Mainstreaming vs. Deaf School (Baseball Version)

While grown-ups everywhere argue about the pros and cons of mainstreaming for deaf children, often we forget to seek input from the real experts.

Who's that, you ask?

The very kids who go through it, of course.

Real-life experience beats professional opinion and educational policy every time. Research can be twisted to show what people want it to show. School districts can thump their chests and insist they know a Least Restricted Environment when they see one. More often than not, money and politics overrule common sense.

But children are brutally honest. If you really want to know the truth, then all you have to do is just ask. Ask with an open mind and you'll get an open-minded answer.

I bring this up because my son Darren just gave me a whopper of a reality check. Even I, Mr. Deaf Dad, can sometimes overlook the truth behind a deaf child's experience. All the more reason to pay more attention to what our kids are saying.

Yes, I messed up a bit. Here's what happened.

Darren is nine years old as of this writing. He's going into the fourth grade this Fall. His two main passions are baseball and art. I don't know much about art other than I think it's a healthy outlet for kids. So let's focus on baseball.

Darren is a helluva ballplayer. He doesn't have a 95 m.p.h. fastball but he's got remarkable control for a pitcher his age. He also has an uncanny changeup that he can use effectively during games. Defensively, he's a whiz at shortstop and third base. He's made some highlight-reel catches that you wouldn't believe. Offensively, he's a solid hitter who rips a lot of doubles and triples.

Obviously I'm a proud dad. But what I'm most proud of is Darren's spirit. One time he was up at bat with the bases loaded in a close game, and he got hit by a pitch in the rear end. He promptly hopped up, ran to first base, and high-fived the first base coach. The RBI meant more to him than the triple he hit a couple innings earlier. He took one for the team. I jokingly told him he earned a Run Butted In.

He hates that joke, by the way.

Oh, there's more. (For those of you who are growing weary of Proud Dad Bragging - stay with me the best that you can. I'm going to pull the rug out from all of this in a few minutes.)

So anyway, I figured what better way to reward this kid's passion for baseball by signing him up for an exclusive, professional baseball camp hosted by none other than his heroes, the Philadelphia Phillies?

Yes, I signed him up for two weeks at the Phillies Baseball Academy. Two weeks of bona fide instruction, drills, and games under the tutelage of the very best in the business.

These guys are really good at what they do. They've got a perfect balance of learning and fun, and Darren had a great time during the daily intrasquad games. Among the highlights were a bases-loaded triple and a doubleplay he turned while playing shortstop. He played with a lot of heart and proudly wore "gamer" pins on his baseball cap - pins that were awarded by Phillies' staff for his hustle and spirit.

I personally enjoyed visiting the camp to watch the games. When it was Darren's turn to pitch, ziiiiip! It looked like he added a couple of miles per hour on his fastball. Darren gleefully explained that the coach taught him how to improve his grip. He also learned the difference between a four-seam and a two-seam fastball.

Later, Darren fell behind 3-1 in the count and promptly threw two straight changeups. The batter swung at the first one and missed. The next one fluttered by for a called third strike. Darren hopped back to the bench with a big grin on his face. Again, the coach had helped him make some adjustments; he improved his changeup so much that he was able to throw it consistently for strikes, even in fastball counts such as 2-0 or 3-1.

Before we get to the part where I pull the rug out from everyone, I'd like to answer the inevitable question: "What the hell were you doing putting a deaf kid in an all-hearing camp?" The answer to that question is Darren is late-deafened. He's in that in-between world right now where he pretty much gets along well with both deaf and hearing kids. He really loves his rec league. Many of the players are from his school so he's comfortable playing with them. Last but not least, this kid is a RABID Phillies fan. To be able to play a number of games while wearing the uniform of the Philadelphia Phillies, I figured that would be baseball heaven right there.

Ready for the rug burn?

Every year the camp session culminates in a trip to Citizens Bank Park. The campers get to tour the stadium, walk on the field, meet one of the Phillies, and get their pictures taken. What a way to end the summer baseball season, eh?

Three weeks later, the pictures arrived.

YANK! There goes the rug.

