A Mixed Bag of Teachers

Hearing schools vs deaf schools: Mary Anne continues to share her memories – – navigating the educational system as a deaf child in the 1950’s and 1960’s. 

Guest Blogger : Mary Anne Pugin

Mary Anne Pugin

I had two kinds of teachers while growing up – those who knew how to communicate with me and teach me, and those who didn’t.  It was like day and night.  It really was.

I attended several different public schools from age four to eleven.  That’s seven school years – nursery school, kindergarten, first, second, third, fourth, and fifth grades.  For the duration of one school year, I was in the 5th grade at three different schools in three different cities.  Not counting my speech teachers, I had over 10 teachers, maybe 15, from within the public school system.

At my last public school –James Madison Elementary School in South Bend,Indiana– they had a revolving system and I had a different teacher for each subject.  That was a nightmare!  The teachers talked to the blackboards, I couldn’t follow class discussions, I didn’t know what my homework assignments were, I couldn’t understand the difference between “tune” and “tone” in music class.  That’s right, one of my subjects was music.  I think I got a “D” in that class, probably for “effort.”  One thing was clear – I was totally lost and confused…every day.

My analytical mind today suggests that these teachers, many of whom really did try their best, were simply ignorant, misinformed, and untrained in deaf education.  I was, more likely than not, their first deaf student.  Additionally, it was also the ‘50s, a time when deaf people were perceived as helpless or inferior and the term “deaf and dumb,” now archaic, was acceptable in print and spoken language.

My earliest recollection of school is kindergarten, in Arlington,Virginia. Our classroom priorities were to play, eat lunch, nap, and learn…in that order.  I remember the semi-circle of small chairs.  I remember looking at the teacher and at the book she was holding and watching her mouth move.  I remember one day —

— I was sitting on my chair in that semi-circle and my attention strayed.  That happened quite often, a lot, actually.  Posted on the wall in front of me were drawings the other kids and I had done.  I looked at one drawing and if I liked it, I smiled.  If I liked the next drawing, I smiled.  If I didn’t, I made a face.  The teacher caught me doing that.  She scolded me and told me to pay attention to her.  At five years old, that was hard to do.  To sit there and not understand anything was harder still.

Making faces.  As I grew up, I developed a tendency, as is true for most deaf people, to express myself through facial expressions and body language.  Since I didn’t quite have the speech or the vocabulary to verbally articulate my thoughts and feelings, I’d let my face and body do it for me.  Somehow, that got me in trouble with Mrs. Hargreaves, my 5th grade English and homeroom teacher at James Madison.  I don’t think Mrs. Hargreaves liked me very much.  She had 35 students in her classroom and I was apparently too much of a challenge.  She had an opportunity to release pent-up frustration one day and the memory is seared in my brain.

It was free-time in the classroom.  The kids were mingling and chatting up with each other.  Another girl and I were standing around talking with Mrs. Hargreaves.  I think I became too animated for Mrs. Hargreaves.  I think I displayed a facial expression she didn’t like.  I think Mrs. Hargreaves may have been perimenopausal at the time.  She glared at me, pointed to the door and let loose a stream of words.  Everything seemed to stop.  I was stunned and slow on the uptake but eventually understood she was telling me to leave the classroom.

I stood in the hall outside the door.  Many minutes passed.  Other kids paraded by.  Of course they glanced at me.  Of course they looked at me and whispered among themselves.  I was very confused and didn’t understand what had just happened.  I started to doubt myself.  What exactly did Mrs. Hargreaves tell me to do?  To stand here?  Go to the principal’s office?  What??  Then the door opened and she came right at me.  She grabbed the front of my blouse and shook me.  A button popped off.  She was angry, her face was red, her eyes bulged, her pretty face wasn’t pretty anymore, and she said a bunch of things, I have no idea what.  I was trembling when I returned to the classroom.  I didn’t do anything wrong but I still felt guilty and ashamed.  I could feel everybody’s eyes on me.  My feelings for Mrs. Hargreaves changed in a heartbeat from respect to apprehension and fear.  I think this incident happened towards the end of the school year.  At least I hope so because I simply cannot remember anything else afterwards.

School can be a fun place to be when you’re a young child.  There’s stuff to play with, inside the classroom and out in the playground.  There are crayons and colored paper and paste to get all messed up in.  The playing field is level for everybody and the other kids aren’t judgmental.  That comfort zone became less so when I went through second, third, and fourth grades at the Barber’s Point Elementary School in Oahu, Hawaii.  Learning became more complicated and I struggled more, mostly with arithmetic.

I have happy and positive memories of Miss Thompson, my 4th grade teacher.  She was young, she was very pretty, and she smiled all the time.  She was very patient with me, and attentive, but I was frequently at a disadvantage in her classroom.  Class discussions were more participatory, except for me, and I made mistakes on my spelling tests because I didn’t correctly lipread the words that Miss Thompson called out.  During one such test, I kept asking her to repeat the word she just spoke.  When I still couldn’t get it, one boy came forward and started to pantomime.  Several kids and several pantomimes later, I finally got the word – “beg.”  Miss Thompson was wise, allowing this to become an impromptu and fun class activity.  Everybody laughed at the pantomimes, including me.  I like to think that this memory is as vivid to those classmates today as it is for me.

I nearly flunked 5th grade.  It didn’t help, it truly didn’t, that I changed schools three times for that grade.  Mom and Dad meant well — they only wanted the best for me.  But I was sinking, I wasn’t learning, I was depressed and had very low self esteem.  I would head for my room when I got home from school.  I tried not to cry but Mom and Dad, they knew their baby girl.  I had to change schools, again.

Not to be melodramatic, but the Lutheran School for the Deaf in Detroit, Michigan was my salvation.  And Miss Szajna, my 6th grade teacher, was the angel I needed.  Sign language wasn’t allowed in the classroom, but Miss Szajna knew how to teach me.  She knew how to communicate with me.  She knew sign language, too, and didn’t hesitate to use it whenever we were stuck on something she was saying.  There were seven of us in that class.  It was perfect.  I got the one-on-one attention I sorely needed.  I had a lot of catching up to do.  When Miss Szajna was preparing to teach division, she discovered that I hadn’t yet learned how to multiply.  She gave the others a class assignment to work on and while they focused on that, she sat down with me, me alone, and proceeded to teach me multiplication.  She taught me many things.  She made learning fun.  Mrs. Hargreaves was all but forgotten.  I was learning and I was happy.

I liked Miss Szajna very much.  I also liked that her first name was Helen.  That’s my mother’s name.

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About Evelyn

Evelyn Hunter is a SODA with years of experiential study in Deaf Culture. She attended Gallaudet University to immerse herself in this unique deaf world while working for the University and studying sign language to hone her skills. Evelyn has served in training, relationship sales, and marketing -- always seeking to expand awareness of Deaf Culture and the unique challenges the deaf face on a daily basis. The Sign Language Company has recently established a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and a website with a blog, as Evelyn coordinates the marketing and outreach efforts for the agency. Her goal is to attract new clients seeking exceptional service, while maintaining optimal relationships with clients who have selected The Sign Language Company for over 20 years.

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