Friday, July 08, 2005

The importance of hearing

I took a sign language night class while I was attending college. I took it just for fun. I never expected it to change my world. I guess you never know, do you?

I highly recommend taking night classes while going to college, by the way - the interaction with grown-ups who aren't after degrees but just want to improve themselves is a very nice (and grounding) activity. I sometimes suspect that half of what is wrong with so many college students and so many college professors is that they spend too much time exclusively with college students and college professors - but that's another story.

I couldn't have guessed it then, but only a couple or so years later I would be doing song translation at a concert at a school for the deaf in Canada; part of this concert, as it happened, was shown on a television broadcast to the Canadian nation (and, one presumes, neighboring states in the USA), with me as a very nervous center of too much attention. (When I accepted the job, I didn't know it was going to be televised. It kind of changed the pressure level when I found out.)

And I blew it. Oh sure - I have all these private gigs where things go almost perfectly but it's when my performance is broadcast to thousands if not millions of people - that's when I have to use a wrong sign!

A short explanation is in order. Song sign is not the same as spoken sign. You not only take a little artistic license now and then to make the signs flow into each other better, but sometimes you have to get creative because the conversational sign is too tiny or too subtle to be read by an audience. In that case, you must either exaggerate the sign, or invent one to take its place. But the invention must make sense. I was on a concert tour with Up With People when this happened, and I found out ahead of time, maybe a couple weeks or so ahead, that the director wanted me to perform in sign language at this particular show. But, of course, no one had translated the songs yet. That was up to me. Excuse me, please, I've had one semester of night class! I'm not a translator yet! Hello! We didn't do song sign in that class. I'm in over my head here! I think we were in Massachusetts still (it was in New England or thereabouts for certain) and I cast about until I found a school that had a sign language program, and I made an appointment with the instructor, and she graciously sat down with me and worked through the material I was to perform.

Most of it was easy enough. As I remember it, she ran me through the basics of what had to be drawn out more, and how to add flourish without going overboard. She helped me find alternate signs which made the song prettier to watch. I had some stage experience before Up With People, plus my stage training for Up With People, and so some of what she was teaching me I already understood - but her input was wonderful. There are reasons that shows have directors instead of just actors, after all. I have forgotten the lady's name, but I am in her debt.


We were huge on fighting racism in those days. In that spirit, one of our songs was "What Color Is God's Skin?" Basically, a parent is tucking a child into bed, and the kid asks what color God's skin is. The parent answers, "It's black, brown, it's yellow, it's red, it is white. Everyone's the same in the good Lord's sight," etc.

What color is God's is a joy to sign, as it happens. It's just a sequence that works. (Think hula dancing, without the hips...) But "skin" was a problem. Neither this professor nor I knew a sign for "skin," not really, and research didn't help us much. Excuse me, but pinching my arm was neither clear nor beautiful - nor did it go with the flow. (You betcha, "What color is God's forearm?" is real catchy. And not the least distracting, either...)

We finally decided that, put into context, running a couple of fingers down one side of my face would probably be my best bet. The meaning would probably be clear enough - and if people guessed wrong they'd probably guess "face" instead of "skin" - which struck us as quite acceptable. And it fit wonderfully with the other signs. It was just the right height, going just the right direction at just the right time. Good enough.

So that's what I went with, quaking in my boots from having a camera stuck on me the whole time - but managing - and after a while enjoying myself (mostly).

After the concert a whole bunch of kids came up to me (think rock star being mobbed) and the first thing they did was jump up and down and say - in sign, of course - how wonderful it was that a deaf person like me could go on a concert tour. Oops. Who told them I was deaf and not a translator? I swallowed hard and explained that I could hear. Faces drooped. (Dang. They'd been so happy.) So I did a little chatting with them about how they shouldn't let the fact that I personally wasn't deaf discourage them any. (This was a very strange situation to be in, I have to say.)

But then, as soon as they recovered from the disappointment of finding out I wasn't deaf they asked me about that one sign we'd made up for "skin," the sign language instructor and my humble self.

"What's this (they did a perfect imitation of me running fingers down the side of my cheek)," the kids signed, earnestly. "Why?" they added.

Well, I wasn't too surprised that they were confused. After all, it was the one sign in the whole show that the professor and I had invented.

I spelled it for them using the sign language alphabet - s.k.i.n.

The kids shook their heads - and at that instant I realized why they were so incredibly confused about that sign and perplexed about why it was in that song. In one blazing, humiliating instant, it flashed into my brain that I had used a sign that already existed for something else. The whole song I had been signing, "What color is God's Mormon?" Yep. For the sideburns of the early leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, you run your fingers down along where the sideburns go. (At least in that particular sign language. There are several sign languages, if you don't know.) The kids confirmed my fears, by the way, spelling M.o.r.m.o.n. back at me. Oops.

