Why it was W-on-the-Eyes

by Margaret Prescott Montague

[From the Atlantic Monthly, Volume 11 (4), pgs. 462-267. April 1913].

'I wonder why the children's sign for little old Webster should be W-on-the-eyes,' Miss Evans speculated. 'There's nothing peculiar about his eyes, except perhaps that they're the brightest pair in school.'

Miss Evans was the new oral teacher in the Lomax Schools for deaf and blind children, and she was speaking about Charlie Webster, one of the small deaf mutes in her class.

That was his sign, W, made in the manual alphabet, with the hand placed against the eyes. Everybody in the deaf department at Lomax had his or her special sign, thus saving the time and trouble of spelling out the whole name on the fingers.

Clarence Chester, the big deaf boy who had finished school, but still stayed on working in the shoe-shop, was the one who made up the signs for the new pupils and teachers. He was rather proud of his talents in this direction, and took the pains of an artist over every sign. They were usually composed of the initial letter of the person's last name placed somewhere on the body, to indicate either some physical peculiarity, or else the position held by that person in the school. Mr. Lincoln, for instance, who was the superintendent, had L-on-the-forehead, to show that he was the head of the whole school, and no one else, of course, could have L as high up as that - not even Mrs. Lincoln. She had to be contented with L-on-the-cheek. So, in the same way, Miss Thompson, who was the trained nurse, had T-on-the-wrist, because it was her business to feel the children's pulses.

When Miss Stedman, the new matron for the deaf boys, came, she should have had S-on-the-chest, as Clarence made a habit of placing all the matrons' initials on their chests; but unfortunately, S in the manual alphabet is made by doubling up the fist, and Clarence explained to her that if a boy hits himself on the chest with his fist he is sure to hit that middle button of his shirt, and make a bruise. He had to make this rather complicated explanation in writing because Miss Stedman was new to the sign-language and finger-spelling, and he had received his education at Lomax before articulation was taken up there, and was therefore, of course, a mute. So, on account of the button, S-on-the-chest had to be abandoned. But Clarence looked at Miss Stedman, and, for all that they called her a matron, she was very young and small, and had delicately rosy cheeks, so he smiled a little, and then made the letter S and the sign for pretty. And Miss Stedman went away quite satisfied, and showed every one her sign, being innocently unaware that every time she did so she was saying that she was pretty. When her education in the sign-language had progressed sufficiently for her to discover the real meaning of her sign she was overcome with confusion, and begged Clarence to change it. But he said he never --- (never! NEVER! made vehemently with his hand) --- changed a sign after it was once given; besides, by that time all Miss Stedman's little deaf boys had got hold of it and no power on earth could have detached it from their fingers.

But, to go back to Charlie Webster, as Miss Evans remarked, there was nothing peculiar about his eyes, and therefore why his sign should be W-on-the-eyes, caused some small curiosity, but not enough to make any of the teachers or matrons take the trouble to look into the matter. Among themselves, of course, they did not speak of him as W-on-the-eyes: they called him Webster, or Charlie Webster, or most of all, perhaps, little old Webster,' because he was only nine, and everybody on the place adored him.

They may have adored him for that enchanting smile of his, a smile which curved his ridiculously eager little mouth, flooded from his dancing eyes, and generally radiated from the whole expressive little face of him. Or, perhaps, it was because he was so affectionate; or again it might have been because he was so handsome, so alert and gay, and always, moreover, appeared to be having such a good time. Whatever came little old Webster's way seemed always to be the most exciting and delightful thing that had ever happened to him, and whether it was a game to be played, a lesson to be learned, or a person to be loved, he did it with all his might, and with all his heart. Perhaps, after all, the real reason for the world's adoring him was that old classical one for the lamb's devotion to Mary, - he loved the world.

