Learning to Listen
Sign Language then and now

Signs and shadows at the Constitutional Court, Johannesburg (and me)

Let me just say, kindergarten graduation was epic. There was cake. The principal read The Rainbow Fish. I stood in the front row on stage, and we sang and signed “Greatest Love of All” in what was surely a Whitney Houston-esque performance worthy of a Grammy. Standing ovations all around.

Then, after another year came second grade. We moved to the ‘big kids’ building and got our first hardcover textbooks. It was the last year for phonics and the first year for long assignments on loose-leaf paper. I learned to spell encyclopedia just in case I had to prove my smartness in a lunchroom argument, and I started a career as a ruthless trader of lunchroom luxuries. Ah, those were the days. I’d negotiate a trade of three potato chips for a sixth of a ho-ho before dominating a game of heads-up-seven-up. That was at least until the teacher decided I somehow had an unfair advantage. For I had figured out that if I adjusted my eye contact, thumb-pressing and overall demeanor at key points, I could pretty much fool every other six-year-old into guessing wrongly. (Heads up is a group game where seven people press various other people’s thumbs down. Those with pressed thumbs then have to guess who pressed theirs). After several frustrating days in which no one could guess my mischievous thumb-pressing correctly, I was banned from the game. While everyone else played, I had to color. This was also the time I learned how to sign the alphabet. 

Once mastered, alphabet signing served a multitude of purposes in primary school. Practically, it allowed me to talk in class without getting caught. Sociologically, it reinforced friendships and catered to a predilection for observing body language. Most importantly, though, it hinted at a world where people overcome seemingly insurmountable odds and reminded me to persevere. Helen Keller quickly became one of my childhood heroes. If she could pass university being deaf and blind, surely I could pass my grade school test. 

Juvenile boasting aside, after taking a sign language course taught by the Deaf, I’ve realized there are several skills from youth I’ve really taken for granted. Crossing the street, for example, is much safer when you can hear a car coming, and mispronounced words and dialects seem to be understood more easily than changes to signs. 

The biggest surprise came when I recently realized that even in complete silence, hearing people are surrounded by sound. The reason hearkens back to kindergarten: phonics. Hearing people hear sounds when they read letters. Despite all my love for visual communication, I can’t even begin to imagine learning to read without sound. What a great challenge. 

I’ve come a long way from those first days flirting with signs and stardom. Through much of school I saw the idea of signing as a means of expression and affirmation. Now I’m learning as a means of listening, and it’s really exciting to hear what people have to say. I could probably say something deep here about how acknowledging people embodies Whitney's messages about love and dignity or reiterates Rainbow Fish's lessons on sharing. Overall, though, I'd say listening to people is just genuinely interesting. Learning a new perspective is like learning a new sign. It adds a lot to one's vocabulary, and sometimes, as with Helen Keller and the sign for water, it unlocks a whole world.