I had a small office in a building overlooking a parking area where students congregated on pleasant days. The windows caught the morning sun. I arrived at the office at 7 every morning to work on my own book, an allegorical novel about how society treats its defectives. It had a love affair, a world-weary detective, a bomber on the loose—it seemed to be going everyplace and no place.
When my work faltered, I stared at the students hanging out in the parking area. Their signing was beautiful: With their hands and arms and bodies, they carved up and fluffed out the space in front of them. They made that space breathe and filled it with energy and moved that energy around, flattening it, kneading it, passing it back and forth. They flirted, they boasted, they teased. Watching them, I thought again about what it meant to be deaf.
Deaf people are doctors, lawyers, professional baseball players, Academy Award winners. Reed Doughty, a severely hard-of-hearing man, plays free safety for the Redskins. Vint Cerf, a deaf computer genius living in Northern Virginia, is the father of the Internet.
And yet: The world hears and expects you to hear, as so many important things are happening and the TV’s playing in the background, the iPod’s blaring that new song, cars are honking, dogs are barking. At some point, if you’re deaf, every accomplishment fades away and you’re sitting in the corner, lost.
What I saw was that inside the gates of Gallaudet, everyone’s been in that corner. Some have raged against it, some have ignored it, some have found spiritual riches in the surrender to limitation, some have felt cheated by it. And from that shared disconnect there has stemmed a connection that is the essence of Gallaudet. It’s a gorgeous thing—many people with no hearing loss at all come to Gallaudet to be a part of it.
Eye contact is essential in sign language; every interaction is predicated on it, whether you’re walking down the street, eating a bagel, making love, making a point in class. Ask yourself: When was the last time you opened your eyes and really took someone in? Held her in your attention as if she were the most important thing in the universe? This is communication as an act of love.
I had no idea I would find it at Gallaudet. When I taught the class on minority cultures the first semester, I was ignorant of it. It didn’t change the fact that the university would need to evolve radically to survive the changes brought on by implants. But it changed the stakes. Whereas before I saw the university’s possible closing as a natural progression and no great loss for the larger world, now I wasn’t so sure.
My novel waited. More and more, I watched the students out the window.