Another thing which sorted him out somewhat from among the other sixty or seventy deaf boys of the school was his fondness for the blind children. It is impossible to imagine any two sets of persons so absolutely shut off from one another as blind people and deaf mutes. It is only through the sense of feeling that they can meet; and for the most part at Lomax, sixty blind children, and more than a hundred deaf ones, move about through the same buildings, eat in the same dining-room, and, to some extent, play in the same grounds, with almost no intercourse or knowledge of one another. They move upon different planes. The deaf child's plane is made up of things seen, the blind child's of things heard. It is only in things touched that their paths ever cross, and surely only the economy and lack of imagination of the past could have crowded two such alien classes into one establishment. But little old Webster had built a bridge of his own over these almost insurmountable barriers, and through the medium of touch had carried his adventures in friendship even into the country of the blind.

Some of the blind boys knew the manual alphabet and could talk to him on their fingers, and by feeling of his hands could understand what he said to them; but with most he had to be satisfied with merely putting his arm about their shoulders and grunting a soft little inarticulate 'Ough, ough!' which was no word at all, of course, merely an engaging little expression of his friendship and general good feeling. The blind children recognized him by these little grunts, and accepted things from him which they would never have tolerated from any of the other dummies,' as they called the deaf mutes. Webster was their passionate champion on all occasions. Once, when a deaf boy threw a stone which by accident hit one of the blind boys on the forehead, inflicting a bad cut, Webster flew into a wild fury of rage, and attacked the deaf boy with all the passion of his nine years. Afterwards, he tore up to the hospital where his blind friend was having the cut dressed, and snuggling his face against him grunted many soft 'oughs, oughs,' of sympathy. But the little deaf boy he had thrashed had to come to the hospital to be tied up as well, for little old Webster was no saint, and once he set out to fight, he did it, as he did everything else, with all his heart.

'I declare,' Miss Stedman announced wearily one evening in the officers' dining-room, if Charlie Webster keeps on I shall just have to report him to Mr. Lincoln. He's been fighting this whole blessed afternoon --- just one boy right after another.'

'Oh,' cried Miss Thompson, the trained nurse, 'then that was the reason there were so many of the little deaf boys up in the hospital this afternoon with sprained thumbs, and black eyes, and so on!'

'Exactly,' Miss Stedman confirmed her, 'that was Webster's doing, --- the little scamp! It's because of his shirts. Whenever his mother sends him a new shirt, and he puts it on, he has to fight almost every boy in his dormitory.'

'But why? What's the matter with his shirts?' Miss Evans, the oral teacher, demanded.

'Oh, they're the funniest looking things! I don't see what his mother can be thinking of. They look as though they'd been made up hind-side before, and the sleeves are never put in right, and are always too tight for him. Of course, the other children laugh at every fresh one, and that just sends him almost crazy, and he flies at one boy after another. He knows, himself, that the shirts aren't right, but he just will wear them in spite of everything. I tried once to get him to put on one from the school supply, and, goodness! I thought he was going to fight me!'

It was at this time that Miss Evans asked why Webster's sign was W-on-the-eyes. Miss Stedman said she thought Chester must have given him that because he was so good to the blind children. That explanation satisfied Miss Evans, but was not, as it happened, the right one.

Little old Webster came to Lomax when he was only seven, two years before they began to teach articulation and lip-reading to the children there. His education began therefore with the manual method, and by the time he was nine there was hardly a sign that he did not know, or a word that he could not spell with his flying fingers. But he was a little person who craved many forms of self-expression, and he often looked very curiously, and very wistfully, at hearing people when they talked together with their lips. The year he was nine, which was the year of this story, they began the oral instruction at Lomax, Miss Evans being engaged for this purpose, and being given by Clarence Chester the sign of E-on-the-lips, to show that she was the person who taught the children to speak. She had to face some opposition in getting the new method established. The older children found it harder than the familiar signs, and, for the most part, shut their minds persistently against any attempt to make them speak.

Many of the teachers, also, were opposed to the oral form of instruction. There was Miss Flyn, for instance. She had taught deaf children for ten years with the sign-language, and did not see any reason for abandoning it now. And, for all her plumpness, and soft sweetness of face, Miss Eliza Flyn was a firm lady, once her mind was thoroughly made up. Her argument was that though articulation and lip-reading might be a wonderful thing for a few brilliant children, the average deaf child trained in a state school could never get much benefit from it. 'Lip-readers are born and not made,' she maintained stoutly. It's as much a gift as an ear for music, or being able to write poetry.'

