The school atop a hill

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Life has a way of dishing situations to its subjects. Should we blame it on life, fate or both?

Consider a lady, somewhere in a village town. She walks out of the local maternity facility with a tiny red basin tucked below her left arm, with a pair of blue Bata-slippers in the basin. Her hubby walks by, with a huge travel bag on his back and their newborn in cozy warm wrappings. They go home, smiling, laughing, the occasional peck from hubby to wifey, like they did when they started dating. His heart is swollen with pride. Their first child came healthy, very healthy at 3.7 Kgs. He is so happy, and decides they won’t hop into a matatu, but calls out a cab.
They call him Ethan, after hubby’s late old man.

Life is good, well, at first. Weeks in, the young 25-year-old mother notices a weird trend in her child. He doesn’t startle to sudden loud sounds, fails to try out vowel sounds in two months and they can no longer sooth him with smooth sounds. They tense, but the hubby is confident the kid is Okay, with the local medics assuring them that all is be well.

In three months, the hubby’s mother raises an eye, when she brings her grandson a shaker, and he fails to react to its rattle.

‘Weird…’ She points out to her daughter over lunch.
‘He is always like that, I guess he is growing into an introvert, taking after his daddie’ she says, innocently.
‘You need to have him checked, just as precaution.’ She says, sipping from a glass of mango juice.
‘Could it be serious?’ Hubby asks, concerned.
Mother in law makes some sounds towards Ethan who is looking away, and he doesn’t budge. ‘This is not something we should take easily.’ She says with finality.

The following day they make their way to the closest referral hospital, silence the bond between them. Grandma tries to keep them calm, but the hubby’s palms are soaked.

At the hospital, the doctors carry out screening tests after the other, get into a short meeting and resume the tests. The parents are huddled outside at the outpatient lobby, holding hands, each lost in their own prayers. Motherly instinct tells Janet (her name), that her kid may not be okay. She hates the guts but it keeps coming back. A different doctor comes in later, takes a look at the kid, and his emotionless face turns a distant frown. Janet dies inside.

“We are sorry, your son has a mild case of sensorineural deafness,” the head doctor says after they are settled in the doctors’ parlor.
“But it can be corrected, right?” Mother in law asks, with a beam of hope.
“We are sorry ma’am. The condition is permanent….” Nobody listens to the rest of his narrative. It’s like a serving of shit for dessert.

Janet hates the doctor, she hates his attitude, in particular, then in the corner of her teary eye she catches a glimpse of her son playing with a toy dinosaur. He looks lost in his world, oblivious to his condition. Janet and the mother in law sit there crying in each other’s arms long after the doctors leave, with hubby digging his knuckles into the window railing as he looks outside deep in thought.

Ethan will be one of the estimated 900 million people with disabling hearing loss globally, a statistic by the WHO, and the estimated 1 newborn in every 1000 born globally.

My back felt sour as I alighted the wreckage of a matatu, below the tiny climb winding into PCEA Kambui Secondary School for the Hearing impaired, where hundreds of ‘Ethans’ study. It’s slightly past 4 O’clock. The old box on wheels had taken well over an hour to get filled up, and once filled up, the thing had taken its time maneuvering the beautiful hilly countryside of Kiambu county, on its way to Githunguri.

I made a call to Emily, “Hey, am at the gate… I guess…”

“ha-ha just walks on forward, and I will send a kid to pick you.” She said, “And the student is deaf too.” She said.

“Wait …” I tried engaging her but she giggled and hang up.

I had promised myself to learn some sign language through YouTube, to have at least some basics, but procrastination happened. Here I was, waiting to introduce myself and probably get a good vibe out of him, or she and the only sign language I knew was ‘I love you all’. The boy came up to the gate, chose the most confused face (me) and shook my hand. He was bubbly, to say the least, kept smiling all the way, especially when he did some stuff with the hands and I just looked back. The place was quiet, almost serene, with the birds adding rhythm to the cold breeze. We walked past a few blocks, then before us stood a chapel, confidently on a stone foundation. Inside was a series of wooden pews in rows, a tiny pulpit at the front and a pair of drums lying unattended on a plastic chair.

