M. Richard Horrell-Schmitz
I remember the first time I went skydiving like it was yesterday… (insert wavy flashback here)…
The thrill and machismo of the training and the gear.
The excitement as I boarded the plane.
The thought, “what the HELL was I thinking?” as the plane gained altitude.
The feeling that my body would not actually move from the door of the plane as I looked out on a quilted patchwork of greens and browns from fifteen thousand feet.
The rush of adrenaline as my body accelerated to its “terminal velocity” (a horrifyingly menacing word when you consider its your body that is going that speed).
The loss of memory as I freefell; “was I supposed to wave off at seven, and pull at six? Oh no, was five the last chance for the secondary? Wait, can I just pull it now and get it over with?”
The ten seconds of fear as my chute ever-so-slowly unfurled as I wondered, “is this the last experience of my life?”
The four minutes of peace and tranquility as I lived out my childhood fantasies of being Superman gliding, soaring, through the air with nothing else in the world to trouble me except the flight.
The approach… started to get scared again…
The harder-than-I-expected landing.
The chute catching a small gust of wind.
The chute dragging me twenty-five meters or so.
Not being able to take off the harness or rein in the now fully unfurled, again, chute.
At last getting out of the harness.
And then, do you know what I did?
Irrationally, like so many movie depictions and dramatic TV spots, I actually kissed the ground! Yes, I kissed the muddy, rock-strewn landing field like it was a long-lost-lover! Not once, but repeatedly.
Human beings were not meant to travel at their “terminal velocity” more than once… because it is said to be terminal… And having done so, intentionally, without wishing to die while so doing, changed me a little. I was away from what was my habitat. I was off. Alone. I was stranded somewhere between heaven and earth between two worlds, and I was terrified. Without thought, being so glad to be back where I belonged, I was moved to such a dramatic display as to kiss the ground, without care of who was watching.
But I am not talking about just skydiving here. I am talking about being so moved by a place as to have an emotional reaction just by being there. I am talking about the feeling of going home after having been away. I am talking about Schools for the Deaf.
Residential Schools are more than places of education. They are more than cultural centers. They are more than homes. They are havens, shelters, safe-ground where our young are protected, loved, and given a chance to be fully human.
I was never fortunate enough to have attended CSD—I grew up hearing—and because my Deaf identity was developed quite late in life, I didn’t know what I was missing. Of course I went to all the open houses, the plays, tournaments, gatherings, etc. And I slowly began to identify friends and acquaintances by their schools and years of graduation. New faces were recognizable from yearbook pictures next to my wife, brother-in-law, even mother and father-in-law. Eventually, I started to want to be there more often. I wanted to be one of the faces in the yearbook. Not because I wanted to be “cool.” But because I didn’t feel good about my hearing loss at that time and everyone in those pictures did—I have since come to realize that I didn’t “lose” my hearing; rather, I have “become” Deaf. But I was in that limbo between the safety of the plane and the safety of terra firma. I was freefalling and I had no control over it.
Finally, I did touch ground at CSD. It was awkward at first, like my cute was going to drag me away as soon as I touched down. Shadows of my old life, my hearingness, began to creep up, but I quickly threw off the harness and fully planted myself on solid Deaf ground. Now, every time I go there, I feel that irrational pull to bend down and kiss the ground, thankful that I am safely settled where I belong.
The point of this is simply thus:
Schools for the Deaf are dear to many of us, some who never even went there as children, because they are the few places in the world truly ours. They are places where we are at last important, welcomed, and respected for what we CAN DO and who we ARE. They are places that, for us, we are wholly human, and not looked at as missing something.
When I interact with hearing people at the gym, the store, the gas station, the hockey rink, wherever, I am consistently fully aware of my differentness, my “needs” so to speak. I am always using their language, writing, asking to be written to, and being told, “never mind,” and “its not important” when I ask for something to be repeated.
When I set foot upon a residential school’s soil, I feel a bit lighter, freer, and more whole because I know, without doubt, that I am and that I can contribute something to the world. Of course I know that all of us can contribute to the world anywhere we are, and that, in fact, as human beings, we are constantly called upon to give to our world in whatever way we can, but the sense of pride and joy and accomplishment, and history… Ah… its beautiful!
There really is no admonishment or even praise intended in this post. I just wanted to share my feelings, and those of many of my friends and contemporaries about how we feel when we touch down at CSD and other residential schools for the Deaf.
P.S. I have since skydived many, many more times. I don’t kiss the ground any more, but I am fully aware of the tenuousness of my existence while falling at “terminal velocity” and coming home, landing—landing safely, that is—is always a welcomed experience.