Today, September 23rd, it’s International Sign Language Day. I would like to share my story with the readers.
“Who questions much, shall learn much, and retain much.”-Francis Bacon
Every oral school for the Deaf proudly proclaims that it teaches its students how to speak. Every such school proudly advertises that it doesn’t teach sign language, nor do its students use it. Every residential oral school has traditionally had a clandestine signing subculture.
It’s far more difficult for this to occur in day schools, where students are shuttled between their families and school, which is why Alexander Graham Bell thought they were the best solution to the problem of educating Deaf students.
His ideal was schools where there would be a single Deaf student in the midst of the hearing majority. It goes without saying that he never considered Deaf children’s linguistic, social, or cognitive needs. Much less their feelings.
Tucker-Maxon Oral School was founded by Paul Boley, a Harvard-educated attorney and president of Cascades Plywood Corporation, in 1947, after his Deaf daughter Barbara Ann had been enrolled in the preschool program at Hosford Public School for Deaf Children. The school’s name honors co-founder Alice Maxon, initially a teacher at Hosford, “who believed ‘Deaf children can talk,’” and chief sponsor Max Tucker, then president of Cascades Plywood Corporation.
In its philosophy, TMOS resembles other auditory-oral schools—its refusal to recognize ASL, its insistence on “listening and talking,” its use of amplification, hearing aids, and cochlear implants, its spotlighting its “successes.” Its grandiose motto is “Conversation, Confidence, Creativity, & Community.”
Just as every author has a story, this is mine. When I was young, I was never asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Once I became subject to the discipline of Tucker-Maxon Oral School (TMOS), Portland, Oregon, I focused only on one thing: surviving.
I’m from a small town, Yacolt, on the southwestern border of Washington, in the shadow of Mount St. Helens. The name, from local Native American lore, means “haunted place” or “valley of the demons.”
My father worked as a logger for the Boise Cascades, a tough, low-paying job.
I recall sitting, or rather squirming, on my father’s lap as an audiologist was attempting to fashion plastic earmolds for me by injecting a chemical-putty mixture into my ears to take a mold of the canal. This had to be done every two to three months. I also recall Mom holding me in her lap, me crying out for mercy with the hearing aids on, the new plastic earmolds on.
Tucker Maxon Oral School was the very first school I attended. It was where I started my formal education. I spent two unhappy years there.
I was enrolled in TMOS in late 1976 when I was two years old. Five days a week, twice a day, Mom drove Dad’s prized 1970 Chevy Chevelle, which he had worked so hard for, taking me to and from TMOS, and it was a long, weary commute totaling 80 miles each weekday, around an hour each way. Or Dad drove. The constant smell of gasoline fumes was hard to bear, too. I only had two days out of a week to breathe freely.
This went on for a year, until Mom and Dad made a major decision. Largely because of gas consumption and the fumes, they both decided that it would be best to give up the Chevelle and buy a 1975 Volkswagen Bug. They drove me to and from TMOS in the Bug until 1978. That’s why I say that TMOS stole my father’s dream car.
Everything that TMOS proudly supports, from Oralism to cochlear implants, is oppression. At TMOS, signing was prohibited. Its policy banned sign language from its premises. That includes fingerspelling, pantomime, and even movement.
My classes were conducted with the teacher using alphabet picture books; we learned how to pronounce letters of the alphabet and words:, boy, girl, ball, mother, father, playground, the basic necessities of spoken language. Picture books were the most popular tool for Oralism. Practice was done by voice, or at least mouthing.
Even though I didn’t sign with other students at TMOS, not having yet been exposed to real signing, I tried to use my hands for emphasis, because I felt something was not right about the school rules. I just knew it. Of course, they labeled me as the troublemaker and once in a while wrote up a report to my parents that I was not doing well.
Sure, there were a few other troublemakers there, but not the way I was going through. They would size up and mock students if they weren’t doing well.
A few students attempted to use facial expressions along with hand movements. And body movements. The teachers quickly put a stop to that too.
I cringe every time I recall one of my teachers walking into the classroom and finding my hands cuffed with plastic six-pack beverage-can rings—to prohibit me from gesturing or making unacceptable movements. One of my teachers, received approval from someone who was in charge of all teachers, to handcuff me. Whether or not I was using sign language or any kind of hand movements—they were equally forbidden.
My parents never knew about this until one day during her lunch break, my mother decided to make a surprise visit. She saw that I was handcuffed, then reported this to my father. They both decided to take me out of TMOS for good. I was four years old.
One of my teachers there actually cried when my Dad led me away from TMOS and whisked me into his car. He gave her an “I don’t appreciate that” look and drove away, never to return. I remember that. I never looked back.
My parents were hippies. They just did not have the guts to sue TMOS. Mom later told me that I was a born leader and would have made a difference to shut TMOS down. She actually said that.
I then transferred to mainstream schools, totaling with five schools, and fared academically way better through sign-language interpreters.
Long before I realized that there was American Sign Language (ASL), I was exposed to sign language. When I was 5 and in Preschool, I had a Special Education teacher who knew how to sign. I copied her and her assistant (who might have been an interpreter trainee).
Copy-signing was a tool that I took advantage of in my classroom that helped me use clear visual observations, actions, motions, body language, and facial expressions in an effort to communicate. I tried to better understand sign language in its entirety. There were one or two other Deaf students there, too. But it was essentially parroting motions and body language.
