“See What I’m Saying”— The Deaf Entertainer’s Documentary

American Sign Language Homework

Monday nights have recently become my favorite night of the week. Ever since Amanda and I decided to sign up for a Level 1 class to begin learning American Sign Language (ASL), we have kinda parleyed that into a “date night”, where we go out to a nice dinner in mid-town or downtown Memphis after class. The class has morphed into so much more for me than just two hours of trying to attain some knowledge, but has grown into somewhat of a spiritual experience. When our teacher, Shelia, flickers the lights and signals that the class has begun, there is no more talking allowed. I feel as if I am being let into the world of the deaf community. It is the first time that I have ever TRULY tried to empathize with the struggles that one has to endure to make it through day-to-day living, while absent of the ability to hear. The difficulties I see in learning to go through life deaf only make me want to master the art of ASL that much more. While “master” might be a stretch, I have a strong desire to become proficient enough to have a meaningful conversation and possibly be helpful to members of the deaf community. This week was pretty laxed as far as the informational overdose that is usually hurled at me at what seems like 100 miles per hous, and consisted of being given our “sign names”, watching a documentary, and taking a test. We were given our homework assignment, and I decided to just use it as a blog post. So, here goes:

ASL Homework for the week of 3/15/16

“See What I’m Saying”

Immediately after watching the documentary, “See What I’m Saying”, our ASL teacher, Sheila, instructed the class that our homework was to write about what we took from the film. I was happy that this was the assignment, as I was needing a reason to write about it anyway. It was powerful, to say the least, and changed my perception on the deaf culture more than just a little. I have always been, I guess you could say, “indifferent” towards the deaf community. Being that I am as selfish as I am, I have not spent any REAL time pondering the difficulties which one must face, with no real way to communicate with others regularly. I mean, like everyone else, I have thought, “wow, that would suck to not be able to hear”, but to REALLY, REALLY immerse myself into thought, regarding the everyday frustrations that someone with little to no hearing faces is an eye-opener. The documentary we watched featured the daily lives of four people in particular. The individuals were C.J. Jones the comedian/actor, Bob Hiltermann the deaf drummer of the band “Beethoven’s Nightmare”, T.L. Forsberg the aspiring rockstar, and Robert DeMayo the actor/comedian. These were all unique individuals who were filmed going through both unique situations, as well as situations which all member of the deaf community must endure. I want to talk about a little about each of them.

C.J. Jones, I believe, is probably the most well-known of the participants in the film. He is clearly a beacon in the deaf community, but aspires to make a name for himself in the hearing world as well. There is a depressing point in the movie where he travels to New York(?) to put on a show. His travel arrangements are botched, and with no real way to communicate the information, he is the last person to be made aware. On top of the difficulties in arranging travel plans, he performs about 3 shows, and it appears as if about 3 people attended. I actually shed a tear for him during class. He struggles to get acting jobs although acknowledged as a talented actor by the same people who deny him the jobs. It just seems that working around the handicap is more than anyone wants to bother with. C.J. also feels that being African American coupled with being deaf, makes the struggle all the more real. That is NOT to say that he uses this as an excuse or an anger rod. Quite the opposite is true. C.J. demonstrates a willingness to endure and keep moving forward, regardless of the difficulties. At one point in the film, C.J. says that he can’t seem to get in the spotlight, and his solution was this…”My spotlight is broke. I  just need to fix my spotlight”. I loved this quote. What he could have said was something like, “It’s just tough being black and deaf. It’s just too hard. That’s why I am not where I want to be”. Instead, he took the attitude of, “I am going to get to where I want to be. I have to make some changes, and maybe overcome some adversity, but I’m gonna get there.” That was the way I interpreted it anyway. Very inspiring. I love an underdog.

