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Most of my sign lessons in that 1999-2000 season took place on the Gallaudet team bus, traveling to road games. It was a perfect setting. My teachers were captive, and I had a lot of time to correct my mistakes. The bus was a white rectangle on wheels, sort of like the kind rental-car companies use to pick people up at the airport. It had Gallaudet University printed in block letters on the sides. There were big boxy windows and padded blue seats and interior lights that were always left on at night. I didn't understand why the lights stayed on the first trip or two, until Ronda Jo Miller, Gallaudet's All-America center and the greatest basketball player in school history, clued me in.
"How can we talk if we can't see?"
As the bus rolled out of Washington, D.C., through the bare brown hills of the George Washington Parkway in Virginia one Saturday, Nanette and I sat together in a blue seat in the middle. She was a senior cocaptain, an undersized forward who didn't score much, rarely dazzled people with her skills, and never did anything to draw attention toherself. But she played with such passion that it always felt reassuring to see her out there, with her No. 25 jersey and a little knob of a ponytail on top of her head. I was scribbling notes on my pad, and she was scribbling back. The pad was a vital communication tool for me when I was without my interpreter, Mary Thumann, but it was a crutch, too, and not fair besides. It made it too easy for me to retreat to the comfort of English. It forced the players to converse in a cumbersome way, in a language most of them struggle with, instead of in their native American Sign Language (ASL).
So for the rest of the trip, I retired the pad. Nanette taught and I followed. I learned how to sign "I am hungry" and "When are we leaving?" and worked up to "I like riding the train" and "Gallaudet is a good team." When I got stuck, I would fingerspell, a skill I was developing, albeit slowly, thanks to Paulina Wlostowski, the team's student manager. Paulina, a Swede of relentlessly sunny disposition, had given me an order a week earlier: "You need to learn the ASL alphabet." The next time she saw me, she would be expecting me to be able to fingerspell my name. On the Amtrak trip back to New York, I studied The Joy of Signing, a wonderful book I brought with me everywhere during the season. We came into Philadelphia, and I worked on my P's and H's and I's. When we hit Trenton, I practiced my T's and R's. In Newark, I liked that K's were really P's turned upside down and that you could make a Z by tracing it in the air, like Zorro.
As the Gallaudet bus pulled up to the gymnasium at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, the players grabbed their blue-and-yellow equipment bags and filed off the bus. I signed to Nanette, "Thanks, teacher." She wants to go into elementary education, and she has a future. She put one fist on top of another, index fingers extended. It's the sign for "Sure."
In my seat at the end of the bench, I rooted a little harder for Nanette that day. Her assignment was to guard a woman named Rachel Taylor, a diminutive Marymount backcourt player with a placid face and a deadly jump shot. Taylor had destroyed Gallaudet the first time the teams met, scoring thirty-seven points. Gallaudet coach Kitty Baldridge called for a box-and-one defense to contain Taylor, an alignment in which two players are stationed underneath the basket, two are at the free throw line, and one guards the opponent's star player. Nanette was the one, and her job was to follow Taylor everywhere. Nanette was in a mild panic before the game because she couldn't find something to tie her hair up ("I should just shave my head, then I wouldn't have to worry"). She finally found a rubber band and then played the greatest defensive game of her life. She stuck to Rachel Taylor like tape. When Taylor tried to get free by running Nanette into a screen, Nanette just fought her way through it and stayed in her face. Gallaudet led by fifteen points, 71-56, with four and a half minutes to play. The lead was still eleven after Nanette hit a tough baseline jump shot. Marymount made a couple of quick baskets and started pressing all over the court, and suddenly Gallaudet tightened up and began throwing the ball all over. Marymount closed to within five, then three, then one, 74-73. Touria Ouahid, Gallaudet's standout guard, had a pair of turnovers and looked stricken during a time-out. Nanette put a firm hand on each of Touria's shoulders and said, "Don't take yourself out of the game. We need you." Touria hit the clinching free throw in the final minute, and Gallaudet hung on to win, 75-73. It was a needlessly nerve-racking finish to a contest that proved an old coaching bromide: Offense gets headlines, but defense wins games.
In a tiny blue locker room, players hugged and high-fived and jostled one another as they dressed. Kitty saluted Nanette for her defense. Nanette smiled, her face still red and sweaty. Ronda Johnson, a junior from Deer River, Minnesota, sat hunched in front of her locker and covered her ears with her hands. Nobody knew why, but that was often the case with Ronda. Kitty tapped her on the arm.
"What's the matter, are you afraid of going deaf?"
