Thursday, July 26, 2012

Everything I Know I Learned From Thomas H. Gallaudet

It started with a friendship. Nine year old Alice Cogswell was Thomas Gallaudet’s little neighbor. The young minister noticed the girl sitting by herslf in the garden day after day. She seemed lively and energetic, yet none of the other children in the neighborhood bothered to play with her or even to talk to her. Puzzled, he stopped one of them and asked why. He was saddened to learn the answer. Alice was deaf, he was told. With no way to communicate with her, no one wanted to play with her. No hearing, no speech. No speech, no playing.

So Gallaudet began spending time with the girl. Most "experts" at the time thought that deaf-mutes (as they were called) were somehow brain damaged. That the lack of hearing either stemmed from or caused a brain defect, and that was why such children had difficulty learning. No hearing, no language. No language, no learning.

But Gallaudet made a very pleasant discovery. He found that there was nothing at all wrong with Alice's mind, and he set out to teach her himself. And if she couldn’t hear language, he would just have to find some other way to communicate with her.

He made little progress at first. He was no teacher and really didn’t know the first thing about teaching a deaf girl. But he was determined. His quest to find a key to Alice’s mind led him all the way across the Atlantic. Schools for the deaf in France had discovered that language didn’t have to be heard to be understood. Students there communicated through signs with remarkable results. Gallaudet learned French Sign Language and brought it—along with one of the school’s teachers—to America. He raised money to build the first school for the deaf in the United States. The school, now known as the American School for the Deaf, opened in 1817, and is still in existence today. Among its first class of students was Alice Cogswell.In his determination to find a way to reach her mind, he brought about a revolution in deaf education in the country, and brought illumination to countless deaf students.

Still, I can't help wondering. What would have happened if Gallaudet had not been the person he was? If he had given up, discouraged by his early failures? If he had decided he was not the man for the task after all? What would have happened to Alice then?

I use the word "determination" often in writing biographies, and Gallaudet is the perfect exemple why. No one writes a biography about a quitter. No determination, no victory. No victory, no illumination.

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