Years ago, as a University of Pennsylvania undergrad, I left my campus every Monday and Thursday afternoon and walked north until I reached a fenced-in schoolyard. At the gate I’d stand watching children play — listen to the bounce of the ball, the skip of the rope, the thunder of bodies running. In time, I’d join the children as they made their way inside the school. There was a round table in the back of a classroom where I was to work. There was a boy named Christopher.
He had recess-roughened hair and a transistor strapped to his chest, plastic hearing aids at his ears. He was to abide by the school’s most important rule: No sign language. He was to read my lips, and I was to encourage his spoken words as we counted paper puppies, subtracted red things from blue, and practiced nouns.
He wanted to be my friend. He said so, on the first day, with furtive hands. I motioned back and the teacher cautioned us, reminded me of what I’d come there for, what I was to do, which rules applied. Every Monday and Thursday I took that journey, and every Monday and Thursday I tried. But it didn’t take long for Christopher to lose his faith in me, or for me to lose my faith in the rules.
Memories of Christopher were very much with me a few Tuesday nights ago as I climbed four flights of stairs in Penn’s College Hall to join Penn’s ASL program, as well as the Deaf-Hearing Communication Centre, in celebration of Rea Rossi’s art. Diagnosed with hearing loss one day after birth, fitted with hearing aids at three months, raised by a mother with hearing loss among uncles and a grandfather who also lived with hearing loss, Rea was there to present her 3-D printed jewelry and to give a talk titled “Visions of Sonority: An Exploration of Deafness in Art.”
I was there to listen.
In a long room of dark wood panel, Rea, who has a growing resume of art installations and shows, had created a pop-up gallery of her soundwave-inspired jewelry. Her work, which is digitally designed and 3-D printed, explores the creases and folds of sound, the amplifications and silences, the overlapping geometries of ad infinitum patterns. Rea is a celebrant of the deaf culture, a bold creator of nylon pieces that fit the wrist, the neck, the ear like audacious exoskeletons. Her hope is to some day collaborate with a hearing aid manufacturer to create aids that will slip inside her ear cuffs.
Eyeglasses are high fashion, Rea reasons. Why shouldn’t hearing aids be the same?
Mainstreamed as a child, Rea became immersed in the deaf culture and American Sign Language as a metalworking art student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, which is home to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. She discovered, she says, the inherent beauty of that supple language — its capacity to speak of some things that the spoken word cannot accommodate. She discovered, too, how very pleasant it can be to turn the hearing aids off and to float within silence. Today Rea, who is fluent in both languages and is married to a musician, spends considerable time among those who live with all degrees of hearing loss.
The deaf community, Rea emphasizes, is a diverse community. There is no one single way to experience hearing loss, and indeed, the 48 million Americans (Center for Hearing and Communication) who have lost some or all of their hearing due to genetics, injury, illness, or overexposure to noise all have different stories to tell. They all, in addition, have different ways to tell their stories.
On this particular Tuesday, Rea was hoping for an audience of two dozen or so. By 6 p.m., however, the pop-up gallery was nearly wall-to-wall with students and individuals from across the Philadelphia area. The room was alive with talk, but hardly noisy. The speaking hands worked quickly and with grace. Rea moved among the crowd, helping others try on her jewelry and telling her story, with hands and words, sometimes both at once.
In time I entered the conversation. Two St. Joseph’s University students now taking ASL classes with the hope of using the language in their eventual careers as social workers and in emergency/trauma medicine spoke to me of what they had lately learned about audism — the idea that those who hear are somehow superior to those who hear less. It was a term they’d never heard before, a prejudice they can’t understand.
Two University of Pennsylvania students spoke of the power of Rea’s art to unite communities. “I need to try this on,” one said.
Kyle Rosenberg, the community development and outreach coordinator for the center who jointly teaches with Jami Fisher, Penn’s ASL program coordinator, reminded me, with the help of an interpreter, that ASL is the third most taught language in the United States and that, in the Philadelphia region alone up to 10,000 people are currently being exposed to the language through community centers, college programs, and private classes.
The room continued to fill. Soon the crowd would move to a hall next door to hear Rea’s talk. That room, too, would be much too small to accommodate all those who wished to see Rea’s art and to share her commitment to visualizing the ample range of experience with sound.
Sitting back against the wall, I watched Rea present, her interpreters interpret, her mother, Carla Fried, sitting proudly in the front row. I wondered if, somewhere there, among the standing-room-only crowd, a grown-up Christopher stood. An adult version of the boy who had broken the rules with the hope that he could speak precisely as he chose to.
Beth Kephart is the author of 21 books and the cofounder of Juncture Memoir Workshops (junctureworkshops.com).