Monday, September 17, 2012

Re-centering Normal

I thought today's anthem was going to be The Carpenter's "Rainy Days and Mondays."  It started, like every Monday starts: "talking to myself and feeling old." No wait, that's the song lyrics...

But I did wake up with a sense of melancholy.  I wasn't fully prepared to teach my 12:00 lecture when the morning alarm went off...or when the second alarm went off.  I struggled to find the energy to finish my lecture on the sociology of the body for the 101 class I was teaching today.  While teaching about re-centering normal and the social consequences of stigma is an interesting topic for me,  I couldn't gather the energy required to transmit my passion in a 101 lecture.  This lackluster response to the task at hand was somewhat expected because, in general, I've been feeling incredibly bogged down in the minutia of my graduate student responsibilities.  I've found it difficult to focus on what I love about graduate school while peering through stacks of what's on my to do list as "everything that's not fun about grad school."

But, I did my best to push Negative Nancy aside and finished practicing my lecture just in time to head to class.  When I arrived it was clear the 50 undergraduates in my classroom all, like me, had cases of the Mondays.  As the lecture proceeded at least 2 students fell asleep. (And just to spoil the ending of this story, I don't end up as the hero this time.)  I had planned the last 15 minutes of my lecture to be a discussion about an article " From 'hearing loss to Deaf Gain?" which I had assigned. (Great article, find it here.)  The article is incredibly controversial, yet still accessible for undergrads...or so I thought.  When I assigned I knew it would be a ringer; students would have so much to say!  Debate would spark!  It would be amazing! But, like every teacher comes quickly to learn, students toss wrenches into even the best planned lectures.  After launching my first discussion question out to the class their silence made it crystal clear that nobody had done the reading.  So instead of the last 15 minutes of class being a provocative discussion, it was dullsville.  I left feeling defeated and ashamed of myself for not having been prepared for their lack of engagement.  

I threw myself a little pity party as I walked home from school (caveat: the professor I was teaching for observed me and assured me I did fine...but we're all our own worst critics, right?) After grabbing a quick bite to eat I headed to the after school program for d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing students which I've been volunteering at for the past two weeks now.  What's the first thing that happens?  I get into a van with a d/Deaf colleague of mine and as soon as he turns the van on the radio BLASTS a local country radio station.  My body jerks at the unexpected intensity of the sound coming from the speakers while the driver appears not to notice.  I smiled to myself at that moment, for the first time today, and we backed out of the garage on our way to pick up the kids from school.

Those kids with their smiles, laugher, and excited screams totally brightened my day... and hurt my ears a bit.  As I get to know them all better and better as the weeks pass I'm curious to know how my perceptions of the students and my fellow volunteers will change.

Here's all the text I was able to generate after my first experience with the kids last week:

"Today was my first day of volunteering at a local after-school program for d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing students here in Nashville.  I'm still finding it difficult to put into words my responses and reactions to my first day.  The experience left me with a flood of emotions, both positive and negative, ranging from pride for the community, to sadness and despair over the lack of encouragement and mediocre expectations these students are held to outside of the program in their academics, language acquisition, and behavior all because of their perceived deficit.

There is a tension I feel volunteering for a population/community that I do not see as vicitims, yet, they are often treated as victims and respond accordingly.  How do you volunteer for a community like this? Race and class inequalities intersect with the "disability" these children have in ways that are hard for me to manage conceptually, and emotionally.  How do I encourage pride in Deafness when these students are faced with some many disadvantages?"

Today as I was leaving the youth center I recounted my own 101 lecture, and re-centered normal in my analysis of the afternoon's events.  One student whose language acquisition I was so worried about last week showed me today that not only does he have strong language skills (with very beautiful sign formation), but I was also able to see his incredible wit and humor!  Another student who I suspected was struggling with academics explained parallel electrical circuits to me!  I realized that I have been so stuck in my own conceptions of the d/Deaf community, and Deaf education, and Deaf pride that I'd failed to see what was happening in front of me.

The kids, staff, and volunteers all reminded me today to not bring the gloom of my rainy days into the after school program (or my research sites more broadly speaking).  To leave my conceptions about normalcy behind, and to begin to see the community for what it truly is.  I've decided to stop wondering about the kid's academic programs, their access to speech therapy, their medical diagnoses, their relationships with audiologists, etc., and instead let them teach me a few things...even about parallel electrical circuits.

So today's anthem turned out not to be The Carpenter's "Rainy Days and Mondays", instead I'm humming "Top of the World," it's still a Carpenter's kind of day.

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