There was a time in my life when I believed I was going to be homeless, but that tale is for another time. Long story short, my parents reached out to me when they heard I was couch hopping and offered to house me as long as I went to college. Without a second thought I packed my few belongings, went job hunting and registered for college. At first, I set my major to be horticulture and botanical studies, but then after two years of being in a job I hated, I finally found a job I hated even more. Working at a plant nursery.
I realized then working with plants as a career just wasn’t for me and soon after I changed my major to art. Specifically sculpture and special effects. When I saw how big the competition was to acquire a job in that field (some people taking as long as 30+ years just to get recognized) I saw that sculpting would stay a hobby. I registered for a few general education classes such as math and English just to get the credits rolling and I never really considered language as a possible career. Around this time I took notice to my neighbor.
I remember taking out the trash one day and looking over to his open garage. He was talking with his wife, only he wasn’t talking, he was signing. This is when it hit me that I was living next to a deaf family. I put the trash cans aside and I have no idea why I did at the time, but I felt like I needed to introduce myself. I walked over and Said “Hi my names Matthew!” He was just as surprised with me as I was with myself. I felt I was over-enunciating everything, because subconsciously I felt like it would help (it didn’t). He stopped and said “Hi, I‘m Robert! I’m sorry what was your name again? You’re moving your lips all weird”.
Bob is kind of portly guy, with a very open personality and he always seems to be wearing a sports jersey of his favorite teams. He spoke with a muffled almost nasally accent, which immediately pegged him as a deaf man. While our rapport was great at first, we quickly found the language barrier and things became a bit awkward. While I could understand most of what he said, and he could read lips incredibly well, he couldn’t understand most of what I said. It was then when I decided to learn American Sign Language.
At the end of the semester I switched my major (again). I started by first learning a few basic American signs like dog or apple. I would stay up for hours at night practicing with both hands going through each letter of the alphabet multiple times. When I drove or walked through a store, I habitually practiced spelling out each of the words I saw. I would practice every sign I knew and I would Google what the sign was for specific words I thought I needed to know. I did this all while I was waiting for spring classes to start.
When the semester began I went through the motions of buying books and school supplies, then finally I attended my first ASL class. It was a pretty strange experience since I had never taken a language course up until that point. There were two interpreters there helping the instructor turn this 3-D language into something audible for the class to understand. I was instantly sucked in and terrified at the same time. I was mesmerized by the interpreters skill to understand everything being signed and their seamless ability to make the switch between the two languages. I was terrified because they were going to leave after only two days. After that it was going to be ALL sign Language, so naturally me and many of the other students felt panicked. Although, after the interpreters left I felt this strange surge of confidence, I knew this was my calling and it wasn’t going to let it slip by.
I asked every question in the book, I was always the first to raise my hand and very soon I became noticed by the other students, because instead of asking the teacher questions about what sign they should use, they would ask me. The least qualified person. I saw this as an opportunity to learn, so I would ask the teacher for them. After the fastest 3 months of my life I walked from that class now conversationally fluent in a new language. One that didn’t use sound to communicate an idea, but instead pictures.
After passing my first class with flying colors, I gave my neighbor a visit and needless to sign (see what I did there) he was blown away. We signed for hours and eventually we had to move our conversation to his garage, because it was getting so dark we couldn’t even see what we were talking about. He taught me more about the language in that one moment of us hanging out than anything I had learned in my 3 months of being in class. He had shown me so many different nuances, slang, and inside jokes deaf people used that were part of the culture, things that simply couldn’t be taught in a classroom setting. This is when it dawned on me my passion for language could become a career, learning sign language stopped being about my neighbor and soon became about what I could do with my future.
When summer came around and class registration opened again, I snatched the first ASL 2 class I saw and got prepared. Class started and shortly after we finally met our new instructor, I noticed right away she was hearing. This somewhat disappointed me, but her background was impressive, she had been an interpreter for over 13 years and had been involved with the deaf community for even longer. She quickly noticed my skill level and took special attention to me. We would sign before and after class, discussing different options about interpretation careers and how she got to where she is today. I still miss her, and I’ll cherish the time I spent in her class.
I am now currently in the next level of ASL Crafton has to offer. This journey to literacy in a new language has changed the way I think and live my life completely. It’s been proven that learning a new language literally changes the way you think. I now know this to be true for having experienced it first hand. It creates new connections, it opens doors and shows you parts of yourself and the world you might not have known were there before.