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Location: Great Boreal Deciduous Hardwood Forest, New England, United States

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22 March 2006

another quick trip to les Isles des Sourds

Last post Vleeptron journeys to les Isles des Sourds, the Islands of the Deaf. Most of Donald Evans' stamps for les Isles des Sourds are human hands making signs for the numbers -- one, two, three, etc. -- for the denomination of each stamp.

A few blocks from my modest little cottage with its four cats is a residential hill which is host to the campus of The Clarke School for the Deaf. Most students board there, but a few are day students. I worked with a guy who moved the whole family to Northampton so his hearing-impaired daughter could go to Clarke, but still live with her family. In fact now that I think of it, two guys at this office had moved to Northampton so their kids could live at home but go to Clarke. In le Monde des Sourds, Clarke is not chopped liver.

Clarke was founded in 1867. Before he invented the whatchamacallit, Alexander Graham Bell did a year as a visiting teacher there, and in fact was trying to invent a machine to help the deaf communicate better when he accidentally invented the whatchamacallit (which indeed has proven to be very valuable and useful to the deaf).

Education is a swiftly evolving and ever-changing industry, and it's rare, almost unique to have a private boarding school last in the same spot and with the same name -- a complete continuity of birth name, original mission, founding vision -- for 140 years. And Clarke relies on paying customers, and tuition ain't cheap.

Doubtless Clarke has always done well for children of less fortunate financial circumstances with scholarships, but essentially, for 140 years, Clarke has been a private school selling a pricey product and surviving on the success of selling that product. If people had stopped thinking Clarke was valuable or necessary for their children, there would be no Clarke School for the Deaf today. Old deaf people and their family members talk to younger deaf people, and if there was something flawed or nasty or toxic or fraudulent about Clarke, Clarke would have been shut down or would have vanished or at least changed its name long ago. It's still there, and there were lots of kids with backpacks wandering around as of earlier today.

Before this gets much bigger, I should make it clear that my hearing seems to be pretty good, still, even after that Who concert in '70. (Deafness caused by choosing to attend Who concerts or be members of The Who is known as tinnitus, and Pete Townshend makes public-service television commercials on behalf of tinnitus prevention and research; I think they usually run on MTV very late at night.)

Clarke and its staff and students are just my neighbors. I don't seem to need what they sell, and they don't have much for sale or for free that I need. But I should watch more carefully for the dates of their bake sales. Clarke and I could yet do a mutually beneficial deal.

But they're great neighbors, almost even thrilling neighbors, richly, richly interesting, brave, pioneering, violently hated and cursed and reviled by thousands all over the USA and Canada for most of Clarke's history. You just never heard any of this cursing and yelling because you're not deaf.

Although signing was always common within North America's deaf community, all methods of educating deaf children commanded roughly the same respect and acceptance. Everybody was just happy somebody was doing it, because the public and the private schools weren't doing doodlysquat for deaf kids in 1867.

Before Clarke was founded, German educators first pioneered the techniques and goal of mainstreaming deaf children.

Signing is a rich language explosive with nuance and fully sophisticated communication. But when schooling ends, deaf children who have only learned to sign find themselves exiled for the rest of their adult lives to les Isles des Sourds, to the hearing-impaired and signing community, for they're the only ones who understand.

When I started working for newspapers, our Composing Room was known as a "Hot Type" shop, and produced all its text from boiling cauldrons of liquid lead. The machines that made the "lines of type" was the Linotype machine. Maybe if you go to Port Moresby, Papua Nugini, they got a print shop that still uses Linotype machines, but that would depend on if somebody on Earth today still manufactures thousands of ingots of lead, each of which weighs about 40 pounds. Lead is no longer the Happy, Innocent, Fun, Useful, Easily Liquified Metal it used to be, when all the world's centuries and millions of toy soldiers (more properly called Military Miniatures; they are Not Toys) were made of lead, and millions of little boys could suck on the soldiers because lead tastes sweet. That's why kids in the slums like to eat flakes of lead paint.

A bank of twelve Linotype Machines makes a deafening clamor; the Composing Room, for toxic fumes and for the deafening clamor was Hell On Earth, and in fact much of the Composing Room's vocabulary stemmed from Hell. A printer's apprentice was a Printer's Devil, and the wooden box where used type was tossed in a fairly useless jumble was the Hell Box.

Whom can you hire to work in a constant deafening clamor where the air is full of lead fumes? Who doesn't care?

So very many of the employees in the Composing Room were stone or largely deaf, were well-paid as they rose in their skills, and belonged to a tough union; they were the first deaf people I ever met in groups of more than one. The printing industry back in those days had become the natural training and employment realm of the deaf. They all signed, and signing is a superb tool for communicating important messages accurately in Hell.

And along with a job for life, they also had a small community of other deaf men and women as their friends, social life, romantic partners, etc. But they were almost entirely isolated and excluded from the Larger World of Hearing and Clear Speaking; in jobs or careers or dating or socializing, they did it with and among other deaf and signing people; or they didn't couldn't do it.

Signing, using the hands to communicate, is forbidden for students at Clarke, in class, in the dorms, anywhere on campus. They and their parents know it before they enroll, and many kids are already very fluent in ASL by the time they're enrolled in Clarke. For many the transition must be brutally and unhappily abrupt -- like suddenly going deaf and speechless all over again. It's an active duty of every Clarke teacher to discourage or prevent student signing. (See naughty smutty gossip at end of post.)

