How well I remember sitting in my mom’s lap, leaning my back against her chest, her arms around me and her hands holding a picture book in front of me. Her voice made a story out of the pictures, weaving adventures from the squiggly black shapes on the page.
That’s how I wanted to read to my child. Long before she could walk, I would snuggle Lei on my lap and look over the back of her little head at the pictures, reading out loud the words on the page. She would sit for a few minutes, then get up and move away.
It was a tiny taser to my heart every time.
Once I found out Lei was hard of hearing, I did everything I could to give her language, but was stymied by the challenge of reading to her. I knew that the best way to get language to her was through her eyes, and I knew that reading would someday give her unrestricted access to whole language. I just didn’t know how she could look at my face and hands, as well as a book, at the same time.
Gradually I gave up trying.
But then my wonderful Early Intervention case manager found me a Deaf Mentor, Karen. I was so excited about meeting Karen that I had a dream in which she came to my house (which was built into a massive tree because dream house!), and I signed to her, “JUICE or WATER?”
I was psyched I had signed in my dream. Karen said I must be getting really good at signing (I wasn’t, but she was and is awesome and encouraging that way).
Anyway, Karen brought up the issue of reading to Lei, and I confessed that I was at a loss. So at our next meeting, she brought us a copy of Good Night Moon. Karen sat Lei in her lap and showed me how to read to her.
She read out loud, because she knew that’s what I would want to do, and she showed me how to sign in Lei’s peripheral vision so that she could hear me with her hearing aids and see the signs while also seeing the pages.
I had been working my butt off with the signing so I knew a lot of the signs already. The words are simple and rhythmic; the labeling and repetition build vocabulary.
We read Good Night Moon at bedtime every night for the better part of a year. Over the following months and years, Lei fell in love with the Berenstain Bears, all things Dr. Seuss, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes and Betsy Tacy. I signed every story to her the way Karen had showed me.
By the end of kindergarten she was reading fluently and gaining on age-appropriate language skills. By second grade she was devouring the Harry Potter series and D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths.
Now in fifth grade, Lei reads everything she can get her hands on, from her well-worn Sisters Grimm novels to National Geographic, which she dispenses with in a painfully short time. Her passive vocabulary is three to four years ahead of her age, and I think it’s going to keep growing.
It is an oft-quoted statistic that most deaf adults read at a fourth-grade level. Why has Lei done so well? Was it all thanks to her amazing mom?
While I recognize that I brought a lot of advantages to parenting, including being able to make do on my husband’s teaching salary and gigs so I could be a stay-at-home mom, there was so much I didn’t know about raising a hard-of-hearing child, and the mental health challenges of raising Lei threatened to drown me.
But I got help and a chance to learn, which is more than many people get. Thanks to Karen and our EI case manager, speech therapists, a fantastic licensed clinical social worker, a truly extraordinary educational psychologist, and numerous wonderful classroom teachers, special educators, case managers and educators of the deaf, Lei’s literacy continues to flourish. They might never know what a difference they have made, but I do. I remember, and I am grateful.