From my regular column for The Hands & Voices Communicator
If someone ever explained a French kiss to me, I can’t recall. When it came time to know, I just knew or else I pretended to know. This is how it goes when you’re 11 or 12. You get a whole new vocabulary describing a lot of things you’ve been imagining or couldn’t possibly have imagined.
I’m quite sure that the time I needed this information came well before I had any direct, first-hand experience of the topic. It came the way all knowledge of this sort comes: from your friends or, better yet, from the friends of an older sibling—those wizened up 15 year olds who had been around…plenty. They knew things. That’s who you have those kinds of conversations with—the ones you are not having with your parents. Or, if you’re deaf or hard of hearing, the ones you’re not having with your parents or teachers or speech therapists—the very people who are probably your primary, maybe only, linguistic resources.
So, how are you learning the ropes? Where are you getting the specialized vernacular that could keep you from getting beat up on the playground when you’re ten, or pregnant when you’re 16? If you want to be taken you seriously by your pimply-faced peers (and you do), you must have at least a functional vocabulary with a basis of partial knowledge of the sort of things your parents, teachers and speech therapists are miserably uncomfortable to impart. Of course, “you” are not even reading this column, but your miserable, uncomfortable parents, teachers and speech therapists just might be. So let’s shift focus to them.
Hey, I’m Talking to You
You may find a way to skip through life without ever actually balancing your checkbook (guilty as charged…I no longer even pretend to be embarrassed about this) but there is a biological imperative driving all human beings to have a lively interest in and working knowledge of their sexuality. Parents of children with hearing loss and communication challenges have a special moral obligation to proactivity in this regard. It’s not “just the facts” but all the incidental information we have to fill in or ensure gets filled in for them. We have to recognize that our children are not overhearing the conversations of their older sibling and his friend. They’re not tracking the sort of scuttlebutt on the bus that took the place of “the Talk” our own parents managed to avoid having with us. I’m sorry to be the one to inform you that you don’t get that kind of pass on this one—you’ve got to stand and deliver. FYI: this is not an article on how well I’ve done this personally. Just keep reading and you’re bound to feel better about your own chances of getting it right.
Sure, plenty of kids with typical hearing are likely to absorb misinformation from the 15 year old Oracle of the locker room. But there’s no denying that kids who are deaf or hard of hearing are at increased risk for being misinformed or even entirely uninformed. At my daughter’s soccer practice one Saturday morning, I listened to some hearing neighbor kids bragging about Don Juan of the Bleachers who got in really big trouble over a football game fiasco. It involved things that definitely would have fallen into the category of “unimaginable” to me at age 14. But I listened to the whole story with a new kind of horror: how in the world would Dane, my deaf son, follow a conversation like this one around a loud, crowded picnic table in a windy park? Which words would he have recognized at that age? Would he have picked up on the unspoken messages being sent—did the laughter of the other kids mean that Don Juan was cool or gross? Would the “teachable moment” of punitive consequences from the school principal be noted? Sadly, I was pretty sure all would have been lost on him…except maybe the location (a word easy to lipread). Yeah, my kid would have picked up on that part, and at the next football game, he’d be headed straight for the dark underbelly of the bleachers.
Truth or Dare
Actually, the first time some little neighborhood Pandora opened up this particular Box at my house, I was downstairs in the kitchen noting that it had been a while since I’d heard a peep out of Dane (then six years old) and the girl (a worldly eight) who were upstairs. Nothing I saw when I eventually found them in the closet was particularly jarring. Kids are naturally going to be curious, of course. In fact, I was so unfreaked by the whole scene that when I called the neighbor girl’s mom 15 seconds later to come and get her hussy daughter with whom my son would not be playing for the foreseeable future, I was entirely calm and collected. And since the subject had been raised in such a natural manner, I knew I had an unparalleled opportunity to respond to the debacle teachable moment it presented.
So as naturally as possible, I sat down face-to-face with Dane, gripped took his hands in mine, and strained maintained a smile as I explained that hiding in the closet with a tramp girl whose shorts were pulled down to her knees askew was probably not the best choice they could have made with their play time. Still, it was only natural that he would be curious about this sort of thing that no doubt that little trollop had instigated. There was nothing at all unnatural in being curious about what girls were like inside their Underoos. It would be only natural for him to experience certain natural feelings, and it wasn’t at all wrong to be feeling those natural feelings. Surely, he had some questions? I nodded reassuringly at Dane, who seemed to have lost his ability to blink. This wasn’t going quite as well as I’d hoped. Plus, I was pretty sure he now suspected that “natural” and “feelings” were naughty words.
If at First You Don’t Succeed
One’s karma always comes back to her, so in the way of all epic do-overs, I had another chance to respond to an amazing opportunity to share the beauty of human sexuality and reproduction—this time under slightly different circumstances. Actually, the circumstances were vastly different, but my recall is somewhat imperfect due to a partial memory block that I only wish had been more complete.