"No, I'm afraid of going hearing," Ronda said. Everybody laughed. There was a lot of laughter around this team, and Ronda was usually in the middle of it, whether by consuming a half-bottle of ketchup with a single order of french fries or bending her body in various directions, as if it were a pipe cleaner.
On the ride home, the lights were on and Ernie Young, the team's longtime driver, was behind the wheel, his red leather Bible on the dashboard in front of him. A few minutes into the trip, Kitty stood up, waved her hand to get people's attention and asked what the fast-food place du jour was going to be. Roy Rogers won out over Wendy's in a close ballot. Ten players plus a few managers and statisticians piled in, a snaking line of wet heads and empty stomachs. Kitty stood at the counter and, one by one, took each player's order in sign language, then translated it into English for the counterperson. There are some things you have to do when you are a hearing coach with deaf players. Signing the pregame introductions so your players know when they're supposed to run out on the floor is another. Kitty has been coaching deaf players for close to thirty years. It's been nearly that long since she's given any of this a thought.
When the players sat down to eat, they got the usual treatment: a bunch of stares from people who pretended not to be staring. An estimated 20 million people are deaf and hard-of-hearing in the United States, and about 2 million are profoundly deaf. The orbit of most hearing people's lives includes none of them, which is why the sight of young women communicating in sign language is so arresting. Deafness is an invisible condition. It comes with no telltale markers or disfigurement. You can't tell if someone's deaf if you pass him on the street, or post her up on the basketball court. By its very nature, profound deafness leaves those who have it cut off from the hearing mainstream, isolated from the hum of communication that so effortlessly connects those who hear. "The most desperate of human calamities," Dr. Samuel Johnson, the English writer and critic, called it. For most people in the hearing world, deafness is a deep and awful mystery, the parameters of their knowledge beginning with Helen Keller and ending with the airport pencil peddler. Helen Keller herself said that if she had had the choice of regaining her vision or hearing, she would've chosen hearing, for while blindness cut her off from the world around her, deafness cut her off from other human beings. Most of us look at the deaf with a combination of pity and perverse gratitude: "There but for the grace of God . . ." If there was one thing I learned in my time at Gallaudet, it's that the sympathy is neither wanted nor needed.
The 1998-99 women's basketball team at Gallaudet had the greatest season in the one hundred five years the sport has been played at the school. The team finished with a record of 24-6, winning twenty out of twenty-one games in one stretch. Qualifying for the National Collegiate Athletic Association Tournament for only the second time in school history, Gallaudet went on the road to Trenton, New Jersey, and defeated the No. 2 team in the country, The College of New Jersey. Ronda Jo Miller had thirty-eight points, fourteen rebounds, and five blocked shots in the victory, as dominant a postseason performance as any player in the country would produce that March. The season ended just two games short of the Final Four.
Gallaudet is not just the only liberal-arts university for the deaf in the world; it is the center of Deaf culture in the United States. Twelve years ago, it was the site of a historic uprising that changed the way deaf people view themselves, the deaf world's equivalent of Martin Luther King's March on Selma. Suddenly, with the success of its high-scoring, fast-breaking women's basketball team, the university had a new source of renown.
I first became aware of how good the Gallaudet team was a short time after that College of New Jersey game, a triumph that Division III basketball followers considered one of the biggest upsets of the season. The extent of my knowledge about Gallaudet then was that it was a college for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, and that it was in Washington, D.C. The total of my experience with deafness consisted of my own low-level hearing loss, the result of chronic ear infections as a small child. I didn't even know how the players felt about their deafness--or whether they were comfortable talking about it--until I heard of the reporter who delicately asked several Gallaudet players how they were able to deal with their "hearing impairment."
"We're not hearing impaired. We're deaf," Nanette Virnig said. Her teammates were flanking her, echoing the sentiment. Among them were a Minnesota farm girl who used to sleep with pigs and now leads the nation in scoring; a Moroccan-born point guard who was beaten as a child because of her desire to play basketball, but kept playing anyway; a reserve center and team English expert who wants to own a bookstore and loves Gallaudet so much she often cries when she returns to campus.
The more I learned about the team, the more curious I became. Basketball is a game that requires constant communication among teammates. How do they know when to switch on defense? How do they alert each other to an impending double-team? How do they function without being able to hear a horn or whistle? I wondered who Gallaudet played against, how they communicated with game officials. I wondered what it was like to be a student at Gallaudet, what it was like to be a deaf person in the United States, and about how the players were treated by the hearing world.
