Tuesday, February 18, 2014

My Own Kind of AA

I always hear positive things about Alcoholics Anonymous. It's an environment where you can be yourself. Nobody judges you; everyone has a problem. If everyone has a problem, there's no competition to be perfect.

The beautiful part is that when we're authentic is when we're able to make changes in our lives. When we can actually grow.


That's why AA works.


I know personally what it's like to be in authentic community. I found it in an unlikely place: a San Diego high school classroom.


The students were from every walk of high school life. Jocks with their baseball caps turned backwards. Bleach-blonde surfers with the lackadaisical attitude of a pot-smoker. Artsy kids with deliberately random pain splatters down their jeans. Kids who spoke Spanish at lunch and kept to themselves. Girls dressed up; girls dressed nerdish. Kids in all black who're goth or emo or whatever the difference is. Thespians, loud and acting out.


The teacher was instructive, astute, and kind, but also sharp and no-nonsense. She could tell if you were trying to hide something and would had no patience; but she smiled if you were honest about needing help.


The class was American Sign Language.

My first day of ASL was not my first time in a language class. I had already fulfilled more than my graduation requirement in Spanish. But I like language and my boyfriend-at-the-time was in ASL. I loved watching him and his friends flashing signs and expressions, chuckling. I loved their diverse but accepting network of friends. I wanted that.

ASL, and all signed languages*, are visual. You cannot write them. So when you learn ASL, all you do is sign. Unlike in my Spanish and Greek classes, where much of the work was written, ASL consisted of presentations, games, and conversations. We spent every day watching each other closely, struggling to understand and communicate.

It's unfortunately common to enter a language classroom and hear silence, all the students writing paragraphs or reading stories. That's not how conversational language is learned. If you entered our ASL class, it too was silent--to the ears. But to the eyes it was a panoply of finger fireworks and facial cascades, all with meaning, emotion, emphasis. Our classroom was as quiet as the wind, but it was never silent.

We were beginners; we didn't know anything. So we made a lot of mistakes. Since we signed in front of the entire class, our mistakes were made in full view.

We all messed up.

We saw each other mess up.

Soon it stopped mattering when we messed up.

There was no point for stage fright. Perfectionism. Shame. Gloating. We were in it together. Either we were going to rip each other to shreds each time we messed up--and be dug into in turn--or we were all going to work together to get better.

We chose the latter. We chose it because we cared about something more important than petty competitive ranking. We possessed the precious pieces of a minority culture. We looked into the window of Deaf culture, a window few hearing people ever see.

The Deaf have been oppressed as much as any minority group. From derogatory names to being sent to the asylum, to physical abuse because "you're refusing to hear" (the alternative, "you're stupid," wasn't much better). Unlike some minorities, they don't get much press coverage. Most people don't know Deaf culture exists. Many hearing people still assume ASL is a mimed form of English. (It is NOT. It has a grammar all its own along with classes of words I can't translate into English--and I've tried. Classifiers, anyone?)

Deaf culture is like a secret long maintained beneath the radar of those who don't care about its adherents. It's beautiful. It's unique. And we got to be a part of it. We learned how the Deaf tell long stories in order to say anything. We learned ASL poetry, an art beyond words. We embraced the Deaf penchant for long goodbyes. We told Deaf jokes and laughed when hearing friends didn't get it. It was small and secret and precious, but also tremendous and impressive.

We got to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. That was enough to outweigh any differences we might have felt because of who-is-better-at-what.

I made lifelong friends in ASL. Friends with people so different from me there's no chance we would've been friends otherwise. I got roped into new things, like slacklining and froyo, thanks to those friendships. I chose classes and activities based on those friends. I worked with people who work wholly differently than I do. I learned to compromise. I saw the good in my opposite. I learned the power of friendship to cross all other boundaries if there is just one door, one thing you have in common.

This is not a normal phenomenon in language classrooms.

I have taken 5 languages. For competition, Spanish was the worst: those with a knack for the accent were instantly considered more advanced than those who didn't, and those who grew up speaking it (half of San Diegans) were a cult unto themselves.

We divided ourselves up by ability because the goal of the class was to Be Good at Spanish. Both teachers and students were there for that purpose. So we discriminated based on it: Those achieving the goal. Those not.

There will always be the betters and worses. But in Spanish, it mattered.

Not ASL. In ASL, we weren't there just to reach a certain level or check something off. We were there to find out what it means to be a signer. We were there to appreciate a culture. No betters or worses. Just humans. Trying things out. Failing. Helping each other. Engaging.

Maybe if we better understood the difference between that Spanish classroom and ASL classroom, we could revolutionize the way we teach language. Instead of focusing on competition and how good you are, how about we give students something to treasure? Something to protect? Sometimes what we were learning felt like being handed the jewels of the Deaf household. You didn't drop them. Your job was to stare in awe. To defend them against the ignorance of the hearing world. To educate others so they can appreciate the beauty of ASL.

I'm not saying eradicate competitive games; ASL had plenty. But the focus wasn't who won. We were graded, but I never worried about my grade. I knew if I tried, I would pass. The point was to try, whether or not you were good.

Because how hard I tried showed how much I really cared about the Deaf and ASL. And that was the point. Being rewarded for trying encouraged me to keep trying when I failed. And because I kept trying, I got better.

I don't love ASL because I'm good at it; I'm good at it because I love it.

In that classroom, we all had one thing in common: we fell in love with the culture. It drew us collectively onward. Too fast, maybe, for what we knew. We made mistakes. We failed. And, despite our failures--through our failures--we all succeeded. Together. Helping, not ignoring one another. Unconcerned about our ranking, just enjoying the learning.

That's who I want to be with. That's how I want to get better.


Word count: 1,226. A bit long...

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* I know it is a common misconception that ASL is the universal language of the Deaf. I know you mean nothing by it, but this is actually a seriously harmful view of the Deaf. It lumps them all in together, as if there cannot be variation in Deaf culture. There are almost as many signed languages as spoken languages, and a separate culture for each one. In Sri Lanka, they sign Sri Lankan Sign Language. Having been exposed to it, I can tell you it's 100% different; I can't understand a single sign, any more than you could understand a word of Sinhala or Tamil spoken to you. The Deaf in Nicaragua are as different from the Deaf in the USA as the hearing in both countries are. The jokes are different; the grammar is the different; the stories are different; the art is different; the attitudes are different; the oppression is different.

** It is what it sounds like. This is where we twiddle our fingers to sign English letters to spell out a word. It is not technically ASL; it was a way of loaning words into ASL from spoken language. Most languages have ways of loaning words: there are so many new words these days for science and technology. In our modern plugged-in culture, a word for the latest tech crosses the seas before it does. And heck, a lot of science terms in English are really loanwords from Latin.
Understand also that ASL works within the framework of the dominant culture & language: English. While it is a fully discrete language in its own right, names are still given to children by writing them in English on a birth certificate, and the names are American names. Our culture requires that children have names that can be transcribed into English letters. But in ASL, while we can fingerspell the letters of our name, the Deaf also have namesigns: a sign that is their name. It is unique to them: their sign.