Cheryl DeConde Johnson, the president of our Hands & Voices board, and I were invited to keynote and do workshops at the 18th Annual Philippines Congress on Deafness a few years back. Cheryl would be taking on some audiological and technical topics, and I’d be focusing on family support. By now, Dane was an adventure-seeking, capable teenager so I brought him along. He would do some recreational activities with the deaf youth.
The Philippines does not recognize a separation of church from state. Its population is 95% Catholic, and all the educational systems are run by the Catholic Church. The official opening of the Congress was a formal Mass read in Tagalog by a very important looking Bishop of the Church from Manila, during which time Cheryl, Dane and I tried to make our way through the hefty conference program that had been written by someone who speaks English as a second language. The program read pretty much the same way the long-distance phone calls between the conference planner and I went, which is to say enthusiastically confusing. For example, I’d say “so how many families do you think will be there?” and Sister Mary Holywater (please don’t be offended…this is not her real name, but a friend of mine who was raised Catholic always used this generic reference when he was trying to be funny, and I hope you’ll read it in that vein) would say “Yes, we’re very very excited!” Then I’d say “Are these families with really young children or more like high-school aged kids?” Then Sister Mary Holywater would say “No, no, don’t worry about anything at all! We’re very very excited!!”
The conference program laid out the schedule for the next four days, a long stretch of almost wall-to-wall presentations for Cheryl and I. It was our first look at the timing. I glanced through it to see if I could glean some information that had never really been clear to me during months of our aforementioned preparation. OK, some of it looked familiar but here was one topic that had definitely not been discussed with me: Psychosexual Development in Deaf Children. Presenter: Leeanne Seaver.
It seemed like another two or three hours went by in the next 20 minutes before the break when I could snag Sister Mary for a quick reality check. “I couldn’t help but notice my name right here in print beside this topic, so I wonder if this could be a typo or ????” No, Sister Mary smiled, no, but not to worry, this is not going to be a hard topic for someone like me. Well, actually, Sister Mary, I countered, “I am not remotely qualified to speak to ‘psychosexual development in deaf children’ and I’d be hard pressed to even think of a single person in the field who could.” Through a beaming, beatific face, Sister Mary said, “but surely you have had such a talk with your deaf son. We would like you to share as a mother with these deaf children here at our school.”
Me: Are you asking me to tell them about ‘the birds and the bees’? Sister Mary smiled blankly. This idiom is apparently not common in the Philippines. So I added “…as in the facts of life? The process of reproduction?”
Sister Mary’s smile grew even broader and she nodded vigorously. Yes! That would be most helpful! In that conversation could I also say things that would curb their urges and any homosexual tendencies? And could I please present all this information in a Christian context?
My Milli Vanilli Moment
So this is how I came to the miserable, uncomfortable conversation that all parents are pretty much loathe to engage in, but this time (a sure sign that I was absolutely horrible in a past life) I was delivering the material to a group of approximately 75 deaf people ranging from three to 50 years of age. This was because there was only one interpreter and all the deaf people came to my session. I was given 90 minutes. And I used up all my material in roughly 15 minutes. After that, my spirit left my body and sort of hovered above me, looking down on this ridiculous blonde woman yammering on and on.
My son was so utterly mortified that he actually opted to join Cheryl’s session targeted to the audiologists. Thank God. I felt like a bad actress who’d forgotten her lines. Finally, I had the brilliant idea to break people into pairs to discuss the topic. I took a long time explaining how to count off by twos. Someone messed up so we started all over. Then I asked them to share with one another a time when they were…(a disembodied voice in my head taunted “you don’t know what you’re going to say next,” which was true). Yes, where were we…oh yes, please share a time when you were struggling with frustration over your own lack of understanding of this material. Did you wish you had a better vocabulary to express your feelings? In my mind, this was the “psycho” part of the assigned “psychosexual” facet of the topic. It was the best I could do.
Having already concluded I was a complete poser with this topic, the sign language interpreter just stared at me, along with 75 other sets of blank eyes. Apparently, the meaning of the assignment was completely lost in translation, so I broke it down more simply. The new topic was “share your feelings on this subject or any subject” with your partner. Everyone dug right into that. After 20 minutes or so, I asked the interpreter to announce that it was time to switch and let the other person talk. She said she’d already done that ten minutes ago. Then she gave a bit of an exasperated gasp and held her hands out to me in a “do something” gesture.
So I knit my brows, and looked thoughtfully at her, like I had a plan for strategically ramping this all up to a more meaningful level. But what I was really pondering was if there would be wine at dinner that night, or heck, maybe wine at the next break and how much I could throw down before my son noticed the bad example I was setting; then I pondered why I hadn’t become an audiologist so I could go to Cheryl’s session, too. Finally, I just threw in the towel and asked the interpreter if there was anything else that she thought ought to be covered—she clearly knew the group much better than I did, and I was ready to defer to her on this. She seemed very pleased and puffed up a bit as she considered her elevated advisory status. Then she closed her eyes, shook her head disapprovingly and spoke of the problem of couple-swapping that was so common nowadays, particularly in the Deaf Community. Could I discourage this practice, in a Christian context? Sure, I thought, I’ll just add that to the long list of miracles I’m praying for right now.
I hope you are having better luck with all of this than I did.