Monday, October 19, 2009

Listening with the heart

This is my column today.

There are people like my mom who cry at weddings. I am not one of them. There are people who cry at graduations. I was not one of them—at least until last Saturday.

I recognize that graduations are occasions ripe with opportunities for anyone lachrymous to start bawling at the slightest provocation. But as someone who didn’t attend his own graduation ceremonies during college (although I did attend the Recognition and Awards Program the day before) I’ve always seen graduation ceremonies as a stuffy formality that can be dispensed with. Very often, graduation ceremonies tend to be overly long; they also more often that not feature speakers that regurgitate old hackneyed clichés that quite frankly are tedious to listen to.

But as a professor who is required by academic guidelines to don a black toga and wear a somber expression to match it at least once a year, I have learned to take graduation ceremonies in stride. I have learned to view graduations in a different light. At the very least, it allows professors and students the opportunity to formally bid each other adieu (or good riddance if one is so inclined) and wish each other good luck. It also allows professors and parents to finally meet and let me tell you, these getting-to-know-you moments often mine depths of human emotions that are difficult to put into words. One never knows what kind of information students pass on to their parents about their terror teachers and vice versa. Consequently, one never really knows what kind of impression one party has formed about the other.

Last Saturday was different though, thanks to Ana Kristina Arce, magna cum laude graduate of the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde who delivered the graduation speech on behalf of her class.

DLS-CSB pretty much allows its students to speak their own voice rather than impose talking points so valedictory speeches during the College’s graduation ceremonies tend to be a miss or hit proposition. The College is a strong bastion of diversity and offers a host of courses that caters to the unique needs of its diverse community of learners so it is not uncommon to have, say, a foreign student or a student of fashion design as valedictorian. I’ve written in this space in the past about Yar Thant, the Burmese student who delivered his valedictory speech in Filipino; with great effort, yes, but with unmistakable and heartfelt sincerity and effort.

Ana Kristina Arce was not the valedictorian of her class (she missed the top slot by a few measly points) but she was chosen to speak on behalf of her class because she also happened to be the recipient of the College’s community service award on account of her outstanding achievements as a de facto ambassador of Deaf students (at DLS-CSB, non-hearing students are referred to with an uppercase D to recognize their uniqueness). She was one of four student ambassadors to a worldwide leadership-training workshop for deaf students in the United Kingdom last year and has distinguished herself for her strong advocacy of the issues of the Deaf.

It is one of the marvels of this world that a person who can’t speak using sounds and spoken words can often convey so much and more eloquently using her hands, her facial expression, and her body. Until Saturday, I have never before witnessed a situation where the cliché “one can hear a pin drop” applied so aptly. Every single member of the audience listened in rapt attention and the supreme irony was that everyone was listening to a deaf person speak. There were tears in everyone’s eyes and lumps on everyone’s throats and the standing ovation that many members of the audience honored her with at the end was truly deserved.

Truly, the only thing that separates us from the Deaf is language. The Deaf speak using means other than their voices and if we, the hearing, can only learn to listen not just with our ears but with our eyes, our minds, and our hearts, then we can truly understand just how gifted each person in this world is and in the process appreciate each other’s uniqueness. Very often, language is a major barrier that separates us from each other.

Arce delivered her speech using sign language (a voice over interpreted her speech for the benefit of the audience). She began her speech by narrating the story of The Potter’s Wheel from Jeremiah 18. For those who are not familiar with the passage, it tells about how a potter from Nazareth skillfully used his hands to produce delicate and beautiful jars. If the jar is hurt in the making, it can still be changed and be made right by the potter, while the clay is still soft. Arce then went on to talk about how our Maker is like the potter who makes each one of us beautiful and useful.

She then made parallels about how our hands mean differently to each one of us, noting how many of us take for granted what our hands can do. For Deaf people like herself, her hands are her main means of communicating.

Arce then shared her struggles and triumphs as a Deaf person trying to overcome the many challenges that the rest of the world imposes on the differently abled. It was a story that was in turns funny and touching but one replete with lessons and realizations.

She talked about her parents’ initial attempts to make her fit in and live a “regular” life by first letting her learn how to “speak” and read lips and then later on enrolling her in another school that integrated Deaf students with hearing students. The results, she said, were frustrating as she was often the recipient of reverse discrimination—hearing students tended to make allowances for her perceived disability. She talked about how most people equate being deaf with being feeble-minded and stressed that the Deaf are equipped with the same capabilities as any other person including similar, and in many cases, even superior mental faculties. The only difference, she empathically declared—and this declaration was met by resounding applause and cheers by Deaf students—was that they couldn’t hear; that was it.

She appealed to members of the audience, particularly members of her batch to help open more opportunities for the Deaf.

In many ways, Arce is luckier than most. She has parents who have the resources and the determination to help her achieve what is capable of achieving. As Arce noted in her speech, most Deaf individuals don’t even get to attend, much more finish, college. There are thousands of intellectually superior Deaf people in this country whose talents are wasted because we don’t give them the chance to prove just how capable they actually are.

She is luckier because there are colleges like DLS-CSB that walk the talk and do everything possible to nurture a learning community that appreciates and therefore enables, ennobles, and empowers all types of learners.

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