The Deaf School

by Louise Stern

[From Chattering: Stories, London: Granta Books. Used by permission from Granta Books, © 2010]

The deaf school had originally been in beautiful old buildings up in the mountains with dark green tiles lining the marbled archways and courtyards, and fountains in the centre of each of the three squares. But the hearing students at the nearby university needed more buildings, more room, more of everything. The beautiful old school tempted them, so they found a way to take it over for themselves.

The deaf school had to move a few hours away, to a town bordered by dry brown hills. Fast-food restaurants were everywhere. There wasn't much else there. The new school was made up of near-identical buildings that looked like the houses in a Monopoly game.

The buildings were painted a sludgy brown, with orange carpet inside and squat dormitories for the children to sleep in.

Many deaf adults moved to the town, too. As children they'd gone to the old school in the mountains, and they went where the school went. They worked at the school, mostly in the dormitories as house parents, and their children went to classes there. The school was where the sporting events with other deaf schools or deaf clubs were held, and where the graduates who hadn't found jobs and were living off government handouts would gather in the parking lot by the gymnasium, to deal drugs, flirt, gossip, or tell stories. The deaf children often had birthday parties in the student activity centre, and their weddings, wedding-anniversary parties, and baby showers would be there too. It was one of the only places for miles around where they could be sure of communication with the people around them.

Ally was one of the children in the first class at the new school. She had already been living in the town with her hearing parents when they found out she couldn't hear. Both of them had grown up in the town ó it was just a strange kind of good luck that their daughter had turned out to be deaf. They were nice people. The mother always wore bright pink lipstick, heavy mascara on the lashes around her small eyes, and purple, pink or mauve flowered dresses. Her lips were pointy and narrow. She ordinarily pressed them fixedly together, but when she saw some of the children who Ally went to school with, she would bend over, open her bright pink mouth wide, and say a very big 'HELLO! HOW ARE YOU?' whilst fluttering her eyelashes. Then she would smile tightly and nod abruptly, before doing a small sashay and walking off again. She learned a bit of sign language, but her signs were stiff, awkward, and small, her face never altering its hard expression as she signed, so the children found her difficult to understand. They never really had long conversations with her and it appeared she preferred it that way. She never asked them why they seemed not to understand her. She would adjust the black knob in her ear that was almost always there. It connected her to her music. Then she would smile tightly.

She behaved the same way with the deaf adults. She would say a brief hello to them when she came to one of Ally's school things. Ally's father was warmer and more relaxed, but he also was not very inclined towards conversation and was always busy with work or whatever else he was involved with.

Ally was one of the lucky ones, though, because she could ask her parents for whatever she needed or wanted --- food, water, help with her homework, toys, or anything else, and she could read and write much better than most of the other children at the school. Her classmate Ray had joined the class at the same time she had, but he couldn't say anything to anyone other than `Food' and 'Pee'. He would cup his groin with a small hand and jerk upwards to show the teacher that he had to go to the bathroom, or he would open his mouth with its perpetual cold sores around the lower left corner and stuff his fingers into it to tell the teacher that he was hungry. Other than that he would sit on his chair by his plastic desk with its fake-wood veneer and open and close his mouth, over and over again. His lower jaw was a bit wider and longer than his upper, so his face always looked muscular and wide. He was good at sports and had a mysterious way of understanding the rules of basic games like Four Square, where you tossed a ball around and around, allowing only one bounce per person. When break time came he would be the first to run out to the playground and join in one of the games.

Later, in a few years' time, when he had picked up some more words and language, he would reveal a sweet and strong personality, always asking everyone how they were when they came back from weekends with their families, never missing one person. But for the first few years, he just sat opening and closing his mouth. His eyes wandered over everything and everyone, never remaining anywhere specific for long.

The teachers had tried to talk to Ray's parents to find out more about him, but Ray's parents said they didn't have the time to talk to anyone. They were hearing and didn't know any sign language. They said they just didn't want to have to support Ray his entire life and that was all. Other than that, they were already busy enough, they said. Nobody had ever gone with Ray to his house on the weekends, although, much later on, Ray was always looking around to go over to someone else's house, somewhere where they knew a bit more sign language and could talk to him.