'Any deaf child with the proper amount of brains, and normal sight, can be taught to articulate and read the lips,' Miss Evans returned, with equal stoutness, for she was 'pure oral,' and could almost have found it in her heart to wish that the sign-language might be wiped off the face of the earth. There she and Miss Flyn came to a polite deadlock of opinion in the matter.

But whatever others might think, little old Webster apparently had no doubts of the advantage of the oral method. As soon as he found out what it was all about, he flung himself into the new study with even more than his usual zest and enthusiasm. Watching Miss Evans's lips with a passionate attention, his brown eyes as eager and as dumb and wistful as a little dog's, he attempted the sounds over and over, his unaccustomed lips twisting themselves into all sorts of grotesque positions, in his effort to gain control over them. He always shook his head sharply at his failures, fiercely rebuking himself, and immediately making a fresh attack upon the word or element, working persistently until Miss Evans's nod and smile at length rewarded him, upon which his whole little face would light up, and he would heave a weary but triumphant sigh. His zeal almost frightened Miss Evans, and while she constantly spurred all the other children on to using their lips instead of their eager little fingers, Webster she tried to check, fearing that his enthusiasm might even make him ill.

Early in the school term, when he had not been in Miss Evans's class much above a month, little old Webster received a postcard from his father saying that his parents expected to come to Lomax to see him in a week or so. Webster almost burst with delighted expectancy. He showed the card to every deaf child who could read, and interpreted it in signs and finger-spelling to those who could not; he permitted his blind friends to feel it all over with their delicate inquiring fingers, and gave every teacher and officer the high privilege of reading, ---

    Your mother and I expect to come to
Lomax to see you Friday of next week.
             Your loving father,
                        CHARLES WEBSTER,

while he stood by with those dancing eyes of his, which frequently said more than speaking people's lips. He carried the card in triumph to Miss Evans, and when she had read it he made the sign for mother, and she nodded and said that was nice, taking care of course to speak rather than sign. But his little eager face clouded over, and there appeared on it that shut-in and baffled expression which it sometimes wore when he failed to make himself understood. He repeated the sign and put his hand to his lips pleadingly. Then she realized what he wanted.

'Why, bless his heart, he wants me to teach him to say mother!' she exclaimed delightedly, and sitting down on the veranda steps, for it was out of school hours, she then and there set to work drilling him in the desired word, saying it repeatedly, and placing his hand against her throat that he might feel the vibrations of sound. At last, watching her lips intently, making repeated efforts doomed to failure, shaking his head angrily at himself each time, and renewing the attempt manfully, he did achieve the coveted word. To be sure it was not very distinctly said at first, and was broken into two soft little syllables, thus, 'mo-ther'; but his little face shone with the triumph of it. And then in gratitude he said, 'Thank you' very politely to Miss Evans, having learned those two words before in his articulation. He said them in his best voice, carefully placing one small conscientious finger on the side of his nose, which gave him a most comically serious expression, but was done to be sure that he had succeeded in putting the proper vibration into his 'Thank you.'

'Such foolishness!' Miss Eliza Flyn snorted, passing along the veranda at this moment. 'What's the good of one word? And he'll forget it anyway by tomorrow!'

But little old Webster held manfully to that hard-won word which his love had bought. Every morning when he entered the classroom he said, 'Mo-ther' to Miss Evans with his enchanting smile, so that she began to be afraid that he had confused the meaning of the word, and was calling her mother. On the day, however, that she permitted him to tear the leaf from the school calendar, --- a daily much-desired privilege, --- she was reassured on this point, for having torn off the proper date he turned up the other leaves swiftly until he came to the day on which his parents were expected, and putting his finger on the number he said, 'Mo-ther, mo-ther,' and then in quaint fashion he pointed to the calendar leaf, and then to himself, and locking his forefingers together, first in one direction and then in the other, he made the little sign for friend, meaning that he was friends with that day because it would bring him his mother.

He said the word repeatedly, in school and out. He even said it in his sleep. The night before his mother was to come, when Miss Stedman paid her regular visit to the dormitory where all the little deaf boys were asleep, Webster sat suddenly bolt upright in his bed, his eyes wide-open, but unseeing with sleep, and cried out, 'Mother!'

