This is how we started off the new school year. Over the summer, we moved 214 miles in order for Micah to attend the Florida School for the Deaf in St. Augustine. Well aware that studies show that Deaf students in hearing schools often experience greater isolation and psychological difficulty, my family took the plunge and relocated, hoping Micah would benefit from a campus of deaf peers and a school staff fluent in his language of ASL. Only, we were derailed when the Florida School for the Deaf had not completed his intake process, and we were told he’d have to attend his mainstreamed, zoned school for a month or more prior to enrolling him at FSDB.
All I could think was he would be the new kid. The new Deaf kid. The Only Deaf kid in a school of hearing peers—exactly the academic environment we’d come so far to avoid. We’ll make the best of it, I told him. You’ll have the best of both worlds—hearing friends from your community, zoned school and deaf friends once he could transfer. I hoped I was right.
Studies report 39% of deaf students are rejected by hearing peers. Other studies show, that deaf children are not overtly disliked by hearing kids, but often they are simply neglected. We will beat the odds, I convinced myself. He’ll make friends.
Micah’s biggest barrier is the communication breakdown. Micah does not understand spoken language. And even with years of oral training, most people do not understand his unclear speech. It takes a significant effort to communicate without ASL, and using his voice takes courage. Like most middle schoolers, Micah doesn’t like to draw attention to himself, he’s not comfortable speaking out in school, and he’s easily embarrassed.
Knowing all this, we do our best to instill courage in him. We encourage him to use his voice out in the community, but it’s not easy. This morning, he and I said a prayer before school. I want him to learn he can lean on a strength outside himself. Before walking to the bus, he rubbed the essential oil given to him by his Mimi called “Brave Calm” on the back of his neck and on his forehead. Don’t be afraid to use your voice, I told him. It’s your tool. But that got me thinking: what are other coping tools I can teach him to have positive social interactions in Middle School?
According to the study, Negotiating deaf-hearing friendships: coping strategies of deaf boys and girls in mainstream schools, having confidence is crucial for deaf girls in particular to have healthy social interactions with hearing girls. Deaf girls who are able to play alone as well as assert their needs, have better peer relationships. For boys, being assertive helped “overcome initial barriers,” but other factors came into play even more.
Above assertiveness, the study showed that “the single most effective strategy for deaf boys to achieve good relationships with hearing peers was to excel in sports.” But information like this can be disheartening, because playing team sports when you can’t hear the coach from the side lines is a challenge, and not all boys are athletic. So now what? (Martin & Bat-Chava, 2003)
I draw hope knowing that kids adapt, and coping skills are dynamic. With age, I believe even shy, un-athletic deaf kids can overcome social and language barriers. Given the right coping strategies and tools, there is nothing we can’t face.
So when Micah texted me to say his interpreter had yet to arrive after an hour of the first bell, I admit, I initially felt panicked and heartbroken on his behalf. I made the appropriate phone calls, and I received the appropriate apologies and promises that the mistake would not happen again. I let myself cry for a minute, and then I took a deep breath, and got on with my day.
We don’t get to do the first day of the 7th grade over, but there will be tomorrow, and I hope I’m raising a child who has resilience and the ability to bounce back from adversity. There is no ASL sign for the word “resilience,” but I have seen it signed as turning negatives into positives.
I imagine, Micah isn’t the only one who had a rough start to a new year. While he has communication disadvantages, there are other children starting their first day back at school with their own personal struggles and disadvantages. I imagine, he and our family will have many obstacles to tackle along the way. We’re newcomers to a new town. My kids are making new friends, going to new schools, and living in a new house. Some of these changes we embrace, and some we find pretty challenging.
This morning, we had a rough start. So today, I choose to stay calm and believe that it only gets better from here. If nothing else, at the mainstream school, Micah will learn a few things about what it takes to overcome adversity. And I will have to learn how to let him go.