Repeat After Me…..


Written by:   Mary Anne Pugin

Mary Anne Pugin

~Mary Anne continues her series of stories reflecting upon ‘growing up as a deaf child’ in the 1950’s and 1960’s~

“Don-n-n-n,” I said.  “No, no – dol-l-l-l,” Miss Wright corrected.  It is so written in the October 6, 1955 article published by the Washington, D.C. Evening Star.  Mom clipped the article and glued it on a page in a photo album she made for me.  The picture accompanying the article shows five-year-old me sitting on a table facing Miss Wright.  She must have been my first speech teacher.  I’ve had several over the years but their faces have all become a blur.  I remember mostly mouths and teeth and a teacher with an unusual feature…a cleft lip I think it was.

Speech training for deaf children is a very tactile activity.  With your face just inches from the teacher’s, it’s also uncomfortably intimate.  The teacher is constantly putting your hand on her throat, her cheek, or on her nose.  All the better to feel the “mmmm,” the “nnnn,” and the “k-k-k” at the back of the throat.  She’ll have a mirror within reach and use that to make you look inside your own mouth to see for yourself how you’re supposed to mold your tongue this way for the “n” sound and that way for the “l” sound.  She’ll have an amazing tool at hand – a feather – and through constant repetitions, you learn how to release just enough puff of air for “b-b-b” and “p-p-p.”  Placing your hand on her cheek/throat and holding the feather under her nose, she’ll demonstrate for you that “b” is silent and “p” isn’t.  Or is it the other way around?

I have pretty good speech today, but that’s because I became deaf at around two years of age.  When I began speech training, my brain “remembered” the rules of articulation and I went from there.  Speech training, however, is every deaf child’s least favorite classroom activity.  Speech is not easy to master and this is especially true for children who were born deaf.  To make my point with hearing people, I ask them if they know how to speak Russian or Chinese or maybe Cherokee.  If they say no, I ask them why not.  The answer usually is, “Well, I’ve never been exposed to the language…”  In other words, they didn’t hear it to learn it.

We were a family of four living in a brick colonial in Arlington, Virginia– Mom, Dad, Welby, and me.  A month after I turned six, Evelyn joined the family.  Bill came along three days before my 8th birthday.  He’s the only one in the family who wasn’t born in a state. Hawaii was a territory then.  But, back to Arlington, I attended first grade in a public school and rode the yellow school bus everyday to and from school.  I wore a hearing aid which, incredibly enough, was of similar dimensions as today’s mobile phones.  With the long, thin cord and the earpiece sticking out of your ear, it was generally a nuisance to wear.  Later I had two of those things, one for each ear.

I had a speech teacher at the school in Arlington.  She would show me picture cards and ask me to tell her what the pictures were.  She flashed a card during one session and I said “automobile.”  I’m pretty sure I said it all wrong though.  It was, after all, a four-syllable word.  That afternoon, heading out to the school bus, I was surprised to see my Dad waiting for me.  He was all decked out in his Navy tans (to this day, I love seeing a man – and a woman – in uniform!) and had a big smile for me.  We went to see my speech teacher.  She sat me down and asked me what the picture was on the card she was holding.  I said “car.”  She kept asking and I kept insisting it was a car.

As I grew older my speech continued to improve.  My teachers focused more on my voice and taught me about inflection and intonation.  As a sixth grader at the Lutheran School for the Deaf (an oral school in Detroit, Michigan), I was always one of two or three students picked to give speech and lipreading demonstrations.  Except for having to dress up in my Sunday best, those outings were fun — I got to leave school and go for a car ride and there was the anticipation of cookies and punch afterwards.  The demonstrations, usually held at some women’s club or in a church basement, were to showcase the school’s success in teaching its students through the oral method.  As I think back on this, the school really took liberties with their claims.  I was a new girl at the school that year and, as such, I was not a bona fide product of their “successful” speech and lipreading program.  Additionally, there were three smart boys in my class but they were never picked because their speech sucked.  The message seemed to infer that speech and lipreading were more important than how smart you were.

During one such demonstration, a fifth grade girl and I were told to stand side by side and sing a few lines of “Onward Christian Soldiers.”  We were excited about doing that because that particular demonstration was being televised by the local news.  At some point later, back at home in South Bend, I learned from my older brother that my “s” sounded like “sh.”  So, here I was singing –

Onward, Christian sholdiersh, marching ash to war,

With the crosh of Jeshush going on before.

I spent my high school years at the Indiana School for the Deaf.  My junior class rehearsed long and hard for a play we were putting on.  The play, which was directed by our deaf literature teacher, was “A Christmas Carol,” and it was presented in sign language.  I was part of the cast as the voice interpreter.  I practiced long and hard along with the others, sitting off to the side and voicing all the lines from Scrooge, the Christmas Ghosts, and the other characters.  The one thing I did not bother to do was practice with my speech teacher.  I got accolades after the play, but one teacher, himself deaf, told me that his niece cracked up at the way I said a word and he wanted me to learn the proper way to say it.  In addition to the speech lesson I got from him, I also learned that I should never assume words are pronounced the way they are spelled.

As a young man, Scrooge had a girlfriend and her name was Belle.  The scene in the play called for Scrooge to approach Belle at a dance and speak to her.  She gets upset at something he says, turns and runs out crying.  Alarmed and upset himself, Scrooge desperately calls out to her, fingerspelling “Belle!  Belle!”  With all the anguish I could muster in my voice, I yelled “Belly!  Belly!”  I can only imagine stifled laughter I must have invoked for other lines I may have read, such as “Hello, Belly.  I am sho happy to shee you.  May I shit down with you, my dear Belly?”

These days, when I’m confronted with a word like “hippopotamus,” which has five syllables, I have to pause and mentally separate those syllables before I say the word.  Fortunately, “hippopotamus” is not in my daily vocabulary.  I’m happy too that “hippo” is an acceptable substitute.  Long words notwithstanding, one syllable words give me grief, too.  Today, at age 61, I have abandoned all attempts to try to remember if the word “tow” is pronounced like “toe” or “now.”  Every time I get a quizzical look from somebody when I say the word, I know immediately to repeat it the other way.

Well, I hope thish shtory about shpeech training wash mosht informative for you.





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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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