By Julius Wiggins
[Used by Permission from the Estate of Julius Wiggins]
With My Own Kind
"Upon consultation with Dr. Goldschmidt, my parents were advised to send me to Belleville, a school for the deaf. There I would be with my own kind, where life was arranged to deal with my handicap. I would be happier in the company of other deaf children, and my sister, no long exposed to imitating me, would learn to talk.
I knew later how reluctant my parents were to send me away, but they followed the doctor's advice, which, of course, proved to be correct.
It was a long, hot drive. I had left what, I much later learned, was called home, very early. There had been stops for lunch and snacks. As I didn't hear I couldn't be told what to do. I usually imitated what I saw others do---the way they ate, drank, and moved about. But the fact that they all moved their mouths, even when they weren't eating, baffled me. It seemed to mean something, but try as I might, I couldn't understand. So I would give it up and settle for things I could use and touch.
For example, the woman, who I learned later was my mother, would hold out her hand to me and I knew that meant she wanted me to come to her. Or the man, my father would point his finger at me and I knew it meant I was to stop whatever I was doing. But the accompanying movement of his mouth troubled me. I had a dim sensation that it was important. Much later I learned that the dim sensation was sound. It was meaningless, but I could identify it as important.
At that time, I was not aware of my condition. As I could remember nothing else, to me it was normal and I was comfortably adjusted to the lack of sound. Later, it became a rough deal, when I had to conform to another idea of normalcy-when teacher tried to break the pattern of life to which I was accustomed, a pattern common to all who had become deaf before they can talk.
In school, our teachers try to make us aware of sound and speech when we are only conscious of the visual. Our language is action and gesture. Our emotions are visible. They say, 'I love you.' We say with our hands, 'I have feeling for you in my heart,' the hand pointing to the heart and then to the beloved..."
* * * * * *
"...On the day of our journey to Belleville, I was not actually thinking in terms which would be commonly described as thinking. My eyes were seeing things and my mind recording them, filing away photographs without captions, much as a stranger might examine a family album of persons completely unknown to him. I was a stranger looking at a picture album without captions.
It was dusk of the hot muggy day, when the car turned off the road at the beginning of which there were two stone "things" and a white "something" with black marks on it. The new road was bounded by trees and grass, and led to a number of buildings.
There were many boys sitting on the grass beside one of the buildings. That interested me. They were watching two of them fighting. I stared as our car came closer. There was a kind of fluttering movement among the boys around the fighters and suddenly they stopped slugging each other. All turned to stare as our car passed them.
At one of the larger buildings our car stopped. The man, my father, climbed out and the woman, my mother, followed. Then she reached in and helped me out of the car.
We went up some steps and through a large double door. There was a small room with wooden walls..."
"....I wanted to go to the window to watch the boys, but my parents wouldn't let me. In a little while a woman came into the room and began moving her lips to my parents and they made faces back at her. I had, of course, seen this mouth-moving all my life, but never understood why people responded to it and did certain things after it."
"...My father went back to the car and pulled out a suitcase. Then we all walked towards the buildings where I had seen all the boys. But now none of them was there and I wondered where they had gone.
In this building there was another woman and she also made faces at my parents. After awhile she went out and returned with still another woman, who smiled at me. My father kissed me and my mother held me close to her for a moment and then wiped her eyes and the woman took my hand and led me down a long hall. Once, I looked back, but they were all gone. There was another door with a bright light shining out of it. We went through it into a huge room with many white beds, white covers, and white pillows. There were several boys, putting on their pajamas. I stared; so that was where all the boys had gone!
I had seen my mother pack my pajamas in the suitcase, which now stood near the door. I ran to get my suitcase. A big boy, who seemed to be in charge, thought I was running to find my people and put out his arm to stop me. But I dodged, grabbed the suitcase and opened it. My pajamas were right under my towel. I pulled them out and hired to find a place for myself among the other boys.
It is curious how much I took for granted-that I didn't react to being left among strangers. But I was intrigued because I noticed that the boys used their hands as I did, and didn't move their mouths like my family and other people I knew. I wondered why they were all there instead of at home. Not until later, did I discover this was a 'school' for children like myself."
