Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Mark Drolsbaugh's lastest book Madness in the Mainstream, chronicling the struggles of both everyday life and academic work as a child in the mainstream, or "least restrictive environment." You can learn more at Deaf Culture Online, or find him on Twitter @drolzuncensored. Thanks for sharing, Mark!
[Also: The author uses a bit of strong language to illustrate the inner thoughts of a frustrated 7th grade boy, which may not be appropriate for little eyes.]
In Deaf Again, I described my elementary school years at Plymouth Meeting Friends School as the calm before the storm. PMFS is a small K-6 Quaker school where my deafness rarely caused any problems.
First and foremost, I was not yet profoundly deaf. I was still in the early stages of a progressive hearing loss and thus was able to keep up with small group discussions. Since PMFS is a small private school, pretty much every discussion was a small group discussion. The staff to student ratio of 1:4 often worked to my advantage.
The close-knit environment at PMFS helped me get used to each student’s speech pattern to the point where one-on-one conversations were relatively easy. In fact, I was even able to talk on the phone with some of my more patient classmates. My best friend Norman, for example, often spelled out words that I couldn’t understand on the phone.
"Jenny told Trisha she thinks you’re cute. Cute. I said, CUTE! C-U-T-E! No, I didn’t say you’re cute. What kind of a question is that? Jenny said you’re cute. JENNY! J-E-N-N-Y!”
Then there was the issue of social skills. In elementary school you don’t really need to be a master conversationalist. Social time at recess is mostly kickball, dodgeball, tag, or any other game. If you knew how to take turns and get through a game without arguing, you were part of the In Crowd.
Junior high school is an entirely different animal.
My family enrolled me at Germantown Friends School for the seventh grade. It soon became obvious that communication was going to be a huge challenge. Not only was the student body at GFS much larger than what I was used to at PMFS, but my hearing loss continued to get worse.
GFS recognizes that the transition from elementary school to junior high is a big one. For this reason they have an annual seventh grade camping trip right before the beginning of the school year. They believe that a couple days of community-building activities allow everyone to bond and get off to a good start. Unfortunately, a good start for the hearing kids can be a traumatic one for the lone deaf kid.
When I was dropped off at the GFS parking lot, there were over one hundred seventh graders milling around. This was almost ten times as many students I graduated with at PMFS. Right off the bat, I was lost.
There were maybe four or five kids I knew from little league. I swapped a quick how-do-ya-do with each of them. Sure, I could play with them for two hours on a baseball field, but a two-hour bus ride was another story. I didn’t say another word to anyone as I sat silently by the window.
Fast-forward for a second here. If you ask any of my old Gallaudet University baseball teammates, they’ll tell you I couldn’t shut up on the team bus. Our road trips had plenty of stories and jokes and I was involved in most of them. It’s like night and day when you compare trips with deaf and hearing peers.
As the buses arrived at the campgrounds, I grabbed my stuff and played the old game of figure out where I’m going. As various GFS staff announced who needed to go where for what activity, I had to corner them afterwards to remind them I was deaf.
In some mainstream programs this is lauded as “having excellent self-advocacy skills.” Fuck that. My anxiety level was off the charts.
Soon I figured out which group I was assigned to and followed what they were doing the best that I could. Unlike at PMFS, I could not understand a word anyone said.
Time to go into survival mode.
During the team-building activities, I got into the habit of making sure I stayed near the end of the line. This way I was able to buy enough time to figure out what we were doing. By the time it was my turn, it looked like I was an old pro. Some of the staff actually thought I was able to follow their directives. Until...
“Mark, stay off the asphalt.”
As we walked down the road towards the next team-building activity, our staff leader wanted to make sure we stayed off to the side in case there was any oncoming traffic. It took me a while to figure this out.
Was he talking to me?
“Mark, I said stay off the asphalt.”
Shit. He’s definitely talking to me. And everyone’s staring.
This was embarrassing. Could it possibly get any worse?
Yes, it could.
One of those kids who played in my baseball rec league realized what was going on. He moved closer to me so I could read his lips.
“He said stay off the asphalt.”
“Huh? Wave off my ass fart?”
Welcome to junior high, kid.
Later that evening the whole seventh grade gathered together in a large cabin. A staff leader barked out directions, and once again I just stood there without a clue while several students broke off into small groups. They huddled in small circles and apparently they were planning something. Was it some kind of competition? A scavenger hunt? Ghost stories? Who knew?
As far as I could tell, whatever activity was going on must have been an optional one. Some of the students stayed seated where they were. I moved towards the back of the room and sat behind them.
One by one, each group took turns performing an improvisational skit. I sat there bored out of my mind. Time slowed down to an agonizing eternity.
Uh-oh. The staff leader is looking at me again. What does he want now?
Apparently the skits were pretty good and the staff decided everyone should get involved. I could see the staff leader pointing towards kids in the back and calling them out. My heart skipped a beat when he briefly made eye contact with me. As discreetly as possible, I moved to the other side of the room. Damned if I was going to let him put me in a position where I’d make a total ass out of myself on stage.
Let’s fast-forward again. At an all-deaf Halloween party in 2002, my good buddy Neil McDevitt—dressed up as improv comic and sitcom star Drew Carey—decided to initiate a game based on Carey’s popular Whose Line Is It Anyway? television show. Several people immediately nominated me as one of the contestants. I did not disappoint. During the “Scenes from a Hat” segment, I was assigned the role of “President of Gallaudet University on crack.” What followed was an improv commencement address that had everyone howling with laughter. See what I’m getting at? Night and day.
There had to be a way out of this mess. I glanced around in desperation and found the exit. Standing in front of the door—and my escape from Hearing People Hell—was another staff leader. It was Caroline, my soon-to-be history teacher. I’d managed to establish a friendly rapport with her earlier in the day. Perhaps if I talked to her, she’d understand.
“Uh, Caroline?” I stammered.
“I twisted my ankle today and it’s really bothering me. Mind if I go back to the campground and lie down?”
Was that a lame-ass excuse or what?
At first Caroline glanced across the room, apparently looking for whoever had the first aid kit. It would only take a couple of minutes to wrap my allegedly sore ankle. But then Caroline stopped and looked me in the eye.
“Are you sure?”
Caroline wasn’t stupid. She knew exactly what was going on.
“Yeah. I just need to rest up. I’ll be fine.”
“Okay, go ahead. Good night, Mark.”
I thanked Caroline and headed back to the campground, where I curled up in my sleeping bag and gazed at the stars.
I breathed a sigh of relief. The stars were much better company than anyone in the cabin. At that moment I might have been alone, but at least I was no longer lonely. That’s just the way it is.
This was a huge turning point in my life. It was right there in that sleeping bag, lying alone under the stars, when I realized that I was on my own. As long as I allowed other people to make decisions for me, my life was going to be a living hell.
And this is precisely why I cringe every time someone insists that mainstream schools are the Least Restrictive Environment.