Instead Clarke intensively teaches lip-reading. Here in town you can find yourself carrying on a fully ordinary conversation with a stranger in the hardware store, and only realize she's deaf when her back is turned.

The other half of the Clarke education is to improve the student's speech to as close as clear hearing speech as possible. This isn't easy because our speaking depends heavily on our hearing -- hearing what we're speaking, a fundamental form of information feedback. Without it, we can still speak, but our speech is difficult for hearing people to understand.

But your reward for graduating from Clarke's Tough Old Educational Philosophy is a social and career liberation. You can try for and very often, maybe even usually get a job anywhere in the labor market. You can go on to any curriculum in any college. And you can hang with and date anyone who'll let you date him or her. And all that usually comes after that.

After Clarke, you're still deaf, but you don't have to live the rest of your life in Hell with a little bunch of your fellow Hellies anymore.

The mainstreaming/no-signing philosophy that Clarke has championed for more than a century has always been wildly controversial. In DC, the federally-run Gallaudet University is a sign-all-you-want institution. Screw mainstreaming; Gallaudet celebrates ASL and champions the deaf community and lifestyle.

To many in the North American deaf community "Clarke" means "Evil" and even "Mean Old-Fashioned People Who Treat Little Kiddies Bad." The controversy runs deep and ferocious, and I don't think either side is going to vanquish the other side or convert the other side any time soon.

The loveliest phone call just now to the Librarian at Clarke. The school was named for John Clarke, who was born in 1789 and lived all his life in Northampton. He was a successful businessman and banker. In late middle age he began to grow deaf, and became interested in the education of deaf children. He founded and endowed the school named for him. Alexander Graham Bell and President Calvin and Mrs. Grace Coolidge served on the Clarke board.

And the Librarian straightened me out about lots of other things about Clarke and its history, too. I forgot to ask her if they're having any bake sales.

Okay, here's the only nasty gossip I have about Clarke, and even this isn't true, but it's True Gossip, if you know what I mean. It is Authentic Genuine Gossip.

In 140 years, Clarke has sent a shitload of kids into The Wide World, but every generation, some graduates just like it here in Northampton and environs, and they park it here. So living in Northampton I've bumped into and had some lovely chats with Clarke grads of all ages.

We get a Clarke grad now and then at the homeless shelter, although we often don't notice it for a few hours. The guest might have an alcohol or a jail problem, but you can't tell he or she's deaf.

SOCIAL WORKER: Why didn't you tell us you had a hearing problem?

CLARKE ALUM: Why should I? I have problems, but that's not one of them.

When kids first arrive at Clarke, older kids show them around and teach them the ropes. The older kids tell the newcomers about the punishments the school has for signing, what will happen if a teacher catches a kid signing. For the first offense, a verbal warning. For every subsequent signing violation, the school chops off one of your fingers.

That doesn't really happen at Clarke. It's just something older kids tell little kids who are frightened and homesick and don't know any better. But that's been part of the student lore at Clarke forever, maybe it started in 1868. I drive near Clarke all the time, everybody's got all their fingers.


Blogger Jim Olson said...

Interesting 'blogging about Clarke school..several members of First Churches are either grads, or faculty at Clarke. I grew up near the Boston School for the Deaf, run by the Sisters of St. Joseph. In fact, my mother taught Sunday School there for many years for the few Protestant children who were admitted there. Boston School taught ASL. (It's now been sold and is a really tony private school...the nuns got too old to teach and the Archdiocese lost interest in running such a large institution).

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

hmm okay i think the Clarke Librarian said Bell was a regular teacher at Boston School for the Deaf, but as was common for young educators of the deaf, he arranged himself a year at Clarke to learn their methods.

After a very long time holding steady, muttering about financial woes, CSftD is suddenly (see their website) in a rather dramatic expansion phase: a new school in Boston, and a new school in Jacksonville Florida. The Librarian explained that it's recent bad changes in the deaf education environment; competing options (like Boston School for the Deaf) have closed, and Clarke decided to try to fill the vacuum of these recent changes.

Clarke was one of the few, maybe the only All-Mainstream school. So now, after all the controversy and fighting, Clarke may "win" after all, or rather Clarke may survive and go while many ASL schools financially fail or get Very Old Nun Disease.

I will now take this opportunity to tell you my friend's CCD story. He was what? About 13 or 14 or something and an old priest -- my pal suspected a bit of alcohol hammering, the priest looked a little haunted and shaky -- was teaching the CCD class. One day (like an episode in the Simpsons) all the kids began asking increasingly explicit question about Hell. The priest tried to field a few, but they kept coming. Finally he opened the classroom door, looked up and down the hallway, closed the door and said, sotto voce, to the class:

"There is no such place. Just forget it. Don't worry about it."

Anonymous patfromthewhere? said...

eh bob, were you really at a Who gig in 1970 or was that just rethoric ? I thought you was abroad then.

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

i went to a Who concert around then sometime. and i wasn't abroad. you can get hurt in some of those abroad places the Army was sending us then. i don't think we had troops in Switzerland then (we still had plenty in Germany), but I wouldn't have minded being posted to Switzerland. What's the matter with you guys? You never seem to need American troops.


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