* * * * * *
"The school day began with the switching on of all lights in the dormitories by the supervisor, usually a woman. These lights were spaced directly over the beds and flashed in the face of the sleeper. The sudden change in light is to deaf persons like the ringing of an alarm clock to a hearing person. Sleepy heads were roused by the simple expedient of pulling off their covers.
After dressing, we did exercises in the hall and then stood in a line-up until a signal was given for the march to breakfast in the main building. The seating arrangement was by dormitories, with the sexes segregated. Older boys acted as monitors during the serving of food to the younger boys. There was a brief grace, which few of us understood, but the bowing of heads was compulsory and a boy who failed to do so got his ears boxed or was sent to stand in a corner. Strangely enough, there was always someone who forgot to bow and was punished. The day's culprit took his punishment to the accompaniment of the silent merriment of his comrades, managed by pointedly covering wide grins with their hands. After breakfast, about half an hour was spent in the basement while supervisors sorted out the sick or injured, and sent them back to the dormitories. That done, we were admitted to our classrooms.
Miss Van Allen, my first home-room teacher, was bright, cheerful, occasionally lax, but lots of fun. She taught us speech and lipreading, according to the method then used in the school. We were taught no words at first and we were not taught the names of anything, but just the making and lip-reading of single sounds. We weren't permitted to use the 'sign language' and therefore were unable to ask the teacher to explain things.
We did have many questions in our minds, but were hindered by the theory that the ability to speak comes before the ability to learn and understand..."
"...We stayed with Miss Van Allen all day, except for one period when we went to the assembly room to gather around Mr. Gordon's piano. He taught rhythm. We would stand besides the piano and put our hands on the top. Sometimes he asked us to close our eyes, sometimes not. He would play the piano a little and stop. When we had shown some response, he would ask us to close our eyes and lift our hands when we knew the music had stopped. If we did well, he looked happy. If we didn't, he might be cross or he might indicate, 'That's too hard for today; let's try something else.'"
"...The entire speech and lip-reading business was an awful bore, because there never were any explanations. We did as we were told, no more and, if possible, less."
* * * * * *
" I was now beginning to learn the names of things and persons. In the past, I had learned the sign language names for them. Consequently, I had not known to whom the words 'mother' and 'father' applied. However, it was not very difficult to make the connection after repeated visits from them and repeated journeys home."
"...It was nice to go home!
But after the first excitement, things would fall into their old routine. Mealtimes were boring because no one talked to me or explained what they were saying to each other. Father would try from time to time, but he was busy. He would hurry through breakfast and run. Mother was always very busy around the house. Marie was four years younger than I and was no help."
* * * * * *
"...One Christmas our teacher had been preparing us for the holiday with stories of Christmas trees and gifts. We had been taken on a shopping trip for the gifts. Our teacher told us we would each have a tree waiting for us at home.
When I returned home, and found there was no tree anywhere in the house, I went to mother and gave her to understand I needed a tree under which to put my gifts. She looked at me with an odd expression, drew a deep breath and took me to see my father. She spoke to him and he pulled up a chair for me to sit down. Then he explained that Jews do not have Christmas trees. They have a star which Christians have a cross, I understood, but I was still disappointed. Where was I going to put the gifts? He then told me about Hanukkah, and the nine candles-a row of eight and in the center, the ninths, with which to light the others.
'On that Jewish holiday we exchange gifts.' That made me feel better. Then he informed me that Jewish gifts are wrapped in blue and white, the colors of the Jewish flag.
Aside from the little my father could explain and from observing my family celebrate Passover and other holidays, I knew very little concerning our religion. There was no Jewish deaf club where we could go to study, and no rabbi appointed to us in Toronto. Years later I was to learn our history and the meaning of ritual from the deaf Jews in New York. There was also no Bar Mitzvah for me, because I could not read the required verses or repeat the prayers necessary for that ceremony.
In school I was the only Jew. When Catholics and Protestants went off to church, I was left behind, alone. I wondered why, as did my friends. Our teacher explained, 'Because he is a Jew,' and then tried to tell us something about differences in religion, which few of us could grasp."