A picture says a thousand words. It really does. So I'm standing there, looking at Darren's team picture, when I notice all of the kids have beaming smiles on their faces.

Except for Darren. He looked like he just came out of dentist's camp. He had a mostly emotionless expression, with a little hint of sadness.

Time to talk to the kid.

"Darren, come here for a minute. What did you think of Phillies camp?"

"It was good." (Shrugs)

"No, really. Tell me what you really thought about it. Fun? Boring? Awesome? Sucky?"

Notice how my parenting skills include words like "sucky"? Damn, I'm good.

Darren shrugged again. He knows I love the Phillies too. I got the sense he didn't want to let me down.

"Look," I said, bringing the picture to his attention. "This kid looks happy. That kid looks excited. The kid over here looks proud. And this kid looks so thrilled, he's peeing his pants."

The pee-your-pants joke gets them every time.

"All right," I continued. "Let's look at you. How are you feeling in that picture? It's okay, you can tell me."


"That's okay. It's good to be honest about how you're feeling. What made you feel sad that day?"

"I don't really know any of those kids."

"Hard to understand them?"

"Yes. It didn't feel good. I liked the games but didn't know the kids."

"You miss your real team, the Sea Wolves?"

"Yeah. I want to play Fall Ball with them."

"You got it. Look, you can be honest. Don't put yourself through something that's not comfortable for you. If you don't like something, you can tell us anytime."

"I love baseball. I love pitching. Just not there."

"That's okay. So are you saying you don't want Phillies camp next year?"

"Yeah. Just the Sea Wolves is enough."

Okay, that's enough of that classic father-son moment. Now I need to wrap up this piece by emphasizing three things:

1) The Phillies Academy is an awesome camp. They've got friendly, top-notch staff offering top-notch fun and instruction. I'll recommend that camp to anyone. Not only did they greatly improve Darren's pitching skills but they also offered specific hitting and fielding instruction along with a remarkably accurate scouting report. Darren beams with pride and shows everyone this report - it means the world to him. You'll often find him in the backyard with his brother Brandon, working on the suggestions that the Phillies staff recommended. He and I are grateful for everything the Phillies have done for him.

2) A picture says a thousand words. As much fun as Darren had playing in the games and benefitting from individual instruction, he was still lost in a sea of a couple hundred new hearing kids he didn't know. It was a mainstream environment. The team picture says it all. That moment is frozen in time and it allows a glimpse into Darren's soul. A soul that's crying Get me out of here! It's heart-wrenching, really. Which begs the question: At least Darren still managed to have fun playing baseball in between the "boring hearing moments." But what about all those deaf kids stuck sitting in hearing classrooms all over the world? I guarantee you, most of them feel the same way Darren did in that picture. They'll rarely tell you if you don't ask them.

3) The next camp Darren goes to, baseball or anything else, is going to be a deaf camp. There is simply NO substitute for being around your real peers.

One more thing. Fast-forward two weeks later and there's Darren on a field playing... softball. Some players on my team are having an informal practice before an actual Fall League softball season begins. There aren't enough players for a real practice session, it's just a last minute what-the-heck-let's-hit-a-ball-around thing. Darren and Brandon joined us to help chase down some balls in the outfield.

Let me tell you, one look at Darren and you could see the spark was back in his eyes. Every player on the field was deaf. It was an, uh, level playing field, pardon the pun.

One player ripped a line drive to left field and Darren made a diving catch. That's the Darren I know. Dirty clothes, big grin on his face.

Towards the end of practice one of our best hitters started ripping balls out of the park. Darren went around the field to retrieve the homerun balls on the other side of the fence. He decided to stay there rather than waste time going back and forth as this particular hitter was really launching some moon shots. When the next ball flew over the fence, Darren made a spectacular catch and raised his glove triumphantly.

Finally, practice was over. As a gesture of appreciation my team stayed on the field a bit longer to throw batting practice to Darren and Brandon. After Darren finished hitting, he took a quick run around the bases. A couple of my teammates playfully chased him after he passed second base. Responding to the challenge, Darren accelerated as he rounded third and slid into home plate.

Safe at home.

In more ways than one.

Baseball Express - Baseball Superstore