T.L. Forsberg is an aspiring rockstar who struggled with people struggling to accept her struggles (sounds like a real predicament). Ms. Forsberg is not totally deaf, which makes it hard for her to be accepted by the deaf community, but she cannot hear fully, which makes her life difficult in her everyday world. She is not a “native signer”, so she catches some flack for not signing clear enough. It seems to me that she sings “too well” for a deaf person, so people have a hard time maybe “believing?” her struggles. I found myself growing frustrated at her situation entirely. I was frustrated at society’s need to put everyone in some fu*king box. It seemed like that if she could not be stuffed to fit into one of the boxes that society makes, then she would not be allowed into any of them. What frustrated me most, is that all the while that I am watching in disgust….I am actually trying to figure out which box to put her in. I was making myself ill, as I am a product of a broken society as well. I am as much part of the problem, and equally as far away from the solution. It should really not make any difference at all the amount of hearing that she has or does not have….but it does, and that is what was so impactful.

And there was Bob Hiltermann. Now I like this fella. When this son of a b*tch gets a mind to do something, it’s clear that he would not be dissuaded. Bob is a drummer in the world’s only all deaf  rock band. He teaches school to make the ends meet, but his calling is music. He plays with an interesting group of guys, who have a lot of character and seem to be upbeat and positive. Bob has big ideas and seems to be over-the-top…and I like over-the-top. He speaks of his career as a teacher in contrast to the fulfillment that he gets while playing music. He says that he dreams about it every night and it consumes his every thought. I, personally, get focused on things exactly like Bob, except for Bob has a clear-cut vision of what it is that he wants to accomplish. He is driven towards his goal, and there is a noticeable absence of fear, regarding what other people think. He was last concerned about ticket sales, but said, “this has to work. It just has to work, and it has to work now.” We did not get the chance to watch the very end of the film, but best believe I will watch it this week. I’m excited to see how things turn out for Bob’s band, Beethoven’s Nightmare. Keep pressing forward, Bob!

Lastly, there was Robert DeMayo. Robert is also a talented actor and comedian who struggles to find work because of his impairment. He is extremely independent and has a difficult time asking help from others. His story is rather sad, as he comes from a large family who has made no attempts at learning his language. He reveals some struggles that he had with his deceased mother, one of which was his asking nothing more for Christmas than for her to attempt to learn to sign. Robert’s mother refused to learn and Robert felt outcast from the family and chose to remove himself from it. What had the most impact on me during the film is that Robert had a best friend who died from AIDS. His friend had been sick for 13 years, and Robert never knew that he had the HIV illness. After his friends death, Robert had no one to talk to and lost his will to live. He intentionally disregarded safe sex, and caught the HIV virus. He expresses his regrets towards his decision and devotes some of his time to teaching the deaf community the risks of HIV/AIDS. It is disturbing the lack of information that the deaf people in the film have regarding the illness. It drives home the point of how uninformed the deaf community can be, because we don’t have a way of effectively relaying information to them. It made me incredibly sad when Robert discussed his friend’s death and the lack of a supportive ear to lend himself to. I know when I was in my darkest hour and struggling with my alcohol and addiction issues, I needed hundreds of ears to listen and mouths to speak. I would have never made it to the other side had it not been for other people reaching out and making the connections which I was so terrified to make. At this time, I knew that I was learning sign language for a reason greater than myself. My hope is that I can make connections and form bonds with deaf alcoholics and addicts who otherwise would have no one else to vent their frustrations, release their feelings, and share in the struggle which only other drunks and junkies can understand. Robert’s life of going through such a difficult situation locked inside his own silent prison would have been unbearable for me to continue going on.

I have a great admiration for the perseverance of all the people featured in the film. Everyone of the individuals is a great example of what it looks like to completely ignore societies labels and break down walls. I don’t know if being deaf plays advantage to being able to symbolically “drown out the noise” of other people’s negativity and hatefulness, but it sure seemed like that these people were much more concerned with chasing their dreams and meeting their goals, than they were concerned about what other people thought of them. I look forward to finishing the film and watching more of them, as I am intrigued by the “go get em” attitude that I could see throughout. We have a lot to learn, and the deaf community, I believe, has much to teach. I look forward to gaining some knowledge along the way.

Peace, Love, and all things Beef related,