We arrived in Starkville the fall of 1979. I was employed full-time with the Seed Technology Laboratory and, simultaneously, enrolled in a PhD program. I was able to combine my work as a “research associate” with my dissertation research. The disappointment resulting from leaving the pioneer field in Africa was quickly forgotten by a new life, and the open doors that guided me to this position.
Aileen arrived in Starkville not knowing her name and with no verbal skills, neither receptive nor expressive. Aileen was a little over 3 years old when we arrived in Starkville. Her hearing impairment was at the top of the scale (there is no hearing impairment beyond “profoundly deaf”, her measured hearing). In hearing tests, Aileen does have some hearing a low frequencies; but off the scale at high frequencies. One of the measures of her success is that she discounts these facts and minimizes her hearing loss. She cannot comprehend the point from where she started, and I think part of this is related to the world she lived in during the first 3 years of her life before we began auditory training.
God gave us the instruments and means to provide loving, competent and state-of-the-art support to Aileen. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142) was enacted by the United States Congress in 1975. When we arrived in Mississippi, the school system didn’t have any idea what this meant and what they needed to do. We were involved in negotiations about the services they would provide under this law. Suffice it to say, the school system was worried about how much this would cost. This act required all public schools accepting federal funds to provide equal access to education and one free meal a day for children with physical and mental disabilities. Public schools were required to evaluate handicapped children and create an educational plan with parent input that would emulate as closely as possible the educational experience of non-disabled students. Before Congress enacted Public Law 94-142, schools were not required to educate children with disabilities whatsoever. Some states even had laws that allowed them to deny access to education of children with disabilities (probably including Mississippi). Interestingly, one of Hillary Clinton’s first jobs was to work for the Children’s Defense Fund, which fought for this act.
In addition, we found a program for her at the Speech and Hearing Clinic at Mississippi State College for Women in Columbus, Mississippi. This old, well established, and thoroughly Mississippian women’s school in the old south tradition was able to give her personalized attention by highly motivated teachers and staff. And, fortuitously, it has received a grant from the federal government and a new law had been passed requiring schools to accept hearing impaired children into local schools (mainstreaming). When we considered the options to move to North Carolina, the grant that was instrumental in helping Aileen was exhausted, and would not be renewed.
Over and over in my life, whenever confronted with difficulties or crisis, I found that if I kept moving and looking for a solution to whatever the difficulty entailed an answer appeared. Of course I don’t think that 94-142 and the federal grant were cosmically guided resources that God sent me to help my daughter, born to Baha’i pioneers in Haiti. But at the same time that is what happened, and I can cite other instances of this kind of unexpected support and guidance that directly impacted on my life. I don’t believe this only relates to me.
One evening at a Baha’i fireside in Kyiv, we read and studied a prayer about God’s support, tests and difficulties. I asked everyone in the room to think about the most difficult time in their life. A time when they did not have hope and felt helpless and unable to resolve a difficulty. And then I asked them what happened; how they survived the crisis.
Everybody had a story. Everybody has difficulties. And everyone receives support that was unanticipated and unexpected. For me, this is practically the definition of a spiritual test. We are confronted with issues that are by definition overwhelmingly difficult and where we do not have ready answers or solutions. Baha’is teach that these crises are part and parcel of life in the physical plain. I taught a class to pre-youth, when Svitlana’s father died, and I talked about the fact of disease, death and dying. I asked them: “Did God create anything that is bad?” They indicated: “No.” Then, I went on: “So that means that the physical world animated and sustained by God, which includes death, needs to be understood from this perspective?” So we discussed that death is part of life. It is difficult and a test, but what we call death is simply a transition. And death and free choice is part of the underlying purpose of Creation– to give us a physical classroom to refine and develop our souls. One of my favorite multimedia videos (in Russian) is based on the book “Purpose of the Physical World”, by John Hatcher.
Aileen was a huge test for her parents and we responded in unity, and love. We worked hard for Aileen and found doors to provide her with her needs.
I was adamant that Aileen should learn English, have a high level of proficiency, and have the skills to function in an oral environment. My thought processes are always rather simple. She needs to read the Word of God, to achieve her purpose in living. I believed that deafness is no handicap from a spiritual viewpoint, especially if the deaf child has high skills in reading and writing, and english proficiency. This believe was fostered and developed at the program at the Mississippi State College for Women.
The College for Women has an oral communication proficiency policy. In the University’s prospectus, it sums up the pivot of our work with Aileen in Mississippi. It states: “Speech-language pathologists working with individuals who have communication disorders must demonstrate excellent oral communication skills. Speech-language pathology students are expected to model all aspects of Standard American English including phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, and suprasegmental aspects of speech. Additionally, students must speak in a clearly intelligible manner during spontaneous conversation, and produce all consonant and vowel phonemes of English accurately, at the sentence level, prior to beginning the clinical practicum experience.”
