The boy at Target

As I sit here working well past midnight, I can’t stop thinking about the most random encounter at Target last Saturday that lasted all of three or four minutes.

My family and I had just arrived at the store, and my younger two were throwing hissy fits over having to sit in the cart (control, folks; carts are how we control our younger kids in stores). My oldest two were pushing each other and giggling. As I attended to the youngest — deeeeep into her terrible twos, which means she screams bloody murder if we try to make her do anything — I saw a father with two kids walking by. The oldest, an adorable boy with the cutest black-rimmed glasses, shaggy short hair, and a green shirt (soccer game, maybe?), kept staring at us. I ignored him at first thinking he was just some hearing kid fascinated by our ASL or our unruly children. But then I looked up, and suddenly noticed his hearing aids with the coolest green ear molds. He had stopped in his tracks, and was watching us intently.

I was trying to calm my daughter down while my husband was herding the other three. As I looked down at my daughter, I could see, and feel, the boy staring at us from maybe five or ten feet away. He seemed to be eight or nine. His father and sibling had already gone into the dollar bins area, and he was standing there, staring at us with so much interest. As I got my daughter happily comfortable in her seat, I mentally debated about how to react to the boy’s gaze. Should I ignore him? Does he know sign language? What if I try to talk to him and his dad gets upset? What if he doesn’t sign and doesn’t understand what I say? What do I do? Are my kids ever going to calm down?

I glanced back at him and gave him a big smile as I snapped my daughter’s cart belt into place. “Hi!!” I signed, looking at him directly.

The biggest smile came over his face as he excitedly signed back, “HI!” Just then, his father came back, looking a bit unhappy at his talking to us. The boy looked reluctant about having to join his family, glancing back at us twice as he walked off. I hoped to see him again in the store so I could talk a bit more with him, but I never saw him again.

I’ve been thinking about him a lot since then. The look on his face was so filled with hunger and hope. It’s a look I’ve seen a million times before, usually on the faces of deaf children (or even adults) meeting other deaf people for the first time. It’s the look of realization that they’re not the only deaf person in the world, that signing is perfectly acceptable and natural, that we’re all incredibly ordinary people just like them. I am so grateful that I have never felt like the only deaf person in the world, because I’ve always had deaf role models around me from day one of my life. I’ve never gone a single day in my life wondering what other deaf people were like or if they even existed.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about my children and their unfiltered, unlimited access to communications 24 hours a day at home and in school. They will not realize for years to come just how fortunate they are, just like my husband and I didn’t realize how fortunate we were to have deaf families and 24-hour access to sign language. I’m extremely grateful that I can chat with and listen to my kids, especially their references to poop and boogers. I’m also fortunate every single person in my household can argue, joke, and love each other without a single communication barrier, even if it means we (namely me) have to be careful what we say at the dinner table because every word we say gets repeated the next day in school, thanks to my children’s eagle eyes.

I hope that the boy in Target is in an environment where he can sign freely and can be as deaf as he wants to be, to whatever degree. Maybe all my assumptions are wrong, and he’s perfectly happy. I just wish I had paid more attention to him once I realized he was deaf. And I so wish I had said hi sooner.

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Comments

  1. As a hearing parent of a deaf son, it means so much when the deaf community reaches out. I’ve seen my son look like that child in target. He’s fascinated and wants to be immersed in his language. I do the best I can, but I know it’s not enough. As adult members of the deaf community, you’re acceptance of my family is priceless.

  2. It probably was fascination at seeing a Deaf adult, and a parent with children, no less! He saw himself as an adult for a second; and that he was recognized. This is a magic moment that I still remember clearly from when I was eleven years old and met a Deaf neighbor (sadly, not one that lived close enough to visit.) It was probably the first time I had seen a grown-up example of “my people.”

  3. When I a little kid in Germany, I thought I was the only deaf kid in the world. That was until I suddenly realized my church had a Deaf section. I was filled with envy since I didn’t know German Sign Language or any sign language at home. I only had home signs with my mother. It wasn’t until my family and I got back to the States when my grandmother, who was a Special Ed teacher and her students were Deaf with disabilities, taught me ASL in addition to attendance to the local Deaf day school. I gave that look those those German Deaf people.
    Growing up here, I, too, encountered other deaf people, especially kids, who had that longing on their face. Oh, how I wished I said something. All I know is that I’m blessed to have access to ASL and I have a fiance who is Deaf as well. What holds us together is that we can always communicate with each other in the midst of our hearing families.
    I shall make it a habit to meet those deaf people who have a longing in their body language in various places and to make the initial dialogue. It never hurts to try.

  4. Sheena, actually, I did say hello to him and gave him several smiles–it was just such a chaotic time, as you probably can imagine. The kids were all excited at being at the store after a long drive, and I had to deal with my younger two before I could do anything else–otherwise, they’d have caused the store to go into lockdown. 😉 The point here is I wish I had an opportunity to talk with the boy just for a few minutes more. At least I know he signs, and at least I know he knows he’s not the only deaf person out there. That gives me comfort, if that makes sense.

  5. I can imagine what was going on with the boy’s fascination of seeing you sign immensely. I was in his shoes a long time ago. I grew up being alone as a deaf child, in a house with my young parents who didn’t know how to be responsible adults, ending up in the orphanage house for 2 years, still being alone. Until the nuns found me a deaf school in Louisiana when I was almost 5, I moved in the residential settings. That opened my eyes, very hungry for communication. I was a monkey, into an able confident person who is in total communication with my own kids, one hearing and one deaf. So I am hoping he will find you again, learn about the deaf culture and total communication. My fingers crossed.

  6. I’ve had many encounters in the past – with both Deaf and hearing children – who are both equally amazed by me using ASL. No matter what, I wear a smile on my face and introduce myself to them. In your eyes, it might be too late to smile and say hello, but at least this boy somewhere knows that someone like yourself did say hello. A little exposure goes a long way and I truly hope you’ll bump into him again soon!

  7. Teresa Brand says:

    I was a child like that. Only deaf depending in a slatives and neighbors. I would light up like the star on a Christmas tree when I saw someone signing, and would tether to figure out how to strike up a conversation. But mostly I was like that young boy, glued to the floor, dying of thirst for his communication because most likely, like myself., sign was wallowed in school and strictly forbidden at home. I felt like a stranger in my own home until I went to college; never understanding othjngs completely nor speechreading very effectively. That may be thesame life the young boy lives. Meaning he comes alive and becomes himsrlf, his true self, only when he deigns. And that is so very sad and tragic.

  8. yes, I was one of the 90 percent of deaf children of the hearing parents. My face was like “awe” when I first met deaf man with ASL for the very first time. I was like this boy in a way. Thanks for sharing.

  9. How would you have liked to have been in your twenties and suddenly realized that there was another way to communicate besides spoken speach? It blew my mind!!

  10. I was like this little boy — When I was about 9 years old , I was taken out of the Deaf program and place into a hearing school. I was completed bewildered and lost. In ’84, Gallaudet hit me hard and this changed my life dramatically. Wee hear I am today. Never too late. I hope the young boy has a positive journey.

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