“Hello Emily, am glad you could squeeze some time,” I said once we settled in the staffroom after she had seen off facilitators who had been with the students the whole day.

Emily is a literature teacher at the School, and no, she is not deaf. Remember that story we did here about special kids? Well, it got the attention of a teacher at the school, and she linked me up with Emily. I took advantage of this and decided if I cannot teach at their school, I would find out how it is teaching kids with special needs.

“What made you choose this career path, as opposed to other careers, like, say accounting?” I asked, settling into one of the wooden chairs standing around the only table in the staff room. The room is a little cluttered, with study materials poking out of open shelves on one wall.

“Well, I did not choose it, I can say, I stumbled upon it.” She laughed. “When I joined campus, I was met with two career choices, Early Childhood Development or Special needs education, and your guess is as good as mine, I choose the latter!”

“Wow…! And how long have you been teaching the deaf?”

“I’ve been doing this for four years now.” She said, after doing some finger Mathematics.

“I see you are quite good at sign language, how did you to perfect it?”

“In campus, we were taught sign language, as part of our curriculum, but the curriculum was based on the American Sign Language. I had to get a certification in sign Language from KISE (Kenya Institute of Special Needs).” She paused for a moment to check on some students playing outside the class, they had a short discussion in sign language. All i could do was watch them and smile, enjoying the well perfected hand choreography and lip movements, but still remained totally clueless. “Sorry about that. My first Experience with a deaf person came when I was doing my certification in KISE.”

“I believe teachers get overwhelming jitters in their first class, how was it when you first walked into a class of deaf students as their teacher?”

“To say the least, I was extremely nervous. I was good at sign Language, yes, but my first class came at a time I had not used the language for well over 2 years. I can thank my students though, they really helped me adapt, and I would write something on the board and they would show me how to sign it.”

“What happens when you are faced with a difficult or new word which you need to sign to students, and you are sure they don’t know about it?”

“Sign Language has an alphabet, which we spell out with the fingers, so any word can be spelled out. It, however, takes so much time when dealing with very long words. It is also possible for a teacher to initialize a sign with their students for specific things, which becomes a kind of slang.”

“I notice you use so much of your hands when talking…” I pointed out to her, and we both laughed.

“ooh, really? I don’t realize it happening, guess am so into it to stop now.” She made a face, like wanting to laugh, but giving up halfway and deciding to get serious.

“No, please, don’t stop, maybe I will learn a thing or two from your hand movements.” I smiled back. “Does the school teach sign language to students as part of the curriculum?”

“Ooh no, that is taught in Primary school, what we get are students who know sign language. In most cases, they know more of it than we do.”

“How does the education system help in education for the deaf, and what more do you think can be done?” I asked, scratching a part of my arm which a tiny mosquito had decided to feed from. It lay a few centimeters away, almost dead, and i was amused of my fight against malaria.

“It’s good that we have a department for special needs students, which is very active in funding for such schools as ours. The money has been very helpful, and as per now, I don’t think there is a county which doesn’t have a Government institution for the deaf. There is still something to be done about the curriculum though. During translation, so much information is lost, which leaves a deaf student disadvantaged in comparison to the non-special needs ones. Notably, our universities teach the American Sign Language which is not similar to the Kenyan one, forcing us to learn Kenyan Sign Language elsewhere.”

She checked her watch and fidgeted on her seat. Time was running out, and the sun had started sinking into the horizon. We had to wind up fast. We talked on and on about the Government and its involvement in Deaf students’ education, and some of the information she requested, or rather made me swear to keep between us.

“You are an English teacher, and there are set books in the curriculum. How do you go about reading the set books?” I asked.

“The deaf have a phobia for huge text, such as novels, so I make a point of reading out the passages to them in sign. Yes, it is challenging, but we have to do it for their sake.”

