Learn, Experience, Thrive…

by Michelle Bronson

Learn, Experience, Thrive . . . the motto of California School for the Deaf, Fremont. As I reflect on this motto, especially in how it relates to my daughter’s new chapter in life as a student at CSDF, I marvel at how it accurately captures this new stage in life for our family.

The decision to send my daughter, Courtney, to CSDF was not an easy one. We are a very close family, and my Deaf husband and I always thought we would raise our daughter here with our support and involvement with the local Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community.

While she was mainstreamed at a local public elementary school with interpreters, the number of peers who could meet her social needs became increasingly lacking. She reached the age where the need to socialize and communicate with peers became more important than “hanging out with the parents and older Deaf adults,” and her self-confidence plummeted after a difficult year of being rejected and ignored by hearing peers. My daughter is a naturally sweet and friendly person who is accepting of people of various backgrounds, and she struggled to understand why her kindness was not reciprocated by hearing peers her age. She also grew tired of people not being accepting of those who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and she was not interested in teaching people signs. Because the public school was her educational and social experience, Courtney started wishing she could be hearing so she could have friends. When she said that and her comment of “I have no joy,” my heart sank and I knew something had to change.

I explained to Courtney that she would never be hearing but that there was a Deaf school where she could be surrounded by Deaf and Hard of Hearing peers and school personnel who can sign. She had no recollection of touring CSDF as a three-year-old but was very excited about seeing the school as a twelve-year-old. (We had taken her to CSDF in 2006 when we were checking out different educational programs for Courtney, but she was enthralled with a signing teacher at a local program so we stayed in the Fresno/Clovis area.) We contacted CSDF and requested a tour, which we had on April 2, 2015.

As we toured CSDF, Courtney’s eyes sparkled as she saw the campus full of Deaf and Hard of Hearing students, and she loved the direct instruction provided in different classrooms. The previous night, when we visited the cottages, she had instantly connected with the group of girls and engaged in a long conversation about her Deaf aunt being a science teacher there, her experience being mainstreamed, and the girls’ experience at CSDF. What stood out was that all the girls felt a common bond and were able to chat freely without struggling to understand each other; their various personalities shone through their discussions, and it was wonderful seeing them be themselves without having to be conscious of the “hearing-deaf barrier.” With hearing peers, Courtney is painfully aware that she is the Deaf person separated by her “inability to hear,” but with Deaf peers, she is accepted for who she is, not whether she can hear and understand through speaking and lipreading. At CSDF, the girls saw her as “Courtney,” whereas Courtney was perceived as “the girl who is deaf” at her former elementary school. Once my husband and I saw her radiating with joy as she conversed with the girls in the cottages, we instantly knew our future, and more importantly, Courtney’s, was about to change.

After socializing with the girls at the cottages for about an hour and it was time to leave, Courtney came up to us and said, “I want to go to school here, please, for seventh grade!” That plea was made in the same vein as when she told us at age three that she wanted to go to a local Deaf and Hard of Hearing program, so we knew that our child was again telling us that she knew what was best for her in terms of school placement. Seeing her radiant expression and knowing her desire to go to CSDF clinched that decision for us as parents.

We started making plans for Courtney to reside with her aunt at CSDF and began the process to transfer her from the local mainstreamed program to an all-Deaf school. While Courtney excitedly counted down the days to her new life at CSDF, I alternated between feelings of excitement for her and grief at having to “let her go,” especially at the tender age of twelve. As a mother, I grieved at not being able to see her on a daily basis, except on videophone, but it is not the same as hugging her in person and asking a spontaneous question here and there. Videophone calls are structured times to check in, not a relaxed comment here and there as people normally make when in close physical proximity. I grieved that I would miss some important events because of the distance and would not be able to attend her every softball or volleyball game. I went to many of her games here while she was at the public school, but with CSDF being three hours away, I could not just show up whenever my schedule allowed. With her being at CSDF, I have to purposefully block off times in my schedule, such as I recently did for her softball game, Back to School Night, and IEP meeting. It can prove challenging at times because of my hearing son having just started high school, and he’s involved with a marching band with an intense schedule. My children and their activities are important to me, and their different needs and schools can make scheduling a challenge. Nevertheless, our children are a priority to us and we will not let distance and different needs be a barrier in their getting what they need to thrive. Courtney needs CSDF to thrive as a Deaf “athletic bookworm” and my hearing son, Andrew, needs Buchanan High School to thrive as a “musical geek.”

Seeing my children experience life to the full with their social and educational needs met, regardless of school location, makes my heart full and lessens my grief because I know with certainty that they are thriving in an environment especially suited to them. The CSDF mascot is an eagle, which is fitting, because Courtney had to “fly the coop” earlier than expected in order to find herself as a healthy and happy Deaf individual. In other words, she needs to “Learn, Experience, Thrive” so she can be the Courtney God calls her to be.