So, that was our new world after Africa: phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics,suprasegmental aspects of speech, producing all consonant and vowel phonemes of English accurately, at the sentence level.
Although this is not Aileen’s audiogram, it is similar. We tried to find ways to test her hearing in Abidjan, and even one Baha’i doctor came and tested her with simple equipment. Aileen was so responsive to visual and kinetic clues, it was really hard to tell.
As I watch the life story of Hillary Clinton at the Democratic Convention of 2016, her activism to get this law passed was highlighted. In reality. this law gave Aileen the possibility for the best support and educational programs throughout her school years in Mississippi and North Carolina.
We were so lucky to have the program at this Women’s University. I have tried to find some of the teachers involved, but so far, I haven’t received a response. Without their help, Aileen would not have achieved all she achieved.
I don’t have enough pictures of Aileen during this period, but this one strikes me as typical. It show her concentration and the energy she used to learn. Although one can say that professional help, schools, and her parents contributed greatly to her ultimate success, without the Aileen’s determination and hard work, it would not have happened.
The following pictures are about auditory training. Small groups, technology, dedicated teachers with special training….all part of the program and needed.
Together with the experts at Mississippi College for Women, we decided to use the “cued speech” system for Aileen’s auditory and language training. Cued speech was new at that time, and its future uncertain. We knew that the deaf community used “American Sign Language (ASL)”, and our choice was not against ASL, it was chosen to help Aileen learn English and function in the hearing community– the hearing community was the only community that Carolyn and I knew, and there was no deaf community near us in Mississippi that we knew about. Most of the deaf were sent to residential schools, and that wasn’t a option for Aileen due to her GSD. As I mentioned elsewhere, between Aileen’s two major issues after birth, the GSD was by far the more difficult one for her parents.
In the deaf community the primary language is ASL. English and ASL are not the same thing! ASL is like a second language, and second languages were something that Carolyn and I understood from personal experience (at that time, we spoke Haitian Creole and French). ALS has its own rules of grammar and syntax. To illustrate, I picked up some examples from the internet. If one literally translates ASL into english, then it sounds like “broken english.” Literal translations from one language to another are not appropriate, so the example is just to try to show the difference in grammar and syntax.
During my PhD, I was required to learn 2 languages. I decided that my language skills were already better than PhD students who didn’t speak a foreign language, so I applied for advance placement in French to fulfill my language requirements. They agreed and gave me a series of written texts to translate. When they checked my work, they criticized some of my translations. I disagreed, and told them that they were insisting on a literal translation which was incorrect. I won the argument and got the credits. Fast forward 30 years, I speak Russian and can evaluate translators (much to their dismay, especially if I correct them). And, by far, the best translators are those that grasp the idea and translate it, and the worse the ones that translate literally.
A comparison of ASL with English (if this is possible) would look like this: ASL = WOMAN SILLY MOUTH WIDE MY FACE ME UNDERSTAND NO; English=THE WOMAN WAS SCREAMING. SHE WAS IN MY FACE. I COULDN’T UNDERSTAND HER.
My feelings about Aileen’s education were clear, without hesitation: “We need to emphasize and prioritize learning English.” Even the development of oral skills to interact in the hearing world was a distant second. ASL would be a second language, and if Aileen chose this, she would have all the capacity to learn it and become bi-lingal. But the facts are clear. Many deaf people don’t make the transition from ASL to English very well. Perhaps I should tell a story her about Aileen’s first husband (actually, her only husband by law– both secular and religious). It would underscore how much ASL speakers, with poor English, are confused without full command of English. I was convinced that his jealousy was due to the fact that Aileen’s understand of the world was essentially unlimited, while he had distinct boundaries beyond which he could not cope.
It is impossible for the best profoundly deaf lipreader, even with English proficiency and hearing aids, to fully understand oral speech. At best, perhaps 75% of what is said can be confirmed. Without English or auditory training to maximize the utility of hearing aids, this percentage is significantly smaller even down to zero. Aileen, a high performer, will always “fill in the blanks” because she cannot identify with 100% accuracy all the words so she has to guess at the blanks.
Hearing aids are just one part of the equation. If you don’t start early, they can be totally ineffective and not used. What is heard is not full spectrum, and what is amplified is powerfully amplified. The hearing aids don’t only amplify speech, but everything. So in a classroom, with the teaching speaking, if there are other noises in the room, almost none of what the teacher is saying will be heard. The teachers voice just becomes background noise, with all the other background noise. So, what is done? The teacher had to wear a transmitter, and Aileen’s hearing aid would be connected to the receiver. Then, only the teachers voice was being picked up by the hearing aid.
Lipreading is not considered an acquirable skill, but I do not believe this. Here the experts are wrong. But the amount of science and effort to lipread effectively is beyond comprehension by anyone who has not experienced the challenges. I used to read books by parents with profoundly deaf children. Tear jerkers. Such children create unbearable stressing in the relationship between the parents. As I have mentioned elsewhere, Carolyn and I did many things right. One of them, was our unity when confronting the numerous issues related to raising Aileen.
