Thursday, February 18, 2010

When Sassy Learned Sign Language

I was sitting in a trailer making a papier-mâché bust of Donkey Kong when I got into my first fight with a deaf person. It was 1986 and I was in the middle of first grade at Reilly Elementary School in Austin, Texas, where my family had recently moved in order to facilitate my dad's job defending free speech (and, some Republicans publicly argued, child pornographers) through the Texas Civil Liberties Union.

The deaf girl's name was Meghan. She was one of four deaf kids in our class, and because of them we had two teachers, our normal one Ms. McHenry and our sign language teacher Ms. Eckelcamp. I remember we spent a lot of time that year learning how to sign. For some reason the main tool they used was the song "Joy to the World" by Three Dog Night. So to this day I can sign the sentence "Jeremiah was a bullfrog" but I can't say "Where is the bathroom?" This is kind of like my grasp of Spanish; thanks to my diverse elementary school in Brooklyn (which I started once we'd moved back to New York from Austin), I learned to sing entire songs in Spanish but never learned the basics of the language. When I am in the Dominican Republic in April and someone asks me for directions, my only choice will be to say "En mi viejo San Juan/Cuantos sueños forjé/En mis noches de infancia/Mi primera ilusión/Y mis quitas de amor/Son recuerdos del alma."*

*Translation: In my Old San Juan, many dreams I forged in my childhood years... My first illusion, and my grief of love are memories of the soul.

Anyway, back to Meghan and our rumble. Meghan was red-headed and pretty, and I was, as I have previously documented, a total (albeit cute) weirdo:
That's her, behind me in the red penguin outfit. She is obviously jealous of my high-waisted sweatpants and awesome pigtails.

For some reason we had art class in a trailer about 200 yards away from the school proper. So the visual you should have now is: me, looking like a fashion-challenged Punky Brewster, and Meghan, looking like a little princess, sitting in a trailer in Texas making Donkey Kong heads out of paper and paste. I swear I did not provoke her. She just glanced over at my work and gave me a withering look.

"Mine is beautiful," she said in her tiny Marlee Matlin twang. "Yours is ugly." Fightin' words if I ever heard 'em! I totally went Donkey Kong on her ass.

No, just kidding. I started crying. I was seven. And even then I was extraordinarily passive. I'm like Buster from Arrested Development; I curl up into a ball and play dead at the slightest hint of violence.

In case you are wondering, here is what the signs look like:

"Beautiful":

"Ugly":

Do you want to see how it looks in live action, when someone who does NOT resemble middle-aged Raffi does it? Voila:


In second grade, perhaps inspired by her, I made the following book:

It's all about how this girl Cathy learns sign language so that she can learn how to say "Step off, you ginger bitch!" to a deaf girl who insults her sweet video game-inspired sculpture.

Ok, that's not true. It's about how Cathy learns sign language so she can be friends with a deaf girl named Zoelemonoe.

Stop laughing, that part is true. I was totally awesome at making up names.

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55 comments :

  1. I made out with a deaf guy a year or so ago. Don't even ask how he swooned me into it or how we got down to the nitty gritty. The only facts I recall are that
    1. I was wastey faced
    2. He was deaf

    not my finest moment, but certainly not my worst.

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  2. My friend taught me how to swear in bsl and that's about it. I can tell people what to do with themselves but nothing else. Really useful obviously!

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  3. I didn't know that you lived in Austin!
    Awesome!

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  4. You are freaking hilarious!

    "you don't have to be able to hear, to be a bitch!"

    I'm still smiling after that one.

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  5. @Valerie: Aw. I hope it was clear that I'm not trying to rail against deaf people. For some reason I just remember that moment so clearly...

    @Madeleine: The only thing I know how to say in Greek is "Go fuck yourself." Has not yet been useful but I'm crossing my fingers to someday get in a brawl in Athens.

    @Hipstercrite: Yeah, 1984-88. I was too young to do anything cool but I was a regular visitor at the brand-new Whole Foods.

    @Pat: Aw, thanks. Did you like how I was too lazy to dress up for you guys and did the video in my robe?

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  6. I love the tag "I saw the sign."

    I also wrote my first book in the second grade. It's called "The Easter Bunny and His Girlfriend" and it's about their first date: an overnight camping trip. It's fully illustrated. Apparently, at the time, we were learning how to build proper campfires in Brownie Girl Scouts.

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  7. I did in fact notice your robe. I figured you were just looking to expand your readership base...

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  8. My sign language is very limited. I can sign the alphabet, "I would die for you" but only the way Prince did it in the music video.

    I can also say 'fuck you' and 'up yours' in sign language.

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  9. Its funny that you draw a sad history based on your early deaf-education (?). I too had a few deaf classmates and learned sign via song (the program was called Talking Hands in Upstate NY in the 80s), I know various christmas songs and wilson phillips and of course Phil Collins. Its important for a fourth grader to know the song "Paradise" so she knows what to look forward to.

