Many Hands

2LAW Flash Lit Challenge #5, October 2021

Photo credit Bronwyn Emery

With her left hand she held the small slip of paper in front of my face, and with her right hand she signed, “Go call.”

I looked at the phone number on the tiny scrap of paper that my American Sign Language teacher had torn from an advertisement on the bulletin board on campus. The ad read: “Room for rent with Deaf family, $300 per month.” 

It was 1993, and I had just been accepted into the ASL/English Interpreter Training Program and I was taking a Level 4 ASL class. I was accepted to the program conditionally, with the requirement that I continue to strengthen my language fluency. In retrospect, I was lucky to get into the program that year at all, but the stars aligned in my favor. Still, I knew that just taking more ASL classes wasn’t going to get me where I needed to be. I needed real live Deaf people in my life, up close and personal, everyday, to teach me what I needed to learn. 

At her urging, I made the call through the text relay service which, at the time, was cutting edge technology but still a painfully slow process. As I spoke into the pay phone (like I said, 1993), a relay operator typed what I said to them on a TTY.

“Hi, I’m calling about the room for rent,” I said.

“Come over,” the operator read back to me.

“Well, I’m in class and I won’t be done until late,” I answered.

“Come over,” the operator said again, and then she read their address.

I laughed and said okay. Better to have the conversation in person in your first language than through a relay operator in your second language. I got it. This is what I wanted, but I was nervous.

At 9:30 that night I knocked on their door. I didn’t know it at the time, but my life was about to change forever. They showed me the room and we stood there talking, the room only dimly lit by the hallway light making it hard to see. I told them I was a student. Yes, they nodded, they had had students live with them before. I asked if they wanted my rental references, and the husband, whom I would learn was a jokester, said, “No, we’ll just keep you for six months and if we don’t like you, we’ll kick you out.” Alrighty then, it was settled. I moved in that weekend.

I soon realized that I had hit the language learning jackpot with this large, multigenerational Deaf family.  Their door was never locked except when they went to bed which meant people came and went freely and there were always new hands to watch. Evenings and weekends were for gathering together, with everyone crowded on the sectional sofa in the living room having multiple conversations at the same time. At first, I only let myself sit on the step leading into the living room. That brought me close enough to watch their conversations and build my receptive language skills, but far enough away that I could escape if it was too overwhelming. None of my classroom experiences had exposed me to this level of ASL and Deaf culture.  It was exactly what I needed, but it was challenging. Still, I could not believe my good fortune at being ushered into this community by so many hands.

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