Val's Journal - October 25, 2002

80 percent of communication is non-verbal (especially with us)…

Try something utterly different: spend some time chatting with someone who can’t hear.

Around 10 days ago we received and invitation via email from a woman named Wendy who works with deaf children; she claimed to know of 150 kindergarteners to grade eights that would love to spend some time with us— as usual, the honor was all ours.

Milton’s Ernest C. Drury School is a institute for deaf children about 25 non-rush hour minutes out of Toronto. Having spent the night in Wendy’s driveway after a belly splitting meal of lasagna, we rose at 6am to make the trip to the school. Greeted by scores of upstretched hands looking for a high fives or other hands to hold, we were awash is a sea of giggles and ahhhs upon arrival. Our animated faces— bulging cheeks, bouncing eyebrows, elastic lips and rolling eyeballs— were the best we could do before our crash course in ASL.

Our lesson began immediately. The phrase “we are the kindness crew traveling across Canada” looks approximately like… someone pretending to stir soup, then gesturing I’ve washed my hands of this business, now holding and lightly shaking an invisible ball, index and middle finger hooked and arm moving outward like a snake, hand cutting palm, right fist patting right breast (translation: we nice group, travelling/roaming across Canada). Our teacher’s head nodded in happy approval.

For those of you that have never used sign language there is a sense of total connection with the subject being talked about, thank you, for example— tips of fingers to chin moving down and away— looks more like an offering of thanks
and, in my opinion, sits closer to the meaning than its verbal equivalent. The movement seems to connote not simply appreciation and gratitude, but humility and respect. I’m convinced that many fields of study that specialize in or deal with communication breakdown— conflict resolution, mediation, politics— could learn volumes from this emotive and intensely expressive language system. You have to engage the whole body in conversation; you can’t help but feel what you’re communicating.

During the presentation I felt like I was public speaking again for the first time, none of old the rules appeared to apply. Articulation and intonation mean nothing to an audience that can’t hear; content is everything (politicians beware)— even eye contact is ineffective since all focus is on the translator. Clapping, too, is out the window because of its low degree of visual stimulation; in lieu of applause the kids raised their hands and shook them like a packed house of flapper dancers doing the Charleston. You can’t help but crack a huge smile when this happens: they looked like they might jump up at any second and start swingin’. The kids went crazy for the theatre games, acting out an array of kind acts from scrubbing the toilets to helping other students with their homework. I’ve never had to hug EVERY SINGLE person in an audience before— armies of small people tugging at sleeves to claim their embrace.

They were the students but we were the ones taking notes: the school has to have one of the loveliest mottos I’ve ever seen, strive for a fulfilling life.

Nov. 6th, 2002
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