I met with Kitty Baldridge and told her I was interested in writing a book about her team. She was enthusiastic but wanted to find out how the players felt. She invited me to the annual team barbecue in her turn-of-the-century row house, across the street from campus. The players had questions about the genesis of my interest, and about what I knew about deafness and Deaf culture. They weren't put off at all when I said I knew almost nothing, nor when I told them I wanted to go not only to every game but also to practice, class, their dorms and apartments, everywhere, because the book was going to be about their lives and their feelings, their struggles and insecurities, not just their wins, losses, and free throw percentages. Their only concern was my approach. If I was going to focus everything on their pathology, on the one thing they cannot do rather than the full scope of their lives, then they were going to count themselves out. Like most students at Gallaudet, the players on the team are sick of having their lives reduced to a plight: Isn't it a shame they can't hear? Can't we do something to help them be like us?
I asked the players what they felt was the biggest misconception the hearing world has of the deaf. Shanada Johnson, Ronda's sister, said, "People don't think we can do anything. They're surprised that we can drive a car, go to college, travel around the country, or even take care of ourselves. That's what bothers me. We're not helpless. We just can't hear. Otherwise we're no different from you." The understanding we reached that day was that they would open up their lives and their season to me, as long as I promised that the book wouldn't be pitying and patronizing, a narrative handwringing over their inability to hear. By the time I left for the Amtrak station that night, bound for my home in New York's lower Hudson Valley, I had an idea of what the biggest challenge of the book would be: to write about heroic people, without making them out to be heroes.
The first time I visited the campus of Gallaudet University was the spring of 1999. It was a brilliant cloudless day and the cherry blossoms hung from the trees like pom-poms. I walked through a black iron gate, up a small hill, and followed the road to the right. A cluster of students were gathered around a statue of a bison, the school symbol. The students were carrying backpacks and attired in baggy jeans, T-shirts, and tank tops, the unkempt uniform of youth. A few wore Gallaudet baseball caps, in school colors (buff and blue or yellow and blue, depending on where you look), with a big G in front. They were engaged in animated discourse, their hands and arms moving vigorously, their fingers furling and unfurling at what struck me as a furious pace. It was a scene I saw everywhere I went that day: outside the Merrill Learning Center, a circular library that sits in the center of campus; in the Ely Center, the two-tiered student union and unofficial hub of campus activity; beneath the Tower Clock, the historic Victorian spire that rises sentinel-like over the front of campus. I wondered what the conversations were about. I felt vaguely uneasy and didn't know why until it hit me: I was on the quietest college campus in America. I was at the only university you will find where you can walk through the student center at noontime and hear no more noise than you do at a prayer meeting. Though some students use their voices at Gallaudet, and guttural shouts and exclamations are not uncommon, most students speak with their hands and listen with their eyes. Their language of choice is American Sign.
The quiet never stopped being surreal to me, even as I found out that it had its exceptions. The night before the start of the season, I spent the first of my many nights in a Gallaudet dormitory. I was on the second floor of Benson Hall, a six-story brick box that was built in the 1960s and has not aged gracefully. Like every dorm on campus, Benson is named after an important figure in school or deaf history; Elizabeth Benson was a longtime interpreter and dorm supervisor at Gallaudet. It took one night in Elizabeth Benson's dorm to discover that even though Gallaudet students cannot hear, that doesn't mean they don't like music, the preferred volume and bass settings being full blast, the better to take in the vibrations of the sound waves. "We don't listen to music," one student would later explain, "we feel it." At one-thirty in the morning, the feeling began. I felt hip-hop vibrations in my mattress. The toilet handle rattled and the medicine chest shook. The show ended about four-thirty, right around the time I was mulling the irony of a hearing person getting aurally assaulted by a dorm full of deaf kids. Still, I had no grounds for complaint; Kitty warned me the day before: "You're a brave man if you stay in the dorms." The nights were more restful after that, thanks to a move next door to more sedate Clerc Hall, and to the kindhearted resident adviser who put the word out that I was going to be a regular visitor. The students didn't have a hard time spotting me. I was the only one who used the handset instead of the Teletype writer (TTY) machine when ordering pizza from the lobby pay phone. It gave me my own distinct status. At halftime of one road game, a skinny kid with tousled hair introduced himself and said, "Aren't you the hearing guy from the third floor?" The players welcomed me, too. It became official one Friday afternoon, on the Field House floor. Kitty needed an extra body to run fullcourt during practice, and I was recruited. I was guarding Touria Ouahid, the point guard. She pulled up to take a jumper. I blocked it. She let out a high-pitched yelp, her all-purpose sound of chagrin. The next time she got the ball, she started near the baseline, faked a shot. I went for it. She drove by me for a layup. As Touria ran back on defense, she gave me a playful shove on the shoulder. She didn't have to sign, "I schooled you." We both knew.