Super Phony

The phone suddenly rang in my office, snapping me out of a paperwork-induced fog. It was 2:30 p.m. on an otherwise uneventful Monday afternoon. The administrative secretary was on the line with an unexpected surprise. I jumped out of my seat when she told me that Cindy, a former high school classmate, was in the headmaster’s office. I hadn’t seen her in fifteen years.

Cindy was in town for the class of 1984’s fifteenth reunion, which I had skipped. She was staying in Philadelphia for an extra day and thought she’d surprise me at work.

I rushed over to the administration building with much excitement and anticipation. This was a dear friend, one of a handful of students in my class who put in the effort to learn sign language. I was the only deaf student in the whole school and really appreciated her being sensitive to my communication needs.

As a matter of fact -- I won’t deny this -- there was a time when I thought Cindy was absolute hot stuff. Tall, sexy, good-looking, intelligent, sense of humor, the total package. I had a bit of a crush on her in high school but never really did anything about it. After all, she was one of few people who could really communicate with me. I valued her friendship far too much to risk letting my raging teenage hormones ruin everything. The fact remains, though: This girl was hot, hot, hot.

And there we were, reunited once more, fifteen years later. I was in awe as we as we greeted each other in the headmaster’s office. She was still an attractive and dynamic woman. In fact, more so than ever before; no longer a perky high school student, this was now a sexy, demure, full-grown professional. On top of that, she was now Doctor Cindy, having earned her Ph. D. in veterinary medicine. Oh boy, all this and brains, too! And she also...


Ouch. That was my wife Melanie, bashing me on the head with a roller pin. Quit slobbering and get to the point already, she says. Okay, okay, I’m getting there. The point is, it was awesome seeing Cindy again. I was thrilled to catch up on the news with this very interesting and fascinating person. But something was different. In fact, in my mind I asked myself one question:

What the hell was I thinking?

As impressed as I was with who Cindy had become, as happy as I was to see her, I realized we were as romantically compatible as oil and water. It had always been that way. Don’t get me wrong, it’s irrelevant anyway. I’ve been happily married to Melanie since 1994 and there is no one else remotely close in the way she is able to relate to me. Nonetheless, the question still perturbed me:

What the hell was I thinking?

I was completely taken aback at how my perspective had changed since those good old high school days. In 1984, I worshipped the ground Cindy walked on. Hey, she could sign a bit, she could communicate. Compared to the four hundred or so other girls who couldn’t sign at all, Cindy was a goddess.

Fifteen years later, Cindy still has some signing skills, for which I’m grateful. Nonetheless, things have changed significantly ever since I’ve become a member of the deaf community. Today I’m very comfortable in the presence of others who sign ASL fluently. Especially my wife, Melanie, roller pin and all.

And that’s what struck me so hard. In 1984, when few people in my world signed, Cindy was the bomb. She set a standard no other girl in the school could match. But in 1999, it was a different story.

As we talked in my office, I could only lip-read about fifty percent of what Cindy was saying. Her signing skills -- actually, her fingerspelling skills, to be honest -- added perhaps another thirty percent. The rest was purely fill-in-the-blanks guesswork on my part. It did take some effort, especially the lip-reading.

What the hell was I thinking?

I kept asking Melanie the same question over and over. It really bothered me because I had stumbled across a very sobering truth:

In 1984, in my valiant effort to fit in with the mainstream, I was totally full of crap. I was Super Phony. Telling the whole world, Hey, this is cool, I can fit in. Telling everyone Hey, don't worry, I communicate just fine with my hearing classmates. Who was I kidding?

This is really nothing new. In fact, to some degree, I’d been aware of it all along. In my book Deaf Again, I pointed out how I insisted I fit in just fine with my hearing baseball teams, winning championships and all that. Yet when I joined the Gallaudet baseball team years later, I realized there was simply no comparison. With the Gallaudet team, I could not only communicate with my deaf teammates significantly more during the actual games, but also during locker room banter and on the bus during road trips.

With the aforementioned hearing teams, so many people marveled at how this brave deaf boy was able to fit in. Oh, baloney. I was Super Phony. In Cindy’s case, I didn’t realize it until just now: Super Phony had struck once again.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against hearing women. I also have nothing against my educational placement. Although getting through a hearing school was rather tricky, I still reaped the benefits of a wonderful academic program.

Instead, what I’m trying to do is shed light on an easy-to-overlook social phenomenon. It’s the Hey Ma, I fit in just fine with the hearing folk lie that we often tell ourselves.

At first glance, many deaf people, myself included, are able to make it in the mainstream. Sort of. We do it with mirrors, smokescreens, fake smiles, and lots of nodding. We’re the master of tricking others into thinking all is fine and dandy. In many cases, we actually brainwash ourselves into thinking we’ve assimilated into the hearing world. Academically we may wind up learning our ABCs, but socially we are completely in the dark.

Furthermore, those of us with speech skills are real pros at convincing hearing teachers and parents that we fit in. Often, hearing parents will delude themselves by correlating speech ability with success in the hearing world.

But in my case, and in many others, appearances may not necessarily reflect the truth. For example, I may be able to speak but that doesn’t take away from the fact that I am still deaf. I still can’t understand what any group of hearing people are saying, unless they know sign language. Regardless, many people have said Oh, he speaks so well, he’s just like any normal hearing person.

The sad thing is many of us actually believe it, especially when we don’t have a frame of reference. Which is why in 1984, I would have considered having ten children with Cindy… while today I understand she’s a dear friend who, in spite of her many fine qualities, doesn’t even come close to what Melanie has to offer.

The bottom line: For all we advocate on behalf of Deaf culture, it’s a hard fact that mainstreaming and technological interventions (hearing aids, cochlear implants, etc.) are first options for many hearing parents of deaf children -- hearing parents who have the right to choose whatever they want for their children regardless of how the deaf community feels.

It is not our place to criticize those who did things differently than we would have done. Rather, we can offer our support to those who are struggling to find themselves. I lived many years as Super Phony before finally discovering the deaf community. It welcomed me with open arms, allowing me to become more than I ever thought I could be. And that’s the important thing.

Last but not least, I take it as my responsibility to keep the door open. There are countless other Super Phonies out there. Some may feel comfortable getting by in their environments. Others may look back and say the same thing I said:

What the hell was I thinking?

And when they say that, I’ll only smile and welcome them -- just like the rest of you have done for me. Thank you.

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