Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Gallaudet family

Today is the feast of "Thomas Gallaudet with Henry Winter Syle," which is important to me in a lot of ways because of my background as a sign language interpreter. It also drives me crazy because I think they picked the wrong Thomas Gallaudet.

The Thomas Gallaudet we commemorate is the son of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, also an Episcopal priest, who founded what is now the American School for the Deaf and is the Gallaudet for whom the University is named. Gallaudet senior is the one who went to England to learn educational techniques for the Deaf from the Braidwood School. Braidwood comes from the oral tradition, which in this case means teaching the Deaf to speak and read lips. In the Deaf community, this tradition (for those who went to oral schools) is full of stories of teachers binding their students hands or punishing them if they use sign language.

Braidwood (blessedly) wanted a fee for its techniques, which Gallaudet senior didn't have. He instead went to France where he met Laurent Clerc, a Deaf faculty member at l'Institution Nationale des Sourds-Muets in Paris. This school was of the signing tradition (and is featured in the French movie "Ridicule" to good effect). Clerc came back to the U.S. with Gallaudet senior, who learned sign language from Clerc on the long Atlantic sea voyage.

The thing I really admire about Gallaudet senior is that he did not suppose he already knew everything; instead, he spent a lot of time learning about and entering into another culture. It seems to me that Deaf people were his friends, not his clients. He married a Deaf woman named Sophia Fowler (a student of his...but we'll let that pass). No pushover, she, she played a part in lobbying Congress to establish Gallaudet University.

The Gallaudets had eight children, two of whom worked with and for the Deaf. Edward was the first president of what was then called the Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Blind and is now Gallaudet. And then the younger Thomas, whose ministry, founding a church for the Deaf, seems only natural under the circumstances. An amazing family.

Henry Winter Syle was mighty amazing, too, and I'm annoyed at the "with" clause that recognizes him today. He was the son of a priest himself, born in Shanghai where his parents were missionaries. He was the first Deaf person to receive a degree from a hearing university -- namely Yale. I guess you could say that both Gallaudet and Syle were following in their fathers' footsteps. I think Syle had more challenges along the way.

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