Learning about Differences -- a Memory

Written by guest contributor Jack Pealer

The song from South Pacific goes:

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

And, the teaching and learning happen, mostly, outside the awareness of the teachers and the learners.  I remember one bit of that teaching and learning in my own life.

About 60 years ago I learned something about deaf people, and I’ll bet that not many now know what I learned then.  I learned that people who can’t hear could run faster than anyone else.  How did I learn that?

The house where my family lived from 1949 until nearly 1960 was just two blocks from the Ohio State School for the Deaf.  Of course, we called it the “deaf school.”  The school in Columbus was–and still is–on land that had been a golf course before the state acquired it around 1950.  A major cross-town street runs past the entrance to the school; the campus was—and still is—a cluster of one-story buildings sitting several hundred yards back from the street.  Now, today, as an adult, I know it is only several hundred yards.  When I was ten, it looked like the buildings were a mile or two away across a vast plain of the former golf course.  That vast plain was our playground.  There was no other in the neighborhood.  We played football and baseball there.  We were pirates, cowboys, adventurers in the heavy shrubbery that lined the school’s entrance driveway.  I remember one attempt at civil engineering—building a “dam” across a tiny stream after a heavy spring rain.

But games ended when we saw people—students–walking out of the school toward us.  On many afternoons, young people from the school would go in groups toward the street—to catch the bus or walk to the nearby shopping center.  We knew we had to give them plenty of distance.  That was because we knew there was something funny about them.  They made odd movements with their hands.  Some of them made unusual sounds to one another.  And, we knew, they could run.  We saw them and either hid in the shrubs or headed for home because we knew that, if we got too close and they spotted us, they would run after us, catch us, and do unspeakable things to us.  We abandoned the field; we knew better than to hang around.

We just knew.  We learned, seemingly, from the air.  I can’t today recall any specific event that tells me how we learned.  I do understand now the effects on us of that distance across the field and the messages about difference that distance and separation transmit.  I can report that no one I knew was ever harmed, chased, or even approached by any student from the School for the Deaf.  I suspect they were as apprehensive about us as we were about them, and I wonder sometimes what stories they might have held or told about my friends and me.  What unspeakable acts were we believed ready to commit?

Separation (I never went to school with other kids who could not hear) and distance(that several hundred yards that looked like miles) turned out to be effective teachers.  It took me a long time to get clear about what I “knew.”  It took a long time not to be afraid.

katie bachmeyer