I’ve always used my hands to express while talking but now I find myself doing it so much more. And that’s thanks to the last three weeks that we have spent working with thirty kids from Vatika Special School – a school for children with hearing impairment.
My first day with them was a complete disaster. We stood there looking at their faces, having them stare back at ours and just not knowing what to do. I remember the day we had a meeting with the principal and teachers of the school. They said “Oh they’ll teach you sign, don’t worry! And the teachers will be there to help you.” We were convinced that it wouldn’t be too difficult. We went in thinking we’ll speak and the teachers will interpret and it’ll be like the many other workshops we do. And I still cannot figure out whether we were totally naive or totally stupid!
So anyway, the first day. We struggled with a few easy games after realising that most teachers had a limited vocabulary in sign language themselves. And like most school kids these children were trying us out; trying to figure out how far we’d go.
And then the last day of the workshop – the day of the performance. It was magical! The children were sharing with us how they feel, learning and practicing, cracking jokes with us and then up on stage, all done up, being their most confident and fun selves and flashing warm, proud smiles.
How did this change?
Our attempts at learning sign language initially didn’t work well as the words and concepts we were trying to communicate weren’t a part of the students’ vocabularies. It took about three full hours for us to communicate “how are you feeling right now?” and not because we hadn’t memorised and revised the signs for that.
I recall it feeling like going for an exam. We had been given a sign language dictionary and I sat up for a major part of the night either signing at my friend or at the mirror. In the morning was revision time; signing at myself in the mirror while getting ready, frantically asking my colleagues for signs I’d forgotten and hoping and praying that an accidental wrong sign doesn’t offend the kids.
That morning we were greeted with smiles, and then they all stood in a circle waiting for us to do something. I took my place in the circle and signed – “how are you feeling right now?” and all I got in return were confused looks. They understood each independent sign I did but didn’t quite understand what the entire sentence meant. Gradually all of us had a go at it and ended with similar responses, with the teachers in the background insisting “they won’t understand!”
I was thinking, “how can someone not understand something so basic?”
After a good three hours of trying to explain, with a very limited vocabulary in sign we finally found a way through. And on our way back from the workshop we realised that they’d probably never been asked this before.
So, from here to the last day – what changed was not that we’d mastered the dance of sign (which we’re still quite bad with) but we had found more languages to communicate with. The language of being silly, the language of the clown and however clichéd it may be...the language of love.
We spent a lot of time learning sign language; not from books and youtube but from the students themselves. We jumped up and down, danced around the room, laughed and bawled like babies and did whatever it took for us to be able to communicate to them. And when they understood what we were trying to say they would patiently and beautifully move their hands and smile at us...and we would learn a new sign!
As we made an effort to learn their language, they opened up and tried harder to understand. When we learned that parents of 90% of the kids we were working with didn’t know any sign; when they shared that they didn’t have anyone to communicate with apart from the community that the school offered them, they kindly invited us to experience and explore their world...a walled world of rhythms, silence, loud laughter and compassion. They showed us their community, their family.
An interesting thing that I noticed was that there were very few instances of them bullying each other. Usually I’ve found that that’s quite rare in a group of school students. But these kids seemed to be a loving and supportive family; they were there for each other – to teach, to share, to fight and to hold.
The beauty of this community helped us pick a story for the script - a story about a traveller who brings together a broken, sad and poor village by cooking 'stone soup'. A story about community and everyone in the community working together, bringing whatever they have, little or more, to create something magical.
So the last day, up on the stage the students revelled in the bright colourful lights, they basked in the silent claps and shared a little bit of their world and language with the spell bound audience.
And what we got out of it? A beautiful experience, lots of loving hugs, an amazing play production, lots of lessons of life and even more animated talking than before.