I was an eager, naive 19 years old when I started working at the Texas School for the Deaf (TSD). While I had to get a job to support myself, I was committed to finding a position helping others. When I perused the classifieds (yes, I am that old), I was immediately drawn to the "Secretary to the Deans of Men and Women at TSD." The first year, I did work for the Deans. The job enabled me to learn sign language and move into a "houseparent" role the following year. I lived in a dorm with about 15 teenage girls and, at 20, I was a surrogate parent. It didn't seem strange to me that I was 19 and the girls were 15. Dorm life was filled with cooking, homework, talking, rules, fun, ad hoc counseling, love, weekly calls to parents, heartache, boyfriends and girlfriends coming and going, watching tv, going on field trips, and giving fashion advice. It was a blast. I felt as if I were really teaching the girls how to make their ways in the world. But, they are the ones who helped me find my way. They taught me some invaluable lessons that have lived inside me for decades. Here's what I learned:
1. Laughter is a universal language. While most of our conversations were in sign language, the sound that resonated the loudest was laughter. It sounds the same when hearing people laugh as it does when those who have hearing and speech challenges laugh. It became a baseline for our collaborating and developing strong relationships. It helped bond us and segue into richer interactions with each other. So, it taught me that there is always common ground and it is our responsibility to find it and use that to launch meaningful interactions (partnerships).
2. We never meet people for the reasons we think we do. I applied to work at TSD because I wanted to "help" others. My attitude was one of arrogance though, not altruism. I thought I was so much wiser and more worldly than the girls were. I was ready to transform their lives into a mini version of my own. Unexpectedly, they transformed me and challenged my assumptions (incorrect assumptions) about them and their lives. Soon, I realized that I did not meet them to help them; but that they met me to help me. Every interaction has meaning below the surface and we should find that meaning - it may be much deeper and better than we could have ever imagined (innovation).
3. Things don't have to be the same to be amazing. The girls at TSD could not hear the words I spoke. but they felt them - and much more. Without the ability to hear, the girls developed a keen awareness of the world around them and an "inner ear" that listened without hearing. They had a high sensitivity to others' emotions and they paid extremely close attention to body language; they were better at " reading" other people than I ever was. I learned to appreciate differences and see the benefits and beauty in them (inclusion).
4. We learned to come through for each other. The girls taught me how to appreciate the world through their view and it opened my eyes. I, too, had opportunities to step in and step up for them. One Friday evening, we loaded up three dorms and headed to a local spaghetti restaurant a few miles away. We had about 40 girls with us. When we entered the restaurant, the girls were all signing and two hostesses and a waiter were making fun of the girls. They assumed all of us were deaf. I said - to their astonishment - "I can hear you." They were too shocked to speak. I said, "We'll take our business elsewhere. No one deserves to be spoken about like that." While the girls were hungry and a bit annoyed that we were going somewhere else, I did the right thing and they knew I had their backs (integrity and trust).
I still keep in touch with many of the girls from my dorm. I went to work at TSD thinking I was going to save the girls from their own peril. What they did was save me from mine and while I was only at TSD for three and a half years, what I learned from a bunch of teenage girls has stayed with me for a lifetime.