I arrived at Gallaudet University on foot. I’d been anticipating my visit for months and wanted to savor it, so I walked there.
I came for the baseball game, but arrived early to explore what, as of 2007, was the only deaf university in the world. I felt excited and nervous. I felt privileged.
We came to Washington D.C. serendipitously, for Matt’s dad’s induction into the National Academy of Sciences, for which we’d made plans last November.
I learned about Gallaudet from my ASL teacher in January. I couldn’t believe my bloody eyes when I read it was in bloody D.C.
Losing My Voice
As I walked to the visitor’s center, I felt very alive and aware. My vocal chords relaxed and my voice seemed to vanish; I became more about my eyes, my hands, and my feelings. It was an un-looked-for reaction to my location and my social expectations, and it felt really good.
It was a turning of my attention from unneeded skills, and an amplification of less-used skills that I would need to exercise shortly. I felt focused, and very in the moment, and happy. Nice to be present in “happy” for hours at a time, nyet?
My First ASL Conversation
Campus is beautiful. Buildings are of mixed ages, from several hundred years old to nineteen sixties and seventies to modern. Green grasses with wildflowers, dandelions, oak, and flowering cherry fill open spaces.
I saw several instances of one-handed signing as I walked: people signing while holding hands, eating a hotdog, on the phone, trailing a suitcase. Two-handed ASL is one skill. One-handed ASL is a whole ‘nother skill. I will put it on my list.
My first stop was the visitors’ center; I looked at each diorama and read every display before I had the nerve to approach the woman at the reception desk:
[Robin:] Hello! You deaf/hearing?
[Evon:] Deaf. (Huge smile.)
[Robin:] I’m learning ASL. I come from San Francisco. I like walk and look about. Ok?
[Evon:] Yes! ID, please. (Gives me a map and a headset tour.) Enjoy yourself!
[Robin:] I am! I’m here, at Gallaudet, I’m so happy. The campus is beautiful. I am going to the baseball game. What time do you close?
[Evon:] We close at 4:30. Wait one moment. (She disappears. I try to look nonchalant, but I’m nervous and excited.)
(Evon returns and gives me a Gallaudet bag containing water bottle, pennant, and application materials. Later I am stunned by how relatively inexpensive tuition is at the world’s only Deaf* university.)
[Robin:] Wow, wonderful, thank you! What is your name?
[Evon:] My name is Evon. My sign name is E-Black.
[Robin:] Nice to meet you. My name is Robin. May I take your picture, E-Black?
[Evon:] Of course!
[Robin:] Thank you so much. I am so excited to be here.
[Evon:] I see that. Enjoy yourself!
After that, I had to go outside and sit down. I even teared up a bit. I was a little worked up, but this was an important occasion: my first ASL conversation with a deaf person. I felt both deep excitement and profound humility at Evon’s welcome, and for being in a place of such gravity.
By gravity, I don’t mean seriousness. I mean a place of importance and weight, where people like Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, Laurent Clerc, William Stokoe, Gregory Hlibok, Jerry Covell, Bridgetta Bourne, and Tim Rarus changed the world.
As I’d had plenty of time to discover, the visitors’ center had excellent displays on the history of Gallaudet, most notably a fine timeline describing the Deaf President Now protest of 1988, which was recognized at the time by civil rights leaders around the world as the valid civil rights movement that it was.
Over the blazing course of a mere eight days, students headed by Gallaudet student leaders Gregory Hlibok, Jerry Covell, Bridgetta Bourne, and Tim Rarus lead a protest against the appointment of yet another hearing president. The students argued that it was long past time the only deaf university in the world was represented by a Deaf person, and that the Deaf community was more than capable of taking care of and representing itself.
The ultimate grant of all student demands paved the way not only for a Deaf president (I. King Jordan) for Gallaudet at last, but also for major national civil rights disability** legislation.
This is what I mean by “a place of importance and weight… where people changed the world.”
Talk about finding one’s voice.
*Deaf versus deaf: The uppercase “Deaf” denotes the meaning “culturally Deaf,” and is also used when discussing the Deaf community. Lowercase “deaf” denotes a physiological condition. I’ve used these as consistently as possible, hopefully correctly, but may have missed some instances. Sorry, copyeditor friends.
**To be clear, the Deaf community does not consider itself disabled. In my understanding as a hearing person outside of the community, they consider themselves a linguistic and cultural minority.
[[To be continued in Part Two.]]