So with Aileen, we had to be aware about what she could pick up orally. Talking to her back is useless. So what does one have to do with a deaf person:
- Be sensitive to body language, learn to intuit if the child is catching the drift of the conversation or not and see ways to get through
- Look directly at the child while talking
- Be conscious of room lighting and room acoustics
- Don’t sit with your back to strong lights and if the room has echoes and background noise, remember the hearing aid becomes useless
- Speak at a reasonable pace
- If the person doesn’t understand what you say at first… don’t repeat. RESTATE.
Cued Speech is a communication system (not a language system) consisting of handshape and movement/placement, and speech reading. There is a system handshapes near the mouth which represent a spoken form of English.
- The handshape represents the English consonant that is spoken or written.
- The placement of the handshape is the vowel that is spoken or written.
- The movement of the hand represents the diphthongs vowels of English.
“The system is designed as follows: consonants that look alike on the mouth are assigned different handshapes. Vowel phonemes that look similar on the mouth have different hand locations and movements. This allows the cuer to portray the meaningful sounds of the spoken language visually and without any ambiguity to the ‘cue reader’”.
Carolyn and I left Africa for Aileen, and specifically to respond to her needs at a deaf child. There were no feelings of resentment that our planned life had been interrupted. I left Africa, telling all my friends that I will return when it was possible. So, I really wasn’t leaving Africa. In fact, my job received significant funding from USAID, and I was hired because of my French language capability and my experience in West Africa specifically. I continued to travel back and forth to Africa during my 7 years at Mississippi State and North Carolina State Universities. But that is jumping ahead.
None of this should be interpreted in any way to suggest that Nabil wasn’t getting a full load of parental love and attention. That would not be true. Nabil was a baby when we left Africa, and he had a wonderful life has a child in Mississippi. I wonder if he puts together the fact that he built a country home in North Carolina which, in many respects, parallels the country home we built and lived in during our stay in Mississippi. The only real difference is that I’m a minimalist, and he and Anne are not. For Nabil, the environment of his first 5 years is defined by this Mississippi home, with its dogs, cats, chickens, snakes, ponds, and wildlife. Gee, how coincidental. We all carry this initial home life in our soul all of our days on this miserable planet (I think my mood about the planet is being influenced by the politics in the USA, Ukraine, Turkey, Syria, UK, etc., etc.,). Nabil somehow forget how much he was loved during his first 8-10 years, and how wonderful his life. Something happened during and after the divorce. The consequence of divorce? The consequence of back biting?
In Starkville we approached the cooperative extension service for a “minimalist home” that could be built in the country. We found 5 acres of land, a contractor, and went to work. It didn’t take long before we moved in. I can’t even remember one night living in Starkville.
This house was everyone that I wanted, and I thought, everything that Carolyn wanted. We built it together, developed it together, gardened in it together, bought my John Deere riding lawn mower together, cleaned the woods together. The only thing I can remember doing separately was killing the chickens. I couldn’t do it. It had to be her job. So, like good geeks we got the extension materials about how to kill chickens, and then she killed them and we ate them. Fast forward to Svitlana, she constantly laughs at my university knowledge about farm life and agronomy.
When I look at the aerial photo from google earth, I am instantly reminded of my home in Guta, Ukraine, and my country home in Abramovskaya, Russia. What I had in Starkville is what I wanted. We made good choices. We planned the home to allow for expansion over time (like I did in Russia and Ukraine). It was located at the extreme end of property belonging to Mississippi State University, adjacent to research fields. There were no houses, practically, between our house and my work. A wonderful rural environment. If you view the photos from Abramovskaya or Guta they are all based on a similar theme.
I didn’t spend much time at my grandfather Clarence’s rural home, but it was part of my early childhood.
I did not want to leave this home, my University job, my Baha’i service in Mississippi. Like Virginia Tech, the land-grand Mississippi State University was my ideal American employment and life. Whenever anyone asks me, why did I leave the United States, I always refer back to these two places in my mind, and say— I could have had an ideal American life. Instead, I choose to engage in international development work, for the Baha’i community and for humanity. My American children sometimes pretend that they are proud of the life of their father. They are not being very truthful.
- recruited based on French language skills and USAID World-Wide Contract for Seed Technology
- Delouche, James .D. “Doc”, Boyd, A.H., Charles Vaughan, Hunter Andrews, Shirley,
- Local school system
- Local Spiritual Assembly, Shahin, Farhang,
- District Teaching Committee
Many of my fellow graduate students were Brazilian. In 1973 the National Seed Plan (PLANASEM) involved seed production and research activities. A cooperation program involving AGIPLAN, USAID and Mississippi State University was established with the objective of training Brazilian seed specialists in American universities: more than 50 Brazilians completed their Master of Science and Ph.D. degrees in seed technology during the 1970’s.