'Goodness!' Miss Stedman commented to herself. 'I'll be glad when his mother does come! He'll go crazy if he doesn't get that word off his tongue soon.'

The next day, --- 'the great, the miraculous day, --- little old Webster was in a veritable humming-bird quiver of excitement. He jumped in his seat each time the door opened, and when, at length, Miss Flyn actually came to announce that his father and mother had really arrived he leaped up with a face of such transcendent joy, that his departure left Miss Evans's class-room almost as dark as if the sun had passed under a cloud. So much of pure happiness went with him that, with a smile on her lips, Miss Evans let her fancy follow him on his triumphant way, and for fully three minutes, while she pictured the surprise in store for the waiting mother, she permitted her 'pure oral' class to tell each other over and over on their fingers that 'E. F.' (Miss Flyn's sign) had come to take W-on-the-eyes to see his father and mother, before she awoke to the fact and sternly recalled their runaway language from their fingers to their lips.

In the meantime, gripping Miss Flyn's hand tight, little old Webster went on tiptoe down the passageway leading to the reception-room. Miss Flyn could feel the vibration of excitement in his fingers as they rested in hers, and her own sympathetic heart went a beat or two faster in consequence. But almost at the reception-room door he dropped her hand suddenly and stopped dead, his face gone a despairing white, and a lost, agonized look in his eyes. For a moment, he stared about him in passionate bewilderment, then, bursting into a storm of tears, he turned to run back to Miss Evans's room. But Miss Flyn caught him firmly and, forcing him to look at her, signed, 'What is it?' He made the sign for mother, and then passed his open hand despairingly across his forehead in the sign for forgotten, and Miss Flyn realized that through over-excitement or some trick of a tired brain, his precious word had all at once slipped from him. He looked up at her, and old 'signer' though she was, she could not resist the appeal of his tragic little face. Stooping down, she pronounced the lost word, placing his hand against her throat. Remembrance rushed into his eyes, and his face lit like a flame. 'Mo-ther! Mo-ther!' he cried, and putting both hands tight against his mouth as if to hold the word in place, he fled down the hall and into the reception-room and flung himself upon a woman who sat very still, her waiting, listening face turned toward the door.

'Mo-ther! Mo-ther!' he cried, his arms tight about her neck.

She gave a sharp, an almost hysterical cry.

'Charlie!' she screamed. 'Is that Charlie? Is that my deaf baby talking?'

She tore his arms from about her neck, and held him away from her, while her eager, trembling fingers went to his lips and felt them move once more, framing the wonderful word.

'It is Charlie! It is my little deaf and dumb baby talking!' she cried. And then she went into a wild babble of mother words, --- 'My baby! My lamb! My darling, precious baby!' --- crying and kissing him, while the tears ran down from her eyes. And little old Webster, his word now safely delivered to the one person in all the world to whom it belonged, relapsed once more into his old soft, inarticulate grunting of Ough, ough!' nuzzling his face close against hers, and laughing gleefully over the splendid surprise he had prepared for her.

And after one astounded, comprehending look, Miss Flyn turned, and, racing down the hallway, burst into Miss Evans's class-room and caught that teacher by the arm.

'Little old Webster's mother is blind!' she cried. 'She's stone blind! She's never seen Webster in all her life. --- She's never heard him speak until this minute! They've never been able to say one word to each other. --- She's blind, I tell you! And that's why Webster's sign is W-on-the-eyes, --- Clarence Chester must have known, --- and that's why he's always so good to the blind children, and why he fought every boy who laughed at the funny way his shirts were made - he knew his mother couldn't see to make them right! And --- and ---' Miss Flyn choked, --- 'and that's why he's nearly killed himself trying to learn to speak. There's never been any way they could talk to each other except by feeling! She's had to wait nine years to hear him say Mother! And --- and,' Miss Flyn wound up unsteadily, 'you needn't preach to me any more about articulation for --- I'm converted!'

And with that she went out and banged the door behind her, and all the children's fingers flew up, to ask Miss Evans in excited signs what E. F. was crying about.