give me a sign

I want to learn American Sign Language.

I have not yet determined if this is a project that feels necessary and important because it is some elaborate, unconscious scheme cooked up by my brain to procrastinate. Why work on your book manuscript? Why finish this fall’s syllabus? There are signs to learn! And really. There is absolutely no reason for me to learn sign language. When I mentioned the project to Danny and Boots, both immediately asked “Do you know anyone who is hearing impaired?” And I had to admit that I don’t.

Stupid practical people and their questions.

But by now, I think I’m onto my brain and its hare… well… hare-brained schemes to distract me from the task at hand. Reorganizing the pantry and alphabetizing the spices? Pure distraction. Very useful, of course, when I decide to put off important to-dos to bake an out-of-season pumpkin pie and discover that I’ve misplaced the nutmeg. A sudden urge to read the entire corpus of John Updike? Noble, perhaps, but best tackled in those moments of leisure reading before bedtime. Indexing and scanning old photographs, putting together the Ultimate Neil Diamond Playlist, browsing for new throw pillows online — all fluff, and best avoided.

The sign language thing feels different, in part because I’ve been interested in learning to interpret for a few years now. I remember watching an interpreter sign during Mass when I was in elementary school and, later, learning from the Catholic chaplain at American, who also worked at Gallaudet,  how systems of sign language vary in different parts of the world. Logical but also somehow unexpected. And just last year, during a campus visit, a committee member asked me about connections between the gestural vocabulary of sign language and the nineteenth-century theories of children’s language acquisition I describe and analyze in my dissertation. (I promise — more interesting than it sounds. Well, interesting to me, anyway.)

I had a more nuanced and complicated answer to that committee member’s question than I expected to have. Maybe this is something I should be looking into? Living in Texas, learning Spanish might be handier on a day-to-day basis. Teaching composition at Rice, I’ve found that a working knowledge of Korean would be useful. But I refuse to admit that learning ASL would be a useless endeavor.

I just don’t know why it might be important. At this moment in my professional development it’s unwise to take on a substantial project like this without a rationale. My argument that learning to sign would put me in a position to volunteer my time with the hearing impaired collapsed a little when I realized (a) how complicated this truly is and (b) how many qualified individuals with a degree in deaf culture would be willing and able to fill any volunteer opportunities that interest me. Sigh.

Also, learning to sign is more expensive than I anticipated. I haven’t done exhaustive research on learning ASL in Houston, but it’s not cheap. No classes at Rice, as far as I can tell. A local community college offers courses in deaf culture and interpretation, as does a nearby leisure learning program, but the website of the latter leaves me a little disenchanted, and both, obviously, require tuition of some sort. A significant investment of my time and money. I should be able to complete the sentence, “I’m learning ASL because…”

So why is it that I feel like I need — not want — to learn? Time and money seem small beans when I think about the ability to speak with a quick, fluid movement of the fingers. I don’t buy into the idea that my small, everyday decisions are subject to a larger plan, but some weird, unfamiliar and probably sentimental side of me wonders if this inclination, this tug is something that could end up being important in my life. Everything is so unresolved right now. I am not in hiatus. I am hiatus. Who am I to dismiss any even remotely viable impulse?

Of course, now I’ve made this a Big Deal on the blog. Perhaps, after letting the idea marinate for just a while longer, it will lose some of its buzzing urgency.

Or maybe I just need a partner in crime. A partner in sign? Volunteers?


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