He would ask question after question of the friend's parents. How had they met? Where --- in which town? How long ago? What did they do to earn money? How did they decide on that job? How long did they have to go to school? Did they like it? What did they tend to do on the weekends? Did they do it together or separately? How did they decide what to do? What were they having for dinner? How were they going to cook it? Why? He would open and shut his mouth in that definite flat way of his in between the questions, a habit from those first few years that would stay with him for the rest of his life.

He was always very helpful and sweet, but sometimes he would erupt, flailing around with his arms and legs and then huddling into a corner with his lower jaw sticking out, shaking his head and refusing to talk to anyone for hours and hours. Eventually he would come out of it and apologize and be back to normal.

The teachers talked amongst themselves about whether Ray would be one of the graduates who sold drugs and flirted in the parking lot and lived on government handouts. It was very possible, but maybe he had come to the school early enough to be able to go on to vocational school at least.

Joey and Sophie would watch the teachers talking about Ray. They were the only two in the class who had deaf parents. Sophie's parents had gone to the deaf university and worked at the school, too; Joey's hadn't gone to college, but they knew Sophie's parents from the deaf sports circuit --- Sophie's father and Joey's father had played on the same basketball team a few times.

Sophie was very shy, but Joey loved to tell stories. He could sign beautifully. He was tall and thin, with long arms and wide, long fingers, and when he told the rest of the class stories, his arms would become whatever he was telling the story about. One of his favourite stories, learned from one of his many older brothers, was about a racing car speeding around tight curves, flames shooting out from below the car as it flew over gulfs and canyons. His arms would become the car itself, speeding up so fast that it defied gravity, flying, and then braking sharply to a stop. He would show the rest of them how the driver's hair was plastered against his skull by air pressure as the car flew over abysses, and how his eyes squinted shut against the bits of gravel coming at them. Joey telling a story was almost better than a movie, because you could see and feel the emotion and the physical sensations on his face and body, as you couldn't really see and feel in movies. Sophie loved to read but she never saw anything in any book to equal one of Joey's stories.

They would all ask him again and again for more stories, especially Ray. Ray could always follow Joey's stories, even at the very beginning. His favourite was the one where Joey told them about doing a slam dunk, the basketball player leaping up high, the muscles in his legs pulsing, to grab the rim of the basket firmly, eyes bulging, mind rejoicing, legs and whole body dangling until finally he let go and came back down to earth.

Sophie loved Joey's stories too, but she didn't like the way the teachers talked about Ray. The teachers were mostly hearing, and some of them signed even worse than Ally's bright-pink-lipped mother, sloppily and choppily. They were difficult to watch or follow and the children would get very tired from seeing them sign. Many times Sophie and Joey had to tell them the same thing again and again and sign very slowly for the teachers to understand them, and even then they would just smile tightly back and nod. Often Sophie didn't say anything in class just because she didn't want to have to go through it again with the teachers. It was an awkward, heavy feeling for her.

Ally, who signed to the teachers the same way she signed to her mother, was the teachers' favourite.

Sometimes, when Ray was watching Joey tell a story during class, the teachers would stride over and sign impatiently to Joey to stop that nonsense and jerk Ray around to face them again. Sophie could see that Ray couldn't understand anything the teachers were saying, but that he loved Joey's stories so much and understood them. She got angry when the teachers did that to him, but of course they didn't care what she thought. They would keep writing words on the blackboard and spelling them out to Ray, who just sat there opening and shutting his mouth with its protruding lower jaw, occasionally looking over to Joey in the hope that another story might have begun.

Once a week they went for speech lessons. Joey and Ally were partners for the lessons, and Ray and Sophie went together. The speech teacher was an old lady who always smelled slightly too sweet. She had a small toy monkey that would climb up a tower if you could keep your voice at the same level for long enough, and she would hold up a thin layer of Kleenex tissue and ask you to say 'b' and 'p'. With the 'p', the Kleenex was supposed to blow out and with the `1)', it wasn't supposed to. She held one hand up to Sophie's throat to feel her saying 'bat' and 'pat'. Sophie tried her best at the speech lessons but she just couldn't get the hang of it. Her younger sister had more hearing than she did and she was very good at speech. Sophie was a bit jealous because it meant her younger sister had a way to get their parents to buy her more things --- music tapes, or a cassette player.

