Submerged in silence

Silent Dinners bring together the Deaf and the open-minded for evenings of manual conversation

The sign on the right looks like a one-eared shadow bunny, but it’s actually the sign for eating.<br>

The sign on the right looks like a one-eared shadow bunny, but it’s actually the sign for eating.

Photo by David Robert

I haven’t always had an adventurous spirit. As I a kid, I preferred books to sunshine. I would read everything I could on a subject and usually end up staying at home instead of going out. I didn’t like meeting new people. But that changed a long time ago. Tonight, the problem isn’t that I don’t want to go, but that I’m nervous. Actually, I’m quaking in my shoes. I’m more scared than the first time I met a girlfriend’s father. I don’t know what I’m walking into, don’t know anybody there and really don’t think I’m all that good at what I’m supposed to do. I’m going to attend a “Silent Dinner.”

Once a month, an informal group of Deaf individuals (When referring to people who can’t hear, some deaf people prefer Deaf to be capitalized like an ethnic group), sign language students, instructors and interpreters get together at the Meadowood Mall Food Court to talk with their mouths full. My American Sign Language (ASL) instructor, Joyce Proter, describes it as “a chance for you to eat good food, get to know your classmates, meet a Deaf person and practice, practice, practice.”

Driving over to the mall, I practice conversational pieces in my head, following the ancient wisdom of sages and coaches. I visualize my hands going through the motions of “What you work?” or “I write for newspaper. R, N, R. You, I interview you?” As long as I’m at a stoplight or not frantically chain-smoking, I can use one hand to actually make the signs.

I park and look up a couple more useful words and phrases: “How long you come Silent Dinner?” and “Yes, hungry, but broke.” But my grammar is childish and out of order, and the words are slipping from memory the longer I sit in my car. Fluidity of sign is hard to get down, even when you have someone you can talk to, and practicing in the mirror just doesn’t quite cut it. As I flip through recent vocabulary one last time, I wonder, “Why the hell am I taking this class?”

Reno and Sparks have a small Deaf community, compared to other cities. A number of the schools have Deaf programs in place, teaching mostly Signed Exact English, or SEE.

Reno’s Hidden Valley Elementary School is lucky enough to have Marci Wilson as an instructor for the Deaf. Wilson is a tall, soft-spoken hearing woman who speaks with passion and humility about her experiences with Deaf culture.

“Oh, I’m no expert,” she says. “I’m really a greenie when it comes down to it.”

She was introduced to signing by neighbors long ago; they had a son the same age as hers who was Deaf. After awhile, she formed a personal interest and started looking around for classes. She says at one point in the early ‘90s, she was told by an instructor that she could be an interpreter after an 18-week course.

“That’s a travesty!” Wilson says. “No one has any business being an interpreter of a foreign language after only 18 weeks of instruction.”

She took the course anyway. And she continued her own education, taking other courses and meeting new people. That was nine years ago.

Now, she teaches some of the Deaf children in our area. She has been with Hidden Valley Elementary for the last four years and says it’s still difficult, even with nearly a decade’s experience behind her. She says her learning never stops.

“I’m still a student,” Wilson says. “When I teach these people’s children, I think, ‘Who am I to guide them?’ It would be like trying to learn English from a foreign-exchange student.”

Partly out of a student’s frustration and partly out of a teacher’s need to be able to keep up with her students, Wilson and some other interpreters and instructors she knew started meeting for dinner once a month, with a strict prohibition against talking. At first it was a small group, but then they felt they needed more exposure. They were all practicing the same mistakes, the same idiosyncrasies and feeding off each other’s not-so-good habits.

So they opened it up and started inviting Deaf people they knew, parents of Deaf children, students and other interpreters. Not everyone at these dinners uses the same sign language, but for students, there is enough pantomime and “finger spelling” using the manual alphabet that anyone interested can have some conversation.

Walking between the sliding doors, my fear jumps up a notch: The mall seems normal. There are a couple of children running around like airplanes, and fast-food jockeys shout orders over their shoulders.

There, in the middle of the rush and clatter, is a long table with about 20 people gesturing over their dinners. Ten or so more sit politely, uncomfortable. These are the people from my class. I’m in the right place and relax a bit. I locate my teacher. She’s at the middle of the table, involved in an animated discussion.

The expression inherent in ASL communication is beautiful. The nuance of face posture and gesture is something I understand from performing poetry and theater, but sign language puts it on a real level, not something academic or artsy. The Silent Dinner helps me expand my horizons and meet people with experience and knowledge I can only guess at.

And the whole experience is very open. People aren’t worried about talking with their mouths full. Being blunt isn’t rude either. It’s simply cutting through the extraneous conversational diversions people have devised to hide behind. Some things are done out of necessity, like gently tapping a person on the shoulder to get his or her attention. At one point, a guy in his early 20s with a hearing aid bangs on the table until I look in his direction. I immediately think I’ve done something wrong.

He signs, “What’s your name?” I flush with embarrassment and clumsily spell it out. He smiles and signs, “Nice to meet you, Rory. My name is Joe.” You’re taught this conversation in your first week of ASL, but for me, at this moment, it’s like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It opens up a whole new universe. I’m actually communicating with someone—can communicate with a new set of people that used to be behind the wall of my own ignorance.