Let me just say, kindergarten graduation was epic. There was cake. The principal read The Rainbow Fish. I stood in the front row on stage, and we sang and signed “Greatest Love of All” in what was surely a Whitney Houston-esque performance worthy of a Grammy. Standing ovations all around.
Then, after another year came second grade. We moved to the ‘big kids’ building and got our first hardcover textbooks. It was the last year for phonics and the first year for long assignments on loose-leaf paper. I started a career as a ruthless trader of lunchroom luxuries. I’d negotiate a trade of three potato chips for a sixth of a ho-ho before dominating a game of heads-up-seven-up. Ah, those were the days. This was also the time I learned how to sign the alphabet.
Once mastered, alphabet signing served a multitude of purposes in primary school. Practically, it allowed me to talk in class without getting caught. It reinforced friendships and catered to a predilection for observing body language. Most importantly, though, it hinted at a world where people overcome seemingly insurmountable odds and reminded me to persevere. Helen Keller quickly became one of my childhood heroes. If she could pass university being deaf and blind, surely I could pass my grade school test.
Juvenile boasting aside, after taking a sign language course taught by the Deaf as an adult, I’ve realized there are several skills from youth I’ve really taken for granted.
For example, even in complete silence, hearing people are surrounded by sound. The reason hearkens back to kindergarten: phonics. Hearing people hear sounds when they read letters. Despite all my love for visual communication, I can’t even begin to imagine learning to read without sound. What a great challenge.
I’ve come a long way from those first days flirting with signs and stardom. Through much of school I saw the idea of signing as a means of expression and affirmation. Now I’m learning as a means of listening, and it’s really exciting to hear what people have to say. I could probably say something deep here about how acknowledging people embodies Whitney’s messages about love and dignity or reiterates Rainbow Fish’s lessons on sharing. Overall, though, I’d say listening to people is just genuinely interesting. Learning a new perspective is like learning a new sign. It adds a lot to one’s vocabulary, and sometimes, as with Helen Keller and the sign for water, it unlocks a whole world.