“What challenges have you faced in your career?”

“The main challenge we teachers face most of the parents whose children are deaf don’t know sign language. There was an incident we had, where a student was sent home for disciplinary purposes, and sadly, the parent brought him back after two weeks, not knowing the child’s mistake since they couldn’t communicate.” She fiddled with her hands in thought. “There is very poor public accessibility to sign language, where the parents can learn the basics to make bonding with their children possible.

There is also an inaccuracy to express emotions by the deaf, in my opinion as a literature teacher. They do show emotions, but not as well as the rest of us who can use tonal variations to express a change in emotion. To a certain extent, most of our students come from poor backgrounds, where you find a student reporting to school without basic needs, and as their teacher, you make a sacrifice and buy it for them”

“That’s quite commendable there,” I say as a matter of fact.

“If given a chance to stop teaching the deaf and move to non-special education, would you change?”

She laughed a laughter whose emotion I couldn’t read, probably because it was not meant as a laugh. “I have two answers for that question. I would say a comfortable yes because teaching non-special needs students is easy. A No, would be my final decision though, because there is a heart here, teaching these students is not just a job, it’s a bond you create with very obedient children. They are also generally good-hearted people, and they are not good because they are benefitting in any way. They are good because it’s their nature, so, No, I wouldn’t change from teaching the deaf.

“What advise can you give to parents who have deaf children?”

“It doesn’t matter if the parent knows sign language or not, love and a good relationship with the child are key to the child’s development. With the right support, these kids can never disappoint. It would also be for the good of all parties if the parent got some basics in sign language.”

“Let’s imagine a deaf student is standing a few meters from you, and you want to get their attention, how would you do it?”

“I guess you know about heightened senses, right?” I nodded, “The deaf have an acute sight, meaning they are more likely to notice a wave of an arm directed to them than the rest of us. The other option is getting the attention of anyone around them who is looking into my direction and use them to call the intended student by sign language.”
“And I’ve heard them make some sounds when communicating, tell me about that.”

“Most of these deaf students have vocal capabilities, just that some of them chose not to make use of them, while others use the sounds to try to make out sounds.”

“Finally, what can you point out about deaf students that the rest of us don’t know?”

She sat and thought for a moment. “Deaf people can go through a serious emotional breakdown, and it has at times gone to the extremes of hysteria. Caregivers should be encouraged to control their levels of firmness when dealing with these special needs children, not so soft so they lose their morals, and not too firm to affect their development. There should be a balance. They are very nice people to be around, and very playful in that matter. Next time you should come earlier and have some interaction with them.”

“I will, I will,” I said all smiles and closed my notebook.

On our way out, we strolled through the compound, where we made several stops as Emily conversed with the obviously excited students. One thing that kept ringing in my mind was the beauty of sign language, the ability to converse fully with someone who can’t hear a word you say.

Did you know? Let’s look at a number of awesome facts about the deaf community.

– Deaf people are better drivers than hearing people! Stop there, I know, you think they cant be better drivers because they cant hear. This was a research by The National Association for the Deaf in association with the American Government. Also, consider that they basically have a better sight than hearing people, and also consider that most hearing people drive with loud music in the car. Driving is basically a visual activity, so you see the point.
– Did you know, according to axleaddict.com, Kenya is among the countries which allow the deaf to have drivers licenses?

– When the deaf communicate, they look more into the face of the other person than the hands. Yes, that’s true. Facial expressions are integral in sign language!

– The deaf are a frank community, and will directly express their feelings without bating an eye. Statements that can be considered rude by we hearing community are just normal for them. Such include remarks such as “You are very thin” … “You have grown very fat”.

– Sign Language is not Universal, a country or region can have different signage for the same thing than another.

A shout out to Evelyn for the awesome editing job.
Another shout to Emily for your patience throughout the interview.

Wamugi,
wamugi@tuketi.co.ke

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