    Anyway,,, because of my experience I went to school to eventually become an audiologist, and I work to help those with various levels of hearing impairment to hear and facilitate their learning and communicating (without sign mostly).

    PS I totally rocked the tucked in sweatpants.

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  10. tamela3:28 PM

    @Hipstercrite: Yeah, 1984-88. I was too young to do anything cool but I was a regular visitor at the brand-new Whole Foods.

    That was pretty cruel right there. I graduated in '88. Make the pain go away.

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  11. I'm having a totally chaotic afternoon. Your post was a perfect break.

    Feels great to laugh.

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  12. That story, as always, rocked hard. However, the visuals were what made this one hilarious lol

    P.S. - my first book was in fourth grade, entitled "The Adventures of Banana Man and Meatloaf - vs. the Dr. Gumdrop and his Evil Candybars" or some such glory.

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  13. Totally off topic, but, I loved your response to your hubby's self portrait photobooth shots! And just so you know, my eyebrows matched yours until the 7th grade when I shaved off the unibrow to about the middle of each eye. That was waayyyy better!

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  14. Oh man. That book cover made me LOL. I made books like that too. My mom has them all.

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  15. You may have posted in your robe, but it is a lovely robe that was clearly given to you by someone awesome. That Someone Awesome also only knows sign-language for Boy, Girl, Wine, Whore, Dishwasher, Want, & Escape.
    Only slightly useful.

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  16. I bet the sign version of Joy To the World, sounds way better than the sound one.

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  17. I can say many things in many languages. All of them foul and completely non-useful! Nothing in ASL as of yet though.

    P.S. I totally thought green and purple matched for several years.

    P.P.S. I was in middle school during those years!

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  18. You are absolutely hilarious!! I love it

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  19. Ha! to this day the only things I can really say in sign language are "flame on rocket man," "Hallelujah, it's raining men" and "dream." Super super useful. I'm with you on pulling the "Buster" at the slightest provocation. But I am really good at making myself cry because of it.

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  20. Hahaha, cannot stop laughing!

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  21. YOU HAVE MADE ME LAUGHED SOOO HARD my butt had nearly fallen off! :-) x

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  22. So... unibrows kinda run in my family. And I have two wee daughters. So the thought has crossed my mind, what are you going to do if your daughters have unibrows? Just send them out into the world to fend for themselves with one eyebrow in a world where everyone else has two? Or take them to the spa to have the hairs between their eyes ripped out?

    After seeing this photo of you my decision is clear -- leave it be. Not only are you absolutely adorable in your girlish unibrow glory, but it is clearly the source of your sass.

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  23. LOL was created to be used for this post, on this day.

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  24. i'll teach you ALL the sex signs next time i see you. and, i can sign/sing my way through "the rose" and "i want it that way." oh yes. yes, i can.

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  25. Don't worry, I can't learn a language either. Songs are okay, but languages? Nightmare.

    Anyway, I bet your Donkey Kong was ten times better than hers!

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  26. epic win.
    and i just might have to name my next child or pet Zoelemonoe. :)

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  27. Did you ever learn signs for ethnicities? Some of them are incredibly offensive.

    Also I am in my robe as well :)

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  28. Classic first line. Move over, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times".

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  29. Wow. According to my e-mail inbox, I need to start commenting on your posts far later in the discussion. 20 emails on the same topic is fairly daunting lol

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  30. I love your blog. If you weren't married and I weren't straight, I'd be in love with you too.

    Question about your mother, did she not care that you had Bert's eyebrows?
    How dare she?
    You put the child to sleep, numb the area with ice and get ta pluckin'.
    Is that cruelty worse than what you surely had to endure in teasing and mockery?

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  31. My Aunt is deaf. I don't know sign language. At all.

    That doesn't stop me from "acting out" conversations for her, or demonstrating things... mostly that I am an idot that doesn't know sign language.

    I'm calling my next child, be it male or female Zoelemonoe. Just so you know.

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  32. Awwww, you're bringing back memories of my own royal rumbles in grade school. Curiously, they weren't with girls, they were with boys. I spent a lot of good hours facing the corner, giving the side-eye hex magic to my male opponent in the other corner.

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  33. Fucking Christ you're hilarious.

    (I've just resorted to outbursts via comment because I can't think of anything remotely clever or funny enough to express how clever and funny you are.)

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  34. i feel the same about gingers as you!

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  35. I had a similar experience in grade 7, though the objet d'art was a 7-inch high papier machet replicate of Ginger Spice and the fight was with my dignity and, what I would later discover, a barely-on-its-hinges closet door.

    Just discovered this blog yesterday at work and had to resort to some light Lamaze to stifle my hysterics. The girls scout cookie post required a self-muffling with a Receive By date stamp.

    You're all different kinds o' awesome.

