Recently I received an invitation from Peace Corps volunteer Greg Beauchamp to visit a class of deaf students with their teacher, Mounir, at Greg's site in Mrirt. I hopped off a souk bus from Fez, and there was Greg. We hurried to the class, and I noticed that in the group of about a dozen deaf people, there were several young boys, about six or seven years of age. I saw an older deaf man, a mother with her young son, and about four or five boys who ranged from eleven to eighteen. There were also two young teenage girls. This was definitely not a typical class for deaf students, but in small villages with just one teacher, this is what you can find. In the 1800's, the first school for the deaf in America opened its doors in Hartford, CT, to a similar class: a young girl, aged eight, several boys of varying age, and a accomplished portrait painter, who was in his fifties. How interesting to see the similarities over the centuries!
The classroom teacher, Mounir, is an upbeat and hard-working young man who loves his students and his job. We talked a lot about the loneliness and isolation of deafness, and he had a good understanding of what his students deal with in Mrirt. The true star of the day, however, was Said, an accomplished deaf man who is the president of the association for deaf people in Mrirt. Said lost his hearing at the age of eleven, after his spoken language, reading and writing skills were in place. Nevertheless, he spoke poignantly about his embarrassment when teachers would call on him in class. Said has earned degrees from universities in Morocco; for sure, he is an extremely bright and charming person. But more than that, he truly understands deafness, and is an outspoken advocate for them in his community. He told Mounir, Greg and I, over the course of several hours, how hard it was to convince local deaf people to meet and communicate with one another. They were initially shy because of their signing. People would know that they were deaf. Somehow, Said was able to get deaf people out of their homes and into public places so they could enjoy chatting with one another. However, watching Said teach young deaf students was the best part of my visit. He beautifully and clearly signed real life lessons to them about respect, behavior and their culture. Plus, Said is naturally funny, so while the kids learned valuable information from him, they could also laugh.Later, it was interesting to compare signs with Said, and ASL is very different from MSL. True, there are signs that show up from France which were copied in the USA, but Moroccans in Mrirt have a sign language that looks very similar to what the deaf students in Meknes use.While Greg is involved in a number of different activities in his site, he is learning and recording signs with Mounir, which could be very helpful to PCVs who want to work with deaf people in their communities. I have worked in the field of deafness since 1974, and that day goes down in my personal history book as one of the most fascinating. Thank you, Greg!