Children of a Lesser God

by Mark Medoff

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James Leeds, a new speech teacher at a state school for the deaf, is working with Orin Dennis to improve his ability to pronounce English. The superintendent, Mr. Franklin, introduces James to Sarah Norman, a twenty-six-year-old deaf woman who does not read lips or use speech, preferring to communicate exclusively in American Sign Language(ASL). Even though James’s charm intrigues her, she informs him, with deliberate rudeness, that speech therapy is a waste of time. Sarah’s hearing mother, Mrs. Norman, chides James for trying to get Sarah to speak and read lips so that she can pass for a hearing person. James responds that he is only trying to help Sarah function in the hearing world.

In his next meeting with her, James tries reaching Sarah with humor. When she is not amused, James apologizes for using hearing idioms and promises to remember that she is deaf. She is skeptical but accepts his offer to go out for Italian food. In the restaurant James asks Sarah why she does not want speech therapy. She responds that ASL is just as good as English, but James counters that ASL is good only among the deaf. Sarah accuses him of wanting to be God, making her over in his own image. The next day, James discovers that Orin knows everything about his date with Sarah. Orin complains that deaf students do not want to be changed simply because hearing teachers want to change them. Orin vows that someday he will change the deaf education system.

Sarah and James are becoming attracted to each other. When Lydia, a teenage student, tries to join them by the duck pond, Sarah chases her away. James is oblivious to Lydia’s infatuation with him. After Sarah leaves, Mr. Franklin appears from behind the trees and warns James that having sex with a student will lead to dismissal. James learns from Mrs. Norman that Sarah stopped trying to speak because she believes people will think she is retarded. James nevertheless tries again to convince Sarah to use her voice. Sarah retorts that the only successful “communication” she ever has with hearing boys is in bed. James realizes that he wants to communicate with her no matter what the language. He and Sarah begin an affair in her dorm room. Orin is outraged. He wants Sarah for his political agenda. Lydia is jealous and informs Mr. Franklin, who again threatens to terminate James, so James and Sarah decide to get married. She confides that she wants to become a teacher for the deaf and to have deaf children. Orin tries to tell Sarah, and Mr. Franklin tries to tell James, why their marriage cannot work. James proclaims that communication will cause no problems but immediately catches himself trying to censor the conversation for Sarah. He realizes he has no right to decide what she can and cannot “hear.” The next day, alone, they are married. Sarah and James move into faculty housing and Sarah begins to enjoy life in the hearing world. When Orin visits her, he urges Sarah not to turn her back on the deaf and informs her that his lawyer is investigating injustices perpetrated by the school. Sarah is beginning to feel caught between the deaf and hearing worlds. Orin’s lawyer decides to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission because of the lack of deaf teachers at the school. Orin wants Sarah to join his cause because she is “pure deaf.” He argues that deaf rights are more important than her marriage. When the lawyer arrives, Sarah and James decide to support Orin’s complaint....

(This entire section contains 866 words.)

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During their meeting, Sarah realizes that James wants to change her into a hearing person, that Orin wants her to remain “pure deaf,” and that the lawyer wants her to be angry about her deafness so that the commission will feel sorry for her. Orin and Sarah are both unhappy when they read the lawyer’s brief because it is written from a hearing perspective. James suggests that the deaf protesters be allowed to speak for themselves, but Orin wants to speak for Sarah, too. Outraged by the hypocrisy, Sarah storms off to write her speech alone.

James finds Sarah and tries to make up with her. She asks him to watch her speech, but James is devastated when Sarah tells him he cannot interpret for her before the commission because she cannot say, through a hearing person, how she feels as a deaf person. Deeply hurt, James resorts to bitter accusations, finally goading Sarah into speaking—an eruption of passionate, unintelligible sounds that shocks and repulses him. Humiliated by James’s reaction to her voice, she explodes in ASL and runs away.

Even without Sarah’s testimony, Orin wins the grievance, but it is a hollow victory. When James finds Sarah at home with her mother, Sarah explains that she finally realizes that it is she who does not have the right to change him. She no longer wants deaf children, believing that people do not have the right to create others in their own image. James leaves, hoping that someday they might be able to help each other.


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