In Loco Parentis

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When I was a day student at the Illinois School for the Deaf (ISD) in 1985, I usually went to the dorms at lunchtime and after school for extracurricular and dorm activities. Although the socialization was always fun, there was one deciding factor for whether we kids would have a good time or not: whoever was on duty.

Whenever we had Mrs. G as our houseparent, we’d groan. Mrs. G, who was hearing, required that, when we ate meals, we keep our non-dominant hand in our laps at all times, with the other devoted to using utensils. We could use the non-dominant hand only for cutting meat. At any other time during the meal, we were to remain completely silent. If we even as much lifted our non-dominant hands, our meals were taken away. Each meal was always somber, although we – of course! – developed a system of communicating with our eyes and faces.

And let’s not forget Mrs. P, another hearing houseparent who used to sit in the dorm lounge smoking Virginia Slim after Virginia Slim as she watched Days of Our Lives. It was the only captioned soap opera at that time, so we all watched it with her. Neither woman could understand what we signed most of the time.

I don’t remember any of the hearing dorm staff with too much fondness, but I do remember the deaf ones with great respect and admiration – perhaps because they could communicate easily. My favorite was Jean, who was tall, beautiful and kind-hearted. An ISD graduate, she knew exactly what we all wanted and needed as young middle schoolers, and was always up for good girl talk with us.

Houseparents are such an integral part of any residential school, and this is something should be appreciated on a grander scale by many. Let’s face it – living in dorms at deaf schools has gotten a bad rap over the years (and in some cases, deservedly so), and so has the choice to become a dorm staffer. It always makes my heart ache when I see people saying, “S/he works as a houseparent. What a waste of college education!” or make fun of the profession. The truth is that dorm staff hold often-unrecognized major influence upon students’ lives and in the long run, the Deaf community. It doesn’t matter if the dorm staffers are deaf or hearing; they create an impact, and this is something that should be taken seriously.

My husband spent the majority of his school years living in dorms, something he remembers with great pleasure. Even though he had deaf parents and grandparents who were wonderful presences in his life, the dorm parents he grew up with also provided great impact upon his life. Sure, there are incidents in dorms that should never happen – bullying or sexual abuse, for example. But these are incidents that are absolutely preventable, and a good residential program with qualified staff who can prevent that from happening. For me, the key to a good residential program is having staff who can communicate effortlessly with students and understand the immense responsibilities of the work before them.

Being a dorm parent, to me, is a noble job and a daunting assignment to take on, one I would probably not be able to accept. Dorm staffers work in loco parentis – in place of parents – and in many cases, are the only signing adults other than teachers that the children interact with. Many children come from homes where there is minimal, if any, communication, This is the most important job task: teaching language, social skills, life values and world knowledge outside of the classroom to these children. People who work as dorm staff, hearing or deaf, must take every measure necessary to give full communication access to the kids.

Whenever I talk to deaf people who lived in dorms, they often can tell me who the worst and best houseparents were. Typically, the “awful” houseparents were the ones who couldn’t sign worth anything or sat around doing nothing. This is probably true at any boarding program around the nation, actually; it’s not just a “deaf school thing.” But still, within the close-knit Deaf community, this has far-reaching consequences.

In fact, it’s interesting how I can quickly tell who the enthusiastic and involved dorm staff are simply by going to football or basketball games at the deaf school here. The “good houseparents” – who are well-liked and strict but fair – usually attend the games, make sure their students interact and participate in a safe environment, and are fluent signers.

Being a houseparent is no easy task, and I really wish schools would set higher standards for residential staff, especially in the areas of fluency in American Sign Language and providing a productive, caring and educational environment. Raising this bar can only begin with the Deaf community’s heightened respect for people who choose to work as residential staff, increased expectations and an innate understanding of what the profession involves. We have to keep in mind that these residential staffers are helping raise our future community leaders, and do what we can to support their work.

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