarah, still in a special education program where she had amassed a group of friends, had come a long way in her language development. As we sat next to each other, she peered at me bashfully. She didn’t need me to save her, I realized, just as I didn’t need Mrs. Smith, a remarkable woman in her own right, to save me. As Mrs. Smith had done for me, I had provided Sarah B. with options, and now she would have to find her own way of speaking.
We suffer, after all, not because of the ways we speak, but because of the ways we exclude ourselves with internalized external narratives about how different we feel from others. The perceived level of one’s intelligibility doesn’t matter; we are ourselves regardless of the dominant narrative, which we need never wear.
“You’re doing so well,” I signed to Sarah B., to which she nodded in agreement, her hand over her silently laughing mouth.
Rumpus original art by Elizabeth Schmuhl.