School for the Deaf
By Adam Pottle
You gasp, awakened by
a bucket of cold water.
A gauzy autumn morning. A drained sunrise.
You shiver, strain to see the house
parent’s fingers whipping & flicking in
the fibrous grey light—wordless yet
You wipe your face with
your sheet, bite back a sob.
The teachers always tell you to use your voice
even though you already have one.
When you speak or try
to speak, it’s like laying an egg through your mouth,
like balancing a tire on your throat,
like lifting a barbell with your tongue,
hoping it doesn’t tip or catch on a corner.
You must hoist your voice. Right now
you can’t lift it. It’s too heavy.
From what you can see
on the house parent’s lips, you can’t use your fingers.
When another boy picked his nose, the principal tied
his hands with rope. Could do the same for signing.
You watch your dorm mates
whose names you don’t know,
even though you’ve been here two weeks.
In the cold dorm you watch their mouths,
hoping to find seething shapes,
hoping their teeth will strain whatever vapour words are made of,
hoping their tongues will lift & toss their words,
hoping their words will clench before you.
Their words slide like arrogant ghosts
through the fibrous dormitory air.
you practice mouth movements before the mirror,
trying to build your voice’s muscle, pushing against
the words, as though they might bury you alive.
You see the house parent’s thick digits—
knuckles furred like a tarantula’s knees,
the shrill dorm light fattening the fat hairs,
spidery hands seeking to measure, seize, grasp, coax, convince.
The house parent a dull husky man
who laughs like a wolverine,
toothy laughter carried by a thrusting jaw
meant to ward you off.
Speaking in class is
grown in a cave:
the words clack
against your teeth—
filthy fossilized turnips,
leaving a flinty taste in your mouth.
The teacher is a strict sonneteer
slotting his students’ unwieldy syllables
into place, giving them enjambments, iambs, spondees.
He shows you a poem,
pointing to the last two lines:
“Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.”
The teacher’s cleanshaven lips crisply emit the words.
“Thoo the moaning”
The teacher’s hand chops the air.
“Though. Though the morning.”
You make a fist
& look at your classmates;
your hands are bound & gagged.
“Though the moaning”
“Morning. Mor. Mor-ning.”
“You’re not saying the R sound. Ar. Ar. Arrrr.”
You smile at the teacher’s teeth,
make the sign for “Funny.”
The teacher slaps your hand
& you drop the poem. The teacher points
& tells you to sit down.
At night, in the dark, in the quiet,
you carefully fold down your sheet
& sign to the ceiling. An invisible radius
encircles your hands, stifling your movements.
You sign in quick tight motions, whisper your signs.
poetry go hell
go hell teacher
hate you teacher
As the weeks drain away, your signs become
marginal, little finger flicks to fill the silent gaps.
“Their voices clatter harshly. Ugly, deformed
voices. No accent: the raw material
from which an accent, a voice, might be formed.
A harsh bark, or an odd ethereal
effect, like the hiccup of a lost soul.
And their diction. The phrases they use.
Embarrassing. They tumble instead of roll
off the tongue. ‘Underibewatewy.’ Obtuse.
You’d think they’re totally illiterate.
They always forget whatever came before.
‘Again. Again!’ Their mouths goad, irritate.
But then, isn’t that what we’re paid for,
to teach the kids grammar and poetry
and rectify their verbal poverty?”
One night before bed, before the house parent
arrives, you & your dorm mates make
handshapes on the wall.
The others make rabbits & geese;
you make a gorilla, a reindeer &, with
the help of a headless stuffed elephant, a lion,
using the stuffing as a snarled mane,
its grizzled snout nearly lifelike in shadow.
lion pig rat monster
house parent dick bastard
You don’t stop,
you can’t stop laughing—
your retracted laughter,
your leashed laughter has
like a starved bat left dents
in the walls of your mouth.
The church is full of mottled light.
You finger a chip in the pew,
watch the tall priest,
read his lips as best you can,
adjust your clunky hearing aid.
It’s like trying to trap echoes in a box.
The priest waves his hands but doesn’t sign;
thankfully he has a mouth like a whale shark.
The priest beams but doesn’t say
how St. Francis educated the deaf man,
leaving you to imagine
raw red hands
speaking exercises that loosened Martin’s teeth.
You wonder why the patron saint of the deaf isn’t deaf,
wonder if there are any deaf saints,
if a deaf person can achieve sainthood,
if a deaf person can properly receive the word of God.
At night, you decide to become a saint.
At night, beneath the sheets, within the ropes
forming in your mind, you whisper with your hands.
Adam Pottle’s writing explores the dynamic and philosophical aspects of Deafness and disability. His 2011 poetry collection Beautiful Mutants was shortlisted for two Saskatchewan Book Awards and the Acorn-Plantos Prize. His 2013 novel Mantis Dreams: The Journal of Dr. Dexter Ripley won the 2014 Saskatoon Book Award, and his 2016 novella The Bus won the Ken Klonsky Award. The Bus was also shortlisted for two Saskatchewan Book Awards and the ReLit Award. He lives in Saskatoon.