Ray was also better than she was at speech, though --- maybe it was because he had hearing parents. He always made the monkey go up the tower and stay there for quite some time, and at the end of the lessons he would have a bigger stack than Sophie did of the scratch-and-sniff stickers that the speech teacher gave out as rewards. The speech teacher would tell Sophie how it was very sad that she wasn't good at speech, because it meant she wouldn't be able to communicate with hearing people who didn't understand sign language, or get a job with hearing people in the future. She would have to work at the deaf school like her parents.

She really did wish she could be good at speech.

On Open House Day, when all the children's parents were invited to visit the school, Ally was always the one to dress up in a sparkly leotard and dance around on stage with a big fake lollipop and sing 'On the Good Ship Lollipop' both with her voice and also using her mother's stiff sign language. All the teachers and parents crowded around her afterwards, and her picture was up in the hall for weeks and weeks.

Ray's parents never came to the Open House Day. Sophie would watch Ray look around anxiously for a familiar face in the audience, never finding one. Often he would find Joey instead and go and stand by him; he usually had the best place in the middle of the crowd around his older brothers, all of whom could tell stories even better than he could. There was one particularly great one about breaking through the layers of the world one by one, the membrane splitting open around your face, your face hitting the thick cold air, flying, flying, flying to the next layer, breaking through, floating around the stars, until finally you were outside the whole universe, looking down at the small round ball that was the planet Earth, rotating far away down below you, a tiny ocean rising and falling on the small Earth. Then a big rubber band would pull you fast back down, down, down, so fast through all the layers, until with a big physical bang on your belly you were back where you started.

Then their teacher would come up to the group and tell Ray and Joey to go and line up now for lunch.

Once, one of the worst teachers, an old, square woman with thick glasses who could hardly sign at all, came up in the middle of one of Joey's brothers' stories and yanked Ray away. It was at the exciting part and Ray was just at the stage where he had stopped only being able to open and close his mouth during class and was starting to say more, starting to be able to ask questions and explain what he liked and didn't like.

He was still hesitant though, unsure of words and of actually making anything about himself understood to anyone else. When he lingered beside Joey in the middle of the crowd around Joey's brothers telling their stories, there was a new quality in his stare, a new hunger. He knew the taste of what it was he wanted so badly now, and where it was, but he just didn't know how to get it for himself. He was like an alcoholic watching a punter drink the first froth off a strong and hearty Guinness, or a person with a sweet tooth looking into the bakery window at the richest and darkest chocolate tart.

Sophie saw Ray hold up a finger to the teacher. Just one moment, he was saying. Just one more moment till the story ends and then I'll go in to lunch. His eyes were dark brown and intense on Joey's brother, wanting, wanting just for the last bit of the story. His lower jaw was slightly open.

But the teacher kept shaking Ray's shoulder.

--- You must come now to lunch. Look at me! Pay attention when you're told to! she said in her few words of ugly sign language, not understanding what Joey's brother was saying. She was mostly speaking, signing only the key words. Must. Come. Look. Me.

Again she shook Ray, hard.

Sophie saw Ray turn around, his eyes still on Joey's brother, and use one arm to nudge himself roughly out of the teacher's grasp.

The next day when she came to school, Joey told her that Ray had been sent home for a week because the teacher had said he shoved her.

They both knew that when he came back he would be even worse off, after a week at home not being able to communicate with anyone at all, a week not understanding how he had come so close to the chocolate tart in the window and then by some strange fate had ended up so far away from it again.

And it was like that --- he was even worse off when he got back to school.

When she was an adult, Sophie always remembered the look in Ray's eyes that day as he watched Joey's brother and told the teacher to wait ñ that intense, complete hunger she knew now was something you saw so rarely in people outside of sex, or that they admitted to.

Sometimes, once in a very long while, she would go back to visit the town and the school. The town was still full of fast-food restaurants and the hills felt even more brown and ugly now that she'd seen more of the world outside. She would go to watch a basketball game and say hello to everyone she had known as a child who was still there and meet their children and grandchildren.

Ray was still there. He would often hang out in the parking lot with Joey, telling stories.