my life leads to a conference

Background, first.

I am a student at my local community college. I am in a program to get a bachelor’s degree in American Sign Language Interpreting. The reason I am in this program is a little odd and my history of college attendance doesn’t at all match up with what I’m doing now. So this story, which begins way back in 1990, weaves through several pregnancies, two marriages and four different colleges before it gets to the end of the beginning.

I began college in 1989 when I was pregnant with my first child. I assumed giving birth was going to necessitate a break from schooling so I decided to take the semester off before I went back to school. Well that turned out to be a decision I regretted because in less than two days after giving birth, I was ready to get back to a solid daily schedule and within two weeks I realized I missed school. But I did enjoy being with my son every day. I just knew that taking one or two classes wouldn’t have interfered with being a mother and being a mother certainly wouldn’t have interfered with taking one or two classes. Mind you, I was a freshman. My classes consisted of core curriculum which was frankly beneath my intellectual capabilities. In less than a semester I learned why community college was snickered at by other university students . The depth of ignorance and lack of knowledge amongst my “peers” was astounding to me. Granted, I went to excellent private schools (on scholarship) and I was a voracious reader (especially of non-fiction) yet the dearth of stimulation within my first year of college was almost depressing.

When I enrolled, I didn’t have any clue what I wanted to do. I assumed I’d do a liberal arts major – probably sociology since I read a LOT of that kind of thing – or perhaps I’d look into engineering since I loved science so much (but not in a research kind of way). After one semester, I was seized by the urge to look into film and photography. Mind you, I’d never snapped a picture before and the only exposure I’d had to film was in junior high when we all did a two minute animation short in art class. So I convinced my parents to buy me a really nice used Nikon SLR and I  went to my counselor and made photography/film my first major.

I loved all of it. However, it didn’t take more than one semester to figure out that once I had learned the basic mechanics of film-making/photography, I didn’t need to get a degree to do it. So after two semesters, I changed my major. To general engineering. 

In order to major in engineering (or any science) you have to have a core of science basics. So I signed up for my science basics. I was told if I wanted to go into physics, I’d need more math. A lot of higher math. So I signed up for pre-calculus classes to ready myself for that higher math. Most of my liberal arts friends had done their requisite 4 credit hours of math and were happy to be done. But I was determined. I loved physics as much as my father did (he has his engineering degree in applied physics) and physics uses a lot of “heavy” math.  So I was going to put my nose to the grindstone and learn all that math. It was hella hard and there were times I really questioned whether I could make it but I finally made into the calculus class that was part of the physics requirements.

It was near the end of my first calculus class when I had “the moment”. That point in time when everything slows down, your brain hones in on what you’re trying to grasp and suddenly the gates of understanding open  up and knowledge just pours right on in, clicking into all the right places. It’s a mentally orgasmic experience. What gave me that moment? Proving the second fundamental theorem of calculus: Riemann sums. Wow. I still get shivers remembering it. My professor, who was staying after class to help me get through this very crucial part of the course, saw my face and he must have known what was happening. He smiled a little bit and almost shyly said “so, you see it?” and I knew what he meant and I whispered “yeah, I see it, I really do”

Walking home, I knew what I was doing the next day: I was changing my major to math.

So, jump-forward in time and I’m pregnant again. My attendance at school had been spotty – semester on, semester off – because my husband and I were trading working. He’d work for a while and I could go to school then I’d work for a while and he’d stay at home with the baby. Well I was in class while pregnant with my second and I decided I’d just take a week off. Told my teachers, they were fine with it, willing to give me make-up work and all that. At that time I was trying to play “catch up” on my pre-reqs still and not taking anything “fun”. Well my second son was born via c-section. I wasn’t going back to classes in week’s time. I had to withdraw formally for a while.

Fast-forward again and we’ve moved down South and I’m pregnant with our third child and I know in my bones our marriage is on its last legs. I wasn’t sure how I was going to manage things but I knew we were going to be split before that baby was ready for school. I enrolled in the main city community college and got my credits transferred. Some, of course, wouldn’t transfer. SO I was taking some of the same pre-reqs I had taken up North. I was still majoring in Math but starting to wonder if perhaps I should pick something more… marketable. I was eyeing statistics but thinking perhaps actuarial.

