ON HAND: Being Deaf and bilingual/Gallaudet murders

These originally appeared in a twin issue of The Tactile Mind Weekly in Trudy’s ON HAND column.

A lot of things annoy me (which probably comes as no surprise to some of you), but there’s one thing that really, really annoys me. Because of my published writings, people sometimes recognize my name when we’re introduced. It never fails–they will say one of two sentences: “Wow, you sign beautiful ASL!” or “Wow, you are really Deaf–I thought you were oral! How come you write such good English?”

Apparently, if you’re Deaf, use ASL and don’t speak, and you can write well–it’s a miracle!

Why is it such a big deal? What’s with the low expectations? Is it because of that overrated belief that deaf people generally read at a third-grade level? That people who grew up with ASL as their first language can’t read or write English? I don’t understand why people are still so hesitant to believe that bilingualism works. I can rattle off the names of about 100 deaf people who grew up with ASL as their first language and have incredible English skills.

And in case you were thinking I always had good English skills–not true. I have a piece of napkin from when I was 6, where I scribbled to my hearing grandmother, “AUNT KATE ATE FINISH WRITE ME LATER” (Aunt Kate had finished eating and would talk with me later). There’s plenty more where that came from. Just pay my parents a visit; they’ll be all too happy to demonstrate my childhood memorabilia.

It wasn’t until the fourth grade when all the English rules made sense to me, which is a typical point in any child’s life, I think. I credit my deaf parents’ constant communication with me in ASL and my love of reading for my language development. I didn’t take any private training; I wasn’t put in any special courses; I didn’t have teachers who signed well. But I had family (both deaf and hearing) who communicated with me and made sure I understood both ASL and English.

I’m Deaf. No, I don’t speak. Yes, ASL is my first language. Yes, I can read and write English.

Get over it.

Sometimes it’s easy to move on, putting memories of terrible events behind us.

This Sunday–September 28–will mark three years since Plunkett was murdered. Plunkett, of course, was the Gallaudet freshman from Minnesota beaten to death by classmate Joseph Mesa. Mesa went on to stab to death Benjamin Varner, a freshman from Texas, that following February.

I don’t think anybody could have prepared for the sense of panic and fear that spread among the deaf community at the time. I can’t even fathom the feelings I would have had. When I was at Gallaudet between 1991 and 1995, we had plenty of tragedies, but none as grisly or calculated as the murders. Never would I have imagined that a fellow student could’ve murdered me–especially in a freshman dorm, of all places.

The sense of invincibility among people was probably heightened at Gallaudet before the murders, the so-called Mecca for deaf people pursuing higher education. How in the world could there be anyone with murderous instincts on campus? After all, Mesa listed on his freshman website that his favorite book was TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE. Murder was unthinkable at Gallaudet; everyone knew murder only happened outside of the fences surrounding the campus.

As I think about the three-year mark, I can’t help but wonder if people are gradually forgetting about Mesa’s killings. There has been almost no media coverage about Mesa since he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The freshman dorms at Gallaudet have been renamed, and may be renovated or razed. Plunkett and Varner are not household names in the Deaf community so much anymore.

Yet how could we ever forget the tragedies of September 28, 2000 and February 3, 2001?

We should move on, but we must not forget Eric Plunkett or Benjamin Varner.

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