Today, I had an interview at a local Deaf Center for volunteer work. It started out as a course requirement for a college class I’m taking this semester, and blossomed into something I’ll be sticking with for as many years into the future that I can.
Back to my high school years. I had three best friends, whom I let into my secrets, my dysfunctional family life, gals that I let in to see the real me. From 1st to 12th grade, I was continually harassed for my looks/weight/unpopularity, I put up an emotional wall to protect myself from anyone and everyone. I didn’t have any high hopes about my future- I wasn’t particularly smart. I made my bets on beauty school, hoping to earn money as I stood, safely, in the shadows. I wasn’t athletic and even running a half block made me so incredibly winded, I expected to dry-heave my lungs out.
I looked at these other popular, seemingly-flawless, valedictorian-qualified peers of mine, glaring up at the bright light as they lived on a pedestal. Scholarships would be rolling in soon, offering chances to excel at sports, thrive in areas of academics, and/or massively change the world around them for the better. I was scraping by with a B- in most of my classes, didn’t raise my hand in class for fear of having any extra attention placed on me, and wished life away as the years rolled along.
Just before putting in my class schedule roster for Freshman year, I debated with my Mom which foreign language I’d be best scraping by with. I had taken Spanish in middle school and vividly remembered failing each term. Class presentations were a joke; I had the most difficult time studying a foreign dialect. Couldn’t put the Western, Utah accent to bed. A silent language it was, then. And so I checked off “Beginning American Sign Language.”
Summer comes to a close and I’m walking through the massive halls of my high school, wavering about what these next four years would mean. I found my way into my Sign Language classroom, glancing around at my peers. The majority were my age and it was just this- a melting pot of cliques. We had one or two football players, a couple dancers, emo’s, plenty of band geeks, et cetera, et cetera. Then there was me.
Our teacher, who I’ll refer to as KR, was a collaboration of all things: witty and serious, determined and a jokester, one of the guys and one of the girls. She pulled it all off, and everyone liked her. Easy to relate to, I had made a confidant. She, among many of the best teachers that are actually educating their students, made the course simple (not easy) to learn. She got on our level and had everyone laughing. My burden felt lighter.
Fast forward the next three years and I was advancing to the second, third, and finally fourth level of Sign Language. Seeing KR a few times a week was a beacon of light in the abyss of darkness that high school was to me. Working with her one-on-one as a teacher’s aid for years Sophomore through Senior, she became one of my good friends. From the beginning, I felt I could trust her, something I rarely felt with anyone else. She watched as I dated different guys, went on dates, raved or bitched about dates, and simply grew up. When I’d stop practicing for a while, and she could tell (always could), she gave me a caring kick in the ass. She expected more out of me, simply because she believed. During these critical years, I came to rely on that mostly-inaudible encouragement. The positive reinforcement I received when I had put in the time and work was worth it.
Sign Language, to me, became a language of storytelling, of rhythm and dance, of speed work and coordination, of nonverbally connecting to the world around you. It became symbols of hope and understanding when I felt the least seen and heard. Outsiders looking in probably feel empathy for people who are hard of hearing, as if it’s a handicap that would relentlessly hold them back in life. In my eyes, they are the ones who have it good.
KR moved out of town a few years after I graduated, and I haven’t seen or heard from her since. I know that wherever she is, she’s making the world around her a little brighter and a little more filled with hope.
assignment opportunity came this semester in college to put in volunteer hours at a community center and/or nonprofit, I didn’t struggle to find what I wanted to do. Walking in to the Deaf Center this morning, I was surrounded with people of all ages and walks of life, signing away and conversing with their own neighbors, loved ones, and peers. Lifting my nervously-shaking hands, I erroneously signed to the front desk secretary that I had an appointment to be evaluated as a volunteer. A few minutes pass and I met with the program director in her office. I trembled as I made small talk with my hands, trying so hard to recall signs from years passed. She was kind and helped me along my way. I was making a serious joke of myself and my capabilities, but she saw me through that. In her, I saw glimpses of KR, and was struggling to keep the tears back. I felt at home there.
I plan to start volunteering a few hours a week from now on out and I know KR would be so proud of me. Doing this is a pleasure and an honor to her, the language, and everything it taught me in those four years and on: that I have potential.