Go ahead. Laugh. I did once I finally crawled out from under the nearest rock (figuratively speaking).

Not that I have anything against Mormons (I don't), but saying "Mormon" when you mean "skin" is a Very Bad Translation, if I do say so myself.

I don't know what the archive policy is for Canadian television, but sometimes I wonder if there is still footage somewhere of me making one of the silliest mistakes of my life. I hope no one has ever used that clip to learn song signing, and that's a fact. I rather hope it's been melted or shredded or whatever gets done to old film that recorded a performance that doesn't meet a certain level of competence.

The subject comes up because today I have been thinking about that sign language class - the one I took while still in college - and an important lesson that I learned while taking it. Our instructor (I think her name might have been Sally but I'm not sure all these years later) set it up so that we could learn a little bit about being deaf. I remember that I scoffed a little (I was a college kid, remember?) when the assignment was given to us. Being blind was serious. Deaf? Deaf struck me as not nice but hardly anything to get overly excited about. Of all the disabilities I could think of, deafness seemed like a walk in the park compared to the rest of them.

But Sally (let's call her that) assigned us to wear gear that blocked our hearing and furthermore she gave us Very Strict Instructions that we were NOT to do this on our own, that we must work in teams of two and one of us must stay hearing and keep his or her eyes out for the person experimenting with being deaf. We thought Sally was treating us like babies, or else was totally nuts, but we agreed to the terms.

And thank goodness we agreed to the terms.

The assignment included doing certain chores while deaf: cooking, going to the store, I don't remember what else. I was staggered by how hard it was.

I had had no idea that I did not know how to cook if I couldn't hear things boiling or sizzling in the pan. Honestly. I had no idea how much I relied on my hearing to cook.

I had no idea how often and how easily I avoided getting run into by shopping carts at the store solely because I heard them coming up and rather automatically adjusted.

And parking lots? The buddy system kept us from having funerals because of parking lots. I'd assumed that seeing movement out of the corner of my eye was the crucial thing. Wrong!

I just had never noticed how much I relied on my sense of hearing.

With a little thought, it becomes self-evident. When do I know the cats are into something they shouldn't be, for instance? Usually it's because I hear something that clues me in. When do I know my husband is home? Usually the first clue is that series of sounds that has a smile on my face before he comes through the door. Sometimes I smile first, and only realize that I'm hearing him after my attention is already focused. Hearing can feel like a supernatural thing.

I have turned off malfunctioning appliances - because they didn't sound right. I have pulled off the road because the car didn't sound right. I have heard fires before I have seen them or smelled them. The sound of water dripping has led me to many a problem that needed nipping in the bud. And how many times have I skirted disaster because someone shouted a warning or honked a car horn? It doesn't bear thinking about.

Again and again and again, hearing has prevented me from suffering injuries or has brought me joy, and that's well before you get to the subjects of music, or the fun of chatting back and forth with someone, or that general sense of being nestled in amongst other people that comes from half-hearing the folks around you.

Let's not forget the obvious - the information we glean from listening to people. In person, on television, on radio, in class, wherever.

I'm sure you could make your own list.

Hearing matters.

This all comes up for a couple of reasons, not least that The Anchoress has put up a post saying that she has been told she's probably going deaf. And when I read it I realized (to my chagrin) that without that college assignment I might be back at my twenty-ish view of the world, scoffing and saying, "Yeah, well, deafness isn't as bad as some stuff I can think of." Yes, sure, it's not as bad as some things. Definitely.

But, at a wild guess, I suspect that you haven't got a clue how many of your coping skills - not to mention how much of your day to day finesse - (I'm presuming you have some finesse and style ;) is dependent on your ability to hear small clues and respond without thinking about it. I don't think you can know, if you haven't stopped to think about it. Hearing is just so internal.

Can you hear all right? Count your blessings.

And turn the volume down a little, please, if you happen to be careless about overloud sounds. This is one of those gifts that requires proper protection, you know.

1 comment:

Bookworm said...

What a wonderful post. My father was increasingly deaf -- nerve damage from WWII -- and one of the huge effects it had on him was social isolation. With his usual stoicism, he claimed that he really didn't want to be around people, but the fact was that it was just to frustrating and depressing to struggle against the silence (or when he had hearing aids, the bombardment of undifferentiated sound). The legacy for me is that I developed, and have to this day, an unusually piercing, clear voice, with careful enunciation. People who are hard of hearing love my voice!