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  36. Dude, I'm a hearing child of two deaf parents and absolutely fluent in ASL (my first language). I have been asked how to sign sooooo many things so people could learn them (mostly swears) but I WISH someone had asked me how to sign "Step off, you ginger bitch!" That would have made my lifetime.

    (Green and purple don't match? Damn, that explains so much of my late elementary school years.)

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  37. Anonymous2:51 PM

    so you spent some of your formative years in Austin--no wonder I like you so much--you weirdo!

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  38. Arley5:34 PM

    I love Buster! Although unlike him, you weren't getting attacked by a bear; just a deaf person.
    This post was hilarious. Made my day!

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  39. Dudes, your stories of sign language made me laugh and totally brightened a stressful work day! I'm totally beat but I want to respond to two of you on a topic close to my heart (and head): unibrows.

    @Betsy B. Honest: That is super touching. If I am an inspiration to anyone to rock a unibrow I'd be honored. Yes, my sass does come partially from being kind of a freak as a kid.

    That said, I constantly worry about what to do with my kids. I don't want them to get teased, so I think about how best to remove their unis without scarring them for life. Which brings me to...

    @Recessionista: My mom wanted me to be confident and think I was beautiful, which I very much appreciate. The teasing was painful, but like I said, it's probably partially responsible for my sense of humor now. I don't think there's any way to deal with a unibrow that won't screw the kid up at least a little. Either you make them feel like they need to change what they are and they feel insecure or you let them run free with a Bert brow and they get made fun of.

    It's a bitch, I'll tell ya. I'm still trying to decide how to deal with my future kids' future unibrows... any suggestions?

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  40. Does this post win the Best First Sentence of a Blog Post Ever award? I think so.

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  41. You crack me up!! That's hysterical!

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  42. Stopping by to give you the Sunshine Blog Award http://debs1967.blogspot.com/2010/02/sunshine-blog-award.html

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  43. a budding artist too - i love the illustrations on the little book

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  44. You are totally awesome! I shared your blog and Project Runway recap with all of my friends, and they all think that you are awesome, too!

    Thanks for making me laugh!!

    Margret

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  45. Your blog posts are awesome! I'm still working on mine, hopefully i'll get some of the same feedback you get! I'll definitely continue reading all of yours, they make me crack up!

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  46. this is hilarious! i usually tip based on service and those cards you posted there give me some ideas on what to do on future occasions...

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  47. I love the book you made. No wonder you are (still) a writer now. And I agree, that's an awesome opening sentence.

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  48. Dude, you let'em snooze.
    Like Benadryl deep.
    Then you ice the area and voila!
    Perfectly docile, perfectly numb.
    Pluck or wax (faster).

    I hope no Catholic Priests are reading this. Good lord.

    Happy parenting!

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  49. I love the picture of you in your sweat pants hiked up to your chin!!! I must say, you are a brave woman to have gone out of your way to post that priceless picture. Please, please, post more, they cheer me! Just knowing that I wasn't the only girl in school looking like a "mommy dressed me" girl. LOL I loved it!!

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  50. I recently started taking bsl, so far I can sign diarhea, poop, and butter. I probably wont be getting much conversation with these three, but I thought the sign for diarhea was awesome and have taught it to my whole family.

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  51. I,as a spanish speaker would simply be overwhelmed wuith your charming response of that reply with the verses for "en mi viejo San Juan",and may I add that your blog is so popular brcause you communicate the sense of humor needed in these times of extreme I don't know what or whatever.

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  52. **Jumping up and down with hand raised high**

    This story is truly awesome! We would love to feature it in on the Can I Sit With You? project blog (and possibly even in our third story collection, coming out this Fall). We don't compensate except with warm fuzzies (and occasionally shows on NPR), but all proceeds from the project go directly to families of kids with special needs...

    Please? (No worries if not, though.)

    You can contact us either way at ciswysubmissions@gmail.com.

    Thanks for the hoot.

    Shannon Des Roches Rosa
    Co-Editor, Can I Sit With You?

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  53. I had a fantastic unibrow. Until I was far too old to have one. And suddenly noticed what all the kids were sniggering at. My mum, like yours, didn't want me to feel I had to change, and so never said anything until I asked her how to get rid of it, and then she had at me with tweezers. She also left me with a super cute moustache and hairy legs (I am totally faired skinned with dark brown hair). And I won't even begin to tell you about her neglecting to inform me of appropriate bikini lines and ballet leotards. I had to learn that one the hard way.

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  54. somehow i missed this post. hilarious! just when i think i should not read any more of your wonderful blog just out of republican spite i see an arrested development reference and u pull me right back in :)

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  55. I too had to learn "En mi Viejo San Juan"...but in 9th grade Spanish III in Alabama....and then, I was entered into a Spanish Arts competition at the local community college...humiliating...I still know all the words...which are of no use unless I'm forced to sing a Spanish song to save my life in Mexico...or San Juan..whichever.

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