Growing Up in a Deaf School

Mary Anne Pugin


Guest Blogger: Mary Anne Pugin

Ask anybody, an adult or a child, to describe his or her classroom and you’ll probably find a lot of similarities in their replies.  From Maine to California, from Alaska to Alabama, from the USA to Uganda, classrooms generally look the same.

You’ve got your desks and your blackboards.  There might be a portrait of George Washington or the nation’s current president hanging on the wall.  There’s probably a globe in the corner and maybe even a flag nearby.  Maybe there’s a piano, maybe not.  One wall is likely to have windows, big ones possibly, if the classroom is in an old school building.  The other walls are likely to be plastered with instructional décor, such as the Aa-Bb-Cc alphabet.  The desks are organized in rows and the teachers, usually female, are a potpourri of ages, sizes, colors, hairdos, and temperaments.

As similar as classrooms are the world over, there are variables that do make one classroom different from another.  Private and public schools come to mind.  The more affluent the community, the better stocked or equipped the school’s classrooms will be.  Regardless of locale, there is one constant that exists in all classrooms, and has for eons — sound.

From birth, hearing people are surrounded by sound every day.  In the classroom, their brains are absorbing the sounds within that room and taking cues from them.  There’s rustling of paper, voices of the teacher and fellow classmates, the squeak of chalk on the blackboard, outside noises, a cough or a sneeze or a fart, announcements from the loudspeaker, whispers among young sweethearts or would be cheaters.  These sounds, these auditory learning cues, elude the deaf student.

I was born in 1950 and I’ve been deaf since around age two.  We were living in Santa Ana,California– Mom and me and my older brother, Welby.  My Navy Dad was in Korea at the time.  When I became deaf (either from illness or trauma), my mode of learning changed – from auditory to visual.  My behavior changed, too.  I have no recollections at all, but Mom noticed the change in me.  I didn’t answer the phone or the front door anymore, I didn’t sing or laugh along with Howdy Doody, my speech patterns became different.  When Dad’s ship returned to port in San Diego, Mom picked him up and they stopped to visit the Mission San Juan Capistrano.  There she told Dad I’d gone deaf.  He didn’t believe it.  Not until he arrived home, found me playing in the backyard, and called out my name.

My classroom experience was, simply put, quite daunting.  That one constant – sound – was no longer a part of my life.  Not only was I a little deaf girl, I was also a little Navy Brat.  Up until I was 10 years old, we moved several times and, as military kids will attest, you’re not only moving to a new house, you’re also moving to a new school.  From ages 4 to 11, I attended a series of public schools in Arlington [Virginia], Barbers Point Naval Air Station [Oahu], Pomona[California], and in Elkhart and South Bend,Indiana.

Dad retired from the Navy in 1960.  He got a civilian job and we moved from Hawaii to Pomona.  I started 5th grade at the elementary school there.  It was still fall when we moved to Elkhart and I transferred to a 5th grade class there.  I can barely remember either school.  I have better memories of playing tether ball at one of those schools, but that’s only because the ball hit me smack dab on the face one time.  That winter we moved to South Bend and I enrolled in my third 5th grade class at the James Madison Elementary School.  Mom and Dad had heard that this school had an outstanding program for deaf children, which prompted the move from Elkhart to South Bend.  In reality, James Madison was the worst of the schools I had gone to.  I was miserable at that school and doing so poorly I nearly flunked 5th grade.

Mom and Dad got wise and realized I needed to go to a school for deaf children.  In fall 1961, they enrolled me at the Lutheran School for the Deaf in Detroit, Michigan.  This was an oral school – sign language was not allowed in the classroom.  For the first time, I was in an environment with other kids who were just like me.  For the first time, I had a teacher, Miss Szajna, who knew exactly how to teach me.  I blossomed and did very well in my 6th grade class.

The following year, I transferred – yet again – to the Indiana School for the Deaf in Indianapolis.  Sign language was the norm at this school, in the classrooms and in the dorms.  After some testing, they passed me over 7th grade and placed me with the 8th grade class.  I was 12 years old and one of three girls in a class with big 13-14 year old boys who had fuzz on their faces!  Getting past the initial intimidation, I did well and spent five very happy years at ISD.

I’m not an educator.  What I know about education, about “the classroom,” comes from personal experience.  Hearing people, because of that one constant in their own classroom experience, may not fully understand mine.

What was it like for me?  I’ve got stories.  I’ll share them…

((Mary Anne will be sharing her stories with us.  Questions? Please contact us for more information at The Sign Language Company))


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.

View all posts by Evelyn

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3 Responses to “Growing Up in a Deaf School”

  1. Cecilia Westrom Says:

    Thank you for sharing excellent information. Your website is cool. I am impressed by the info that you have on this website. It reveals how nicely you understand Tinnitus. Bookmarked this web page, will come back for more articles.


  2. T Marks Says:

    Such a moving story. Having a teacher who is informed, understanding and accommodating for deaf students is essential for our mutual progress. Thanks for sharing


    • Evelyn Says:

      Thanks for your comment. You’re exactly right. We unfortunately hear about too many stories like this one. We also hear about awesome teachers who had patience and got it right. Memories of a teacher’s ‘kindness’ or ‘lack of’ can be carried for a lifetime.


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