There was one signing-Deaf man, in small town. I’ve asked Dad how he met him, and he said that he barged into our house, uninvited, one night, and wanted to see what I was about. You know, when Deaf meets Deaf, testing the character. That was what he did.
That happened after my first-grade year. I remember very well that night he came into the living room, I was in my bedroom sleeping on the top bunk bed while my brother was sleeping on the bottom bunk, and I woke up and saw an extra shadow in the living room. I had to walk down there and find out! Then the signing-Deaf man looked at me.
Our eyes locked-—and somehow, I knew he was Deaf, and he signed to me, “You Deaf?” He was wearing logger’s clothes with big, thick boots. I looked at Dad and asked, “Who is that?” He replied, “my name”, we had a brief conversation, then Dad tried to tell him, more than once, to go home; it was late. That was my first practice with signing—or rather, copy-signing.
After that, I would see him from time to time—either on the road, at a local store (he drove his tractor there), or Little League baseball games. Almost every time, he would mock me: “YOU DUMB!” We came from different backgrounds. I later realized that he was stuck in his own world, living in isolation. He was a real bully around me and I started growing up a bit too fast after that.
In some ways, he was a jerk, but I came to realize that he was stuck in his own world, living in isolation. He didn’t have the strength to make a difference in Yacolt. He was just a lurker.
But Dad made friends with him so I could be exposed to signing. When I would see him around, I kept practicing.
Then, when I was 13 or 14 years old, a Deaf family moved into Yacolt.
In my time, 1986 as 11 years old or 12 years old, my elementary school was rated “A-plus” by the editors of Instructor magazine. It was a nationwide competition. My first-grade teacher was in charge of gathering information and submitting the application. She was asked to submit test scores, student progress, teacher excellence, parent participation, and special programs that the school offers to the students. It was a year-long process.
It was ironic that they said that the “Hearing Impaired” program helped the school win the award. I find that hard to believe. The HI program got that recognition because of the “cooperation of the teachers and students.” Our local newspaper even wrote (I still have the clipping), “Many of the hearing-impaired students have a year or two delay in language skills . . . Once they have caught up, the students return to their regular classrooms.” It is beyond bullshit.
I was sent to the Principal’s office a couple of times. She was not very nice to me. Largely because my interpreter, and I did not get along at all. I remember how, during one trip to the principal’s office, going down the hallway, she grabbed my hand and aggressively jerked it. It hurt. I refused to move and screamed for my educational rights. I was crying, too. Oh yeah, I remember that day very well.
Once, in fourth grade, when I was taking a poop in the tiny unisex lavatory, that same interpreter stood by the door, poked her hand inside, and told me to hurry up.
I also recall how she forced me to write “I will not roll my eyes up” 4,000 times as punishment. In cursive handwriting, one repetition to a line. Four thousand lines.
After the ceremony, when Dad and I were leaving my elementary school for the last time, heading for his car to go home, the same interpreter, came out and cried so hard—she was really bawling—that everyone saw it, and quite a few probably heard it too. The waterworks just wouldn’t stop.
Dad looked at me with a puzzled expression, “Wanna go home?”
I suppose that interpreter was sad to lose me—I was unique or had potential. Maybe she felt a bit guilty about the way she’d treated me. It was an ironic rerun of my final exit from TMOS. Dad’s car, the one we drove away in, was a 1980 Red Chevrolet Nova. He was into muscle cars.
During my early years, I was essentially self-taught, with writing and reading books when I felt bored living out in the country. Newspapers were the most useful tool for me during those days.
From the day I walked out of TMOS for the last time, I knew that there would ALWAYS be people who attempted to discredit survivors for the sake of the status quo.
When I transferred to mainstream schools from TMOS, I found this task to be quite challenging, as entire ideas and sentences were being transmitted so quickly, I honestly had a hard time keeping up. As a survivor of TMOS who had not grown up with ASL, it could be difficult for me to understand with 100% accuracy what was being expressed.
Despite this, copy-signing is a useful means to help a student practice, learning as they do, and includes them in the conversation.
TMOS, like other auditory-oral schools, has publicized its “oral successes,” while ignoring the truth. I was part of this “oral success” campaign, but no one knew how much punishment we received in the classrooms to gain this privilege. I’ve struggled with depression ever since.
Although I met some other TMOS survivors years ago, some expressed support for the school’s policy, claiming that TMOS doesn’t brutalize children; it treats them humanely. Not too long ago, I met two more survivors of TMOS, both about my age. I asked them if they would like to join me in advocating for Deaf children’s language rights, to protest TMOS’s denial of sign language and Deaf culture. But they said to me, “I care about my job!” and walked away. It was too bad, really.
I am now a survivor of TMOS, the hollow place that exploits young Deaf children, and I believe with my heart and soul that it was my calling, to bear witness to this unnecessary discipline. Through writing, I think about how I can improve not only my own life but society as well. As I plant the seeds, I trust that a rich harvest awaits all of us. I am glad that I did not grow up in that world.
ASL is the rightful journey to accurate problem solving, and self-disciplined thinking.
Copyright © 2020 Jason Tozier
This text may be freely copied in its entirely only, including this copyright message.