Then the marriage fell completely apart and I told my husband to get out. I had stopped college yet again, because he had stopped working in favor of staying at home getting drunk (when he WAS home at all) so I had started working for temp agencies. I realized I surely didn’t need his money, since he wasn’t making any and I definitely didn’t love him anymore so what were we doing? There was a lot I wanted to do with my life but taking care of a drunk adult was not one of those things. So I basically told him to pack up and leave.  I wasn’t sure how I’d make things work but my parents had offered me one of their rental houses and I knew people who needed roommate situations.

So after many fits and starts, I decided to go back to school again. This time, I was going to be pragmatic about it. I enrolled in a nationally-known chain voc-tech school famous for its geek-appeal. I enrolled as a computer programmer since I remembered enjoying that in high school. I was able to get in the accelerated program – classes were only on the weekends (so I could keep my job) or evenings but they were ALL DAY on the weekends. and they were accelerated so most of the work I’d be doing was on my own. It was very intense but I did enjoy it.

But then the ex started ditching his responsibility of taking the kids on the weekends. I started having to miss class. it didn’t take long (about a year) til I had to drop the whole thing. $20K in debt and nothing but 30 credit hours to show for it.

Fast forward again to almost a year ago. My best friend at the time was taking classes at the local state community college here. She for whatever reason decided to take a class in American Sign Language. I think she did it because I am vaguely familiar with Sign Language and I had a couple of Deaf friends. She felt somewhat “behind” when we all hung out because she didn’t know ANY signing. Well, one class and she was hooked. Decided she was going to get into the interpreters program. Next thing you know, she’s convinced ME to take some classes in Sign Language. Next thing you know, I’m taking the entrance exams for the Interpreter’s program and I get accepted. I wasn’t even sure what I was going to do with an interpreter’s degree. Being an interpreter sounded okay to me and I surely enjoyed learning ASL (like I had enjoyed learning Spanish, French, Latin and Italian when I was in high school) but it wasn’t something I had ever considered to be a life goal for myself. I started looking into the other career applications of being certified as an interpreter. Seemed like education was a good start.

Now, mind you, I’ve never been terrifically attracted to the idea of being  a teacher. Many people close to me have been surprised to find that out but I maintain I am not really teacher material. I am tutor material. I have enjoyed teaching adults in a one-on-one environment or even in intensive five-to-one lectures, but the idea of a room full of children for 6-8hrs makes my stomach churn. no thanks.

But special education has held some interest for me. Because my life has been steeped in it since i was 13, I probably learned more about special education by the time I was 15 (and running away from home) than most people learn in a lifetime. Of course, the learning certainly didn’t end there, as most of you know. Having a brother with multiple disabilities (including deafness) may have begun me on the trail but having my own children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum disorder kept me on the trail with an insatiable curiosity  The more I learned about my sons’ disabilities and differences, the more interested I became. And I don’t mean that as just a mother, I mean that as a life-student. Many subjects involving humans directly interest  me but studying how the mind develops? how development all over works? whether from a historical point of view (eg anthropology) or a scientific point of view (eg evolutionary psychology) it was ALL fascinating to me. I still had a love of math (I still miss it) but special education just burns me with curiosity. Quite possibly because so much of it IS new and mysterious to us.

So in answer to the  constant question of “what are you going to do? Be an interpreter?”  I started saying “I dunno, I’ll probably go into Deaf Education.”

It wasn’t really THE answer, it was just AN answer.

As a good friend of mine said “the problem is I love EVERYTHING. I want to do it ALL” – which is pretty much true for me too. (with the exception of chemistry and basic history, I learned about those things under much protest)

So we fast-forward again to a night when I am meeting up with some fellow students from my Deaf History/Culture class. We have a project together and need to start hammering out the details of what we’re going to do.

Now, understand, I already feel somewhat self-conscious and alienated in classes because mostly I’m surrounded by people much younger than myself. While the vast majority of my friends are younger than me, it’s not by much and we all share the same geek-loves. When I reference a movie or song, most of my friends know what I’m talking about. Being socially insulated like that is nice but it does make one terribly self-aware of how sheltered you have been once you venture out of your circle of “normality”. I was also painfully aware of how slowly I was learning ASL. I know there were some students who were worse than me but I also knew there were plenty of student who were far better than I was. It bothered me some and I tried not to get down about it but there were times when I really wondered what I was doing… after all I wasn’t “in love” with the idea of being an interpreter and I didn’t really know what I was doing and here I was trying to slog through something that maybe I just didn’t have an aptitude for… that bothered me too since…

well okay look, when I was in High school, I studied Spanish as my language requirement but came to realize I loved learning language and I was good at it. I had an aptitude for it. It came easily and it was fun. I had dreams of being multi-lingual and all of my hs Spanish teachers thought so too. One of them began teaching me French, Latin and a little bit of Persian too. I loved it. We only covered a little bit of each but I discovered that Italian wasn’t hard to muddle through either!

Yeah all that was great until my hearing “issue” started interfering.

Up until I was about 14 or 15, I never gave much thought to my hearing issue. I’d had hearing checks and aside from some quirkiness, I passed. Tonally, and volume wise (which is what they test) I could hear just fine. My constant misunderstanding people was always believed to be part of my silly spontaneous personality.Everyone just accepted it as part of me; I was considered to be ditzy and child-like. (I can hear my friends laughing from here) Well that wasn’t what it really was. It was my hearing problem that I didn’t realize I had.

Now, when I was learning Spanish in high school,  it wasn’t much of an issue at first because most of what you do receptively, when learning a foreign language, is listen on headphones to someone speaking the most basic standard form of the language possible.

It was when I tried to decipher Spanish in a “normal” conversation that things became arduous and embarrassingly difficult. People would have to repeat the same simplistic sentence several times while I tried desperately to “hear” what they had said. If they wrote their words down on paper, bang, no problem, I knew it all but the second words left their lips in a “normal” environment I was likely to be left in the dust. It made me look far less competent in the language than I really was. It seemed to baffle people as well because I could SPEAK the language beautifully. I was often praised by natives for my exceptionally accurate accent. Part what I loved about Spanish (and the other romance languages) was its predictability in sound. That was why my difficulty in hearing it spoken in natural settings was so peculiar. I certainly understood how Spanish sounded. Testing showed I knew my vocabulary and grammar very well. I definitely knew how it was supposed to be spoken. So why did I fall apart when it was spoken to me? 

Discovering I had the same difficulty with the other languages (at one point I tried to teach myself German and Japanese and did surprisingly well until I tried to hear it spoken) made me realize that this was not a language problem for me. Because when I truly thought about it, I knew I had had the same issues dealing in my native language of English. Clearly, there was a “hearing” problem.

Which meant I could never truly be a multi-lingual interpreter.

I abandoned learning other languages but kept up with my Spanish as it was handy to know even if functionally I was painfully slow with using it. I’d say learning foreign languages was probably the first academic dream I had had and giving it up was somewhat sad but I was young and there were many things I could learn that didn’t require perfect hearing.

So here I was, in a meeting with two other students from my Deaf History/Culture class in a restaurant. A nice noisy restaurant. With lots of ambient crashing sounds to obscure most of what I hear. But its fine because we’re not talking, we’re signing. Well I’m trying to sign anyway. By the time we got to the restaurant, I was already demoralized. We had previously been in a coffeeshop and one of my classmates had asked me to explain something to her. She’s Deaf so we have to sign yet the explanation I was trying to give was far more esoteric and unformed than I was capable of signing. So at one point, she used VRS (video relay service) as an interpreter (which is actually against the rules but we fudged it for a few minutes) because she simply could not understand what I was trying to say. All using VRS did was highlight the fact that my signing is woefully inadequate. So by the time we were in the restaurant with the other student I already felt like a dumbass.

Then the Deaf student turns to us both and asks each of us about our prior schooling. The other student’s story is fairly straightforward and simple. Mine is not. I start telling her what I’ve told you, in bullet-point style. Her eyes got bigger and bigger as I whipped through my geeky game of musical majors. “wait,” she signs “if you’re such a geek, and you ARE such a geek, then what in the world are you doing in the program? Why aren’t you studying calculus five or science or whatever”

I was a bit stunned. I mean I’ve been trying to really pinpoint the answer to that question myself and not really coming up with an exact answer. Here she was accosting me with a blunt manner that made me feel defensive. I felt like she was saying I had to justify learning ASL at all.

“I don’t know exactly” I signed, “I’m not sure but why not?”

“okay, let me ask you something” she signed ” Do you spend any time with Deaf people at all?”

“yeah, I do, I go to events but I also have a few Deaf friends one of whom I hang out with regularly”

She looked like she didn’t believe me. Those of you who know me know that is a button of mine… not being believed. But I tried to just drink it in and wait for whatever point she was going to make. I figured she had something constructive to tell me. “who is this friend?”  I told her my friends name. SHe didn’t know her (in the Deaf community its not unusual for Deaf people to know each other at least through two degrees of separation. Its a tight community) she started quizzing me on my friends ASL ability. Now I’m not about to get into a critique of my Deaf friends signing ability. That just seemed heinous to me.

“The point is,” the student signed ” is that you’re not very good. I mean sometimes I can understand you but other times you just don’t make any sense. Your signing is way behind. So if you’re so brilliant at math and science and this is so hard for you, why are you here? If you don’t LOVE the idea of being an interpreter, if you aren’t EXCITED by this, then what are you doing in the program?”

“hey look,” I interrupted, ” how old are you?”

“23” she signed

“And you?” I asked the other student

“25” he said

“okay look, I’m 46. I’m twice your age. It is harder for my brain to learn than it is for yours-”

“bullshit” she signed interrupting me forcefully

“excuse me?”

“bullshit” she signed again ” you’re making excuses. its sounds like you’re just avoiding responsibility”

“now wait a minute, I didn’t say it was IMPOSSIBLE. I said it was harder and it is-”

“BULLSHIT”

“no it IS, okay? its science. But look I’m HERE and I’m DOING IT. So obviously I’m not making excuses. I’m telling you reality.”

She was still shaking her head. I looked at the other student, he just shrugged his shoulders in agreement with her.

“okay, well I’m sorry you think it’s that simple. You’ll find out the hard way when you get older I guess.”

Then I got up and found our waitress. I told her I needed my food to go. Then I paid and I said good bye and I left.

That conversation haunted me. I cried out of frustration on the way home. I approached one of my teachers after class. I asked my Deaf friends (some of whom had watched a video or two of mine) and I talked to my hearing friends who have also watched my videos. Everyone tried to make me feel better and told me not to worry about it. I actually thought “maybe she’s right and I don’t belong here. I should just quit and do what I know i’m good at. Go back to math and hide behind numbers for the rest of my life” But it bothered me even more that I was thinking like that. That I was taking the criticism so hard. It was strange because it didn’t actually hurt my feelings, it undercut my confidence and made me question my ability to do what I love most: learn.

But I would not allow myself to give up from one criticism. I once was criticized so harshly during sailing lessons that I was depressed for days afterwards. I wondered if I should ever bother to get on a boat again. Whether I was “worthy” of sailing anymore. But eventually, the lure of doing what I loved was more powerful than one person’s undermining my sense of self. I’m just a little bit stronger than that. So I persevered. Both times. As always.

But it still nagged at me: what was I doing in this program? I couldn’t shake the feeling that I did have a reason for being there. That I hadn’t just stumbled into it like it appeared. Sure, I had Deaf friends and I knew some SEE before the classes but I didn’t go through three semesters of pre-lim ASL classes with a 3.7 GPA then pass my GEARS test and entrance exams just for shi-gizzles.

I knew I had a purpose, a goal… I just didn’t know what it was. Before I had that unsettling conversation with that student, I had kind of assumed the goal would come to me, over time, as I learned more and more about the world of ASL interpreting. My loose aim was to be certified in order to go into the field of education. I figured it couldn’t hurt to have that kind of extra knowledge under my belt and the sad fact is that many deaf children have  disabilities that qualify them for special ed. Plus had some murky ideas about teaching ASL in special ed classes regardless of whether the students were deaf or not.

So… last month, I went to a conference for interpreters in my region. No, I’m not one but us students were welcome to the conference. It was going to be a good chance to see people in the field discussing what it was like to be in the field in different capacities. The days were divided up into three main workshop times. Legal, entertainment, religious  and educational interpreting were all going to be covered over the course of three days. We were encouraged to go to all of them briefly “float around” as one of the organizers said. I planned to peek in on legal interpreting (I love legalese) and check out educational interpreting. Someone told me the legal workshop was ALL ASL with no interpreting or captioning. Well I wasn’t sure I was ready for that since I don’t know much legal vocab. I imagined the workshop really being geared towards interpreters who already work in legal who are looking to be better. SO I decided I’d start with the educational workshop then maybe move around. I wasn’t much interested in entertainment interpreting (probably because of my background in theater and musci – if I’m going to be involved in entertainment, its not going to be standing on the side!) and lord knows I had zero interest in religious interpreting (I’m amazed at how many get into the program specifically for religious interpreting) so legal and educational was pretty much all i was going to get anyway. I was a little bummed out – I had hoped there would be more than just those four represented.

So I started out in the room for educational interpreting.

Dear lord.

Within five minutes I knew I wasn’t going to any other workshop.

Within fifteen minutes I taking notes of everything

By the break I was walking around the room, talking with educational interpreters about their jobs as if I’d known them all their lives. I felt energized and excited. I was learning! Not just parceling out bits and pieces of information and struggling to put them together but zipping along taking everything that was thrown and out and stashing everything away into “the big picture”

It was heady stuff.

Then, at the end of the workshop, I was talking to another student from one of my classes about some of what we had gone over in the workshop. She asked me about some terminology that had been used. Initializations I’d been hearing and using for the last twenty years, since before my children had entered the larger world of education. She goggled at me as I explained the terms and quickly segued into the importance of certain specific regulations then to some of the changes in laws during the last few years as pertains to the ADA and how one should be aware of certain aspects of different types of regulatory categories and what they entail and how exciting it was to learn all this but more importantly how this kind of knowledge needed to be more widespread and you know when I got out of the program and started on my masters in education perhaps this was the angle I really needed to focus on because from everything I’d learned in my years of being the parent of a special needs kids-

“wow,” she interrupted, eyes wide with amazement, “you really know what direction you’re going in”

***** pause *****

*****blink*****

*****breathe*****

I looked right at her and I could feel the wonder she had, as if she wished that she too knew exactly what direction she was going in, I knew that look because up until that very moment, I’d seen that look on my own face every time I asked myself what I was doing in this program.

Suddenly, I saw it all.. my future the way I want it to be.

I want to get a masters in special education, yes, but I want to go into administration. I want to be one of the people who has influence enough to make special education change and progress. I wouldn’t mind teaching and I’ll probably do it at first but what I want to do is be …an organizer. Because ever since I was a 13 year old girl listening to my mother cry after she’d been told her second son would never hear her say “I love you” never read a book to her, never look her in the eyes and never even sign “please” I’ve been fighting against this system that has tried so hard to ignore and shun every single child who doesn’t fit into the mold. And though I understand how that would work to keep the health of a system intact, our children aren’t here to support the system, the system is supposed to support our children. I’ve been fighting the education system since I first sat in an SST meeting and told the whole staff of a school off for trying pass the buck on my son’s education. I’ve been fighting and fighting the system sometimes as an ally, sometimes as an advocate, but mostly as a mother.

I don’t want to fight anymore. Not like this. I want to fight and know that I can win something. Because I don’t want to keep fighting against the system for the sake of one child, I want to start pushing within the system for the sake of all children.

I saw myself in that instant graduating, enrolling in grad school, working as an educational interpreter in the meantime, being able to see firsthand how things work (and how they don’t work)  I saw myself getting positions of influence in public education and pushing people to start noticing and stop ignoring the “special” kids. I saw myself doing this with joy and verve because I knew I was finally where my whole life has been leading me. This was the vision, the goal I’d had all along, I just didn’t know, couldn’t see it until now.

Dream big, baby, right?

yeah,” I said to her, ” I do know what direction I’m going in

and with that knowledge, I stumbled to my hotel room  and spent the next few days battling tears every time I remembered that conversation.

I can’t say my whole life changed.

My whole understanding of my life changed.

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