Popular Science Monthly/Volume 19/May 1881/The Horace Mann School for the Deaf



THERE is a schoolhouse in a convenient little by-street in Boston, which is visited weekly by scholars and scientists, specialists of renown and commonplace fathers and mothers, philanthropists and seekers after the curious, and from its doors not one turns away without being surprised and touched.

The Horace Mann School for the Deaf, in Warrenton Street, is one of the latest developments of that great humanitarian movement which rose like a miracle in the last half of the eighteenth century, one of the few sunbeams which have come to us from those dark and faithless days. It was opened under the name of "Boston School for Deaf Mutes," in November, 1869, with twenty-five pupils. Two removals have been made since that time, but the eighty members comprising the school are now pleasantly located in the present building, which contains eight class-rooms, a reception-room, and play-room.

The name of the school was changed in 1877, because the pupils who were learning to speak objected to being called "mutes"; a prejudice which the city very wisely considered. As early as 1843 Mr. Horace Mann, then Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, described in one of his reports the German method of teaching articulation, and urged its adoption here. It was a suggestion which, as Dr. Howe said, "took twenty years to bear fruit," but it was gracefully remembered in changing the name of the school which now teaches that method with marked success. It is both a city and a State institution, and in that way has some advantages over an ordinary public school; a longer recess, for example, and but one session instead of two.

And in this cheerful place, in an atmosphere of encouragement and affection, the children gladly stay during five hours of the day; while the teachers, who are enthusiasts in their work, patiently try to fit them to take their places more equally in the struggle of life.

The work is very slow. When we remember that most of these pupils have never heard a sound, and do not know what it is, that they have no communication with the world except by pantomime, and then remember that the end aimed at is to make them speak the English language, so that any one can understand them, and that they must learn to read from the movements of his lips whatever a hearing person chooses to say to them, the tremendous toil will be faintly realized.

From the time in the last century when the first government institutions for the deaf and dumb were founded simultaneously in Germany and France, the methods of instruction have been different in those usually antagonistic countries.

The Abbé de l'Epée contented himself with the sign-language, and his idea is still the ruling one in the French school, for its defenders hold that the thinking and reasoning qualities are better brought out with a language which, when once learned with comparative ease, allows the mind free play, than with a system where the whole powers of the pupil must be given for years to expression.

On the other hand, Heinicke, of Eppendorf, believed that the dumb could be taught to speak, and this has been the principle of the German school from the beginning. There is no doubt but the latter method would place its pupils upon a better footing with their fellow-men, from whom the sign-language must separate them to a great extent, but to become general it is necessary that in a majority of cases it should be a pronounced success. In the instances which have come under the writer's notice, it has not appeared that the ideas of the pupils are dwarfed by the process; rather does it seem as if, with the first spoken word, a spell were broken and they were free.

Professor Bell's system of visible speech has been used in the Horace Mann School from the beginning; but an attempt is being made, with apparent success, to do away with even this artificial method, and, keeping it as an occasional aid, to teach the English language directly.

The teacher in beginning her work writes a word on the blackboard, pointing to the object in the room for which it stands; and the child is made to understand by constant repetition that that written word and that object are always meant for each other. A number of such nouns are written and rehearsed until the pupil will point readily to the object when the written characters corresponding to it are shown him, or will write the word when the object is placed before him. These children often learn to point to the nouns wholly by the looks of the written words before the little fingers can use the pencil, though they naturally write quickly and well—earlier than children who hear.

Perhaps the child's first vocal attempt is to close his lips, and make the humming sound produced by an effort to speak the letter m; and he does so by feeling the curious vibrating sensation in his teacher's lips and chin, and trying to imitate it. In nine cases out of ten he does this the second time he tries, no one knows why. The instant he succeeds, the letter m is written triumphantly for him on the blackboard, and he feels that his oral education has begun. After this, very probably the long sound of e is attempted, the mouth open, the tip of the tongue pressed against the lower teeth, and the vibrations again felt. The pupils are early shown, however, that the mass of vibratory tone must come from the base of the chest by the action of the diaphragm, for otherwise the register of sound is apt to be unpleasantly placed either in the throat or head.

The vowels are usually taught first, and each of these elements sometimes requires weeks of patient work to get perfectly. Having succeeded, the consonants are added, fe, re, be, sa, ta, no, so; and words naturally follow.

There are always two classes of children in schools of this kind, the congenital mutes who have never heard, and a large number who were not born deaf but became so in different stages of their age and development, either by disease or accident. Scarlet fever alone is computed to cause one third of the deafness in America. These two classes are separated as far as possible, for the semi-mutes usually retain a few words or sentences upon which to build, while the congenitals must begin far behind them, everything being artificial.

As all the teaching must be objective, the class-rooms present an animated appearance, gay with pictures upon the walls and colored crayon drawings upon the blackboards.

When the child enters the school he is usually provided with a language of natural pantomime which is practical and very entertaining. The sign of "mother" is putting the hand to the back of the head, as if a coil of hair were there, while for "father" the hand is drawn over the face in the manner in which he wears his beard. A cow is represented with the thumbs at the ears and the fingers extended; a donkey the same, with the fingers together and hands slowly opening and closing.

Some of the gestures are very pretty. A child tells his teacher that his father was asleep when he came to school, by making the sign for father and inclining his head to one side with closed eyes upon his open palm, and shows his anticipation of some pleasure he is to have, by making the gesture for to-morrow, over and over again; with one forefinger he closes his eye, and, lifting it quickly, makes it a figure one (opening his eyes, of course, at the same time), meaning that he will sleep once before the time comes.

It is strange that all children, coming from whatever place or condition, have these natural gestures alike when they enter the school. The quick motions of the little fingers, as they tell a long story in this way, remind one of humming-birds.

The children are as different from one another as hearing children are. Some are so pretty that artists might covet them, little ones who have not yet learned to speak, but who look up at you silently, statues in which the soul is to awake; others, dwarfed and distorted in figure, have a look of dull despair, too old for childhood. The heart is sad and tender for them all.

Every gesture is vigilantly suppressed as soon as the written or spoken word can be used in its place, but in the youngest class these signs are naturally most used. An animated group the eleven pupils make, several of them mere babies of four and five years. They ask very personal questions about the visitor, which the teacher readily interprets if she sees fit. There are some inquiries concerning the age of the stranger, for instance, or innocent comments on the size of his feet, or the shape of his hat, which she may think best to ignore. In this class is Charley, whose teacher spelled his name in the more common way until he intimated to her that he objected to having a lie on the end of his name! Constant association with one of the girls in the class, who had a prejudice against the unvarnished truth, had early familiarized the eleven with the word. This girl has a lively imagination and a strong vein of romance, which cause her, perhaps, to seem unreliable to slower intellects. She never, for example, sees a companion with a new necklace or dress, but she carelessly signs to her that she herself possesses such articles by the barrel and bale; while her own home, which she describes to open-eyed listeners, as built of gold with a diamond door and silver steps, has long been known by reputation throughout the school. This pupil, in her one interview with the writer, asked if she had a hat with a long white feather, if she had a gold bracelet, if she played on the piano, and had a door-plate on her door; and the latter, as she sorrowfully shook her head, felt the degradation involved in the admission.

Once in a while one of these little ones is stubborn, and, refusing to be taught, closes his eyes. This, of course, throws the teacher upon his mercy; there is nothing more effective he can do.

In cases of great rage, one child indicates, by practical illustration, that its opponent has a father who drinks and a mother who is fat. Insult among them can go no further than this, and the teacher is summoned by the wail of the accused.

Their misfortune keeps them, in a large measure, from understanding the distinctions of rich and poor, differences it is so sad to see, made sometimes by children as soon as they can stand alone. The little dainty daughter of a house whose one great cross is this child's deprivation, admires with loving touch the golden hair of her school friend whose shoes are worn at the toes, and whose dress tells its own story of the mother's poverty and overwork.

We must not turn from this interesting youngest class, without mentioning the pretty, sensitive little girl of four years, who described a ride which a gentleman had given her; standing as she did upon a chair with her audience around her, she made quick gestures with her fingers, her eyes turned brightly upon each face before her, but, as she proceeded, her remembrances went beyond her power in signs, and with intent, serious face she traced, with her forefinger in the air, sketches of the rest she had seen. We did not understand what she meant to tell us, but almost a feeling of awe fell upