Pool: Acorn Boy and deaf culture
November 4, 2014
By Frank T. Pool
My wife and I were talking about some of the favorite students, we have taught, and she brought up a wonderful child she called “Acorn Boy.”
This little boy was full of life and spontaneous joy. He was—and surely still is—bright and vivacious. He would improvise games on the spot. One game he invented was finding acorns on the ground and then trying to sneak them into his teacher’s pocket.
My wife teaches very young children with special needs. Because this kid was so obviously smart and socially engaged, I asked why he was in a special education class.
It turns out that he is the only person in his immediate family who is not deaf, and his language skills lag behind his peers’.
That struck home. My father was the only child of deaf parents. He was very intelligent but had to repeat first grade because he was not used to spoken language.
I never met my paternal grandfather, who died before I was born, but I knew my grandmother. At an early age I learned the finger alphabet, though I was never instructed in American Sign Language.
Acorn Boy at 4 years old would translate for his father during teacher conferences. My wife says he seemed very fluent in ASL. As a child, I saw conversations between my father and his mother.
ASL is not English. For many profoundly deaf people, English is a written language. Nowadays texting lets them converse with hearing people.
One time my dad and I were in the stands at a high school football game when we encountered a deaf family. They were delighted to meet someone who could communicate with them.
I have noticed how happy deaf people are when they are in groups, chatting animatedly with each other.
A few months ago I observed a young family using ASL. From what I gathered, one of the daughters, about 7, was having a friend visit her. The two girls signed enthusiastically to each other, sometimes making each other laugh out loud. It was adorable.
There is a local watering hole near my home where people often gather after work to visit and relax under a grove of live oak trees. I have seen a group of deaf people who gather there, swapping stories and jokes in ASL. They always seem to be happy.
Now, I’m not trying to sugar-coat deafness. My grandparents endured deep poverty. My grandfather was taught to be a cobbler at the Texas School for the Deaf about 1890. He moved to Clarksville, Texas, and did not prosper. He also was disabled by the time he reached his 60s.
Social isolation used to be a big problem with the deaf, particularly before urbanization. I will never know how my grandparents met. I think they probably met through a social organization for deaf people.
Nevertheless, many deaf people have constructed a culture for themselves, and they cherish it. Gallaudet University is the oldest institution for deaf education in the nation. Nowadays there are other schools and programs that meet the needs of deaf people.
Some deaf activists oppose medical advances that allow people to hear for the first time. They are afraid to lose the culture they have so laboriously built.
I cannot agree with them, though I respect their position. Surgery and implants that allow people to experience the glories of sound are good things, in my view.
Occasionally I will employ my rusty hand alphabet to tell deaf people about my grandparents.
They are unfailingly polite and happy to communicate. I wish I were bilingual.
— Frank Thomas Pool is a writer and retired English teacher in Austin. He grew up on Maple Street in Longview and graduated from Longview High.