CHILDREN OF SILENCE
By Cleo Lampos
Thomas struggled to take a breath in the spring air. As the other children ran around him, playing, pushing, screaming, he tried to inhale enough oxygen to walk to the stoop of his home. The oldest of twelve children, Thomas did more sitting and daydreaming than he did romping or climbing with his siblings. How he longed to join them in their frenzied activities. But, his fragile health afforded him time. More time to read, or play chess. So much time that he entered Yale Universityat age 14 and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree at age 17. Thomas tied for valedictorian, and longed to give the class address at graduation. The president of the university chose the other student to give the speech because Thomas needed a stool to stand upon to speak at the podium. His disappointment in his short stature just added to his other feelings of inadequacy.
After graduation, Thomas procured a job in a law firm. The pipe smoking of the lawyers left him breathless. He traveled throughout Kentucky and Ohio as salesman to improve his lung capacity by being in the open air. Instead, his heart of compassion grew bigger as he visited the poverty-stricken families on which he spent his commissions. His story telling skills increased as he entertained the education-staved children. After making little money as a salesman, Thomas studied to become an ordained minister. That’s when he visited his parents in Hartford,Connecticut at about 1800.
Staring out the windows at his younger brothers and sisters as they chased each other and rolled in the grass, Thomas noticed a young girl sitting by herself. When he asked his brother about the child, he discovered that the nine year old neither spoke nor heard anything. Alice Cogswell was deaf. The loneliness etched on her face resonated with the emotions Thomas harbored from childhood. The left-out feelings that still haunted him in his adulthood. He approachedAliceslowly.
Thomas entertained Alice by drawing in the dirt. Then, taking off his hat, Thomas pointed to it. With a stick, he wrote H-A-T in the sand, repeating the process several times. The light of cognition flashed inAlice’s eyes as she understood that the scribbles on the ground meant the same as the object. Like a parched camel, she drank deeply of the words Thomas wrote.Alicewanted to know the name of everything around her. Thomas eagerly printed with his stick as she indicated one item after another.
On this day, Thomas Gallaudet traded theology for teaching.
Stunned at his daughter’s breakthrough, Dr. Cogswell sent Thomas to Europe to learn the Braidwood method of oral communication. The Braidwoods’ attempts at teaching oral language for the deaf left Thomas concerned. Was there a better way? Then Thomas heard of the work of Laurent Clerc who used a manual method which involved finger spelling and signing whole words with hands. Studying under Clerc inParis, Thomas learned to communicate with hands only. He convinced Clerc to travel back to New England with him to teach sign language and start the first school for the deaf in North America.
Alice Cogswell registered as the first student. Soon, fifteen hearing impaired children lived on the premises. Thomas served as principal and teacher. The school grew with new pupils every year. With all the success around him, Thomas Gallaudet should have been profoundly happy. But the wound in his heart that he carried to his grave was the death of 26 year old Alice Cogswell who died several days after her father’s burial.
During the early years of the school, Thomas married a deaf woman, Sophia Fowler. The eight children that followed all contributed to the furtherance of deaf education in their lifetimes as hearing adults. In 1864, one of Thomas’ sons, Edward Miner Gallaudet, became the first president of Gallaudet University, which continues to this day to provide the best bachelor or master’s programs designed for the hearing impaired. It is a fit tribute to Thomas Gallaudet’s legacy of compassion for the deaf.
In Other Words
“All the children of silence must be taught to sing their own song.”
Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, teacher of the deaf
“My father spoke with his hands. He was deaf. His voice was in his hands. And his hands contained his memories.”
Myron Uhlberg, author, Hands of My Father: A Hearing Boy, His Deaf Parents, and the Language of Love.
“If I hadn’t lost my hearing, I wouldn’t be where I am now. It forced me to maximize my own potential. I have to be better than the average person to succeed.”
Lou Ferrigno, actor, body builder
“Kindness, a language deaf people can hear and blind see.”
Mark Twain, author
“I live my life like everybody else; everyone has their own obstacles. Mine is deafness.”
Marlee Marlin actress
As a teacher I had the privilege of having hearing impaired students mainstreamed in my classroom with interpreters. It was such a time of growing as an educator for me. I still remember each student with fondness and hope the best for them. –Cleo Lampos, M.Ed.
Books by Lampos
Teaching Diamonds in the Tough (2012)
Second Chances, Book 1 The Teachers of Diamond Projects School (Summer, 2013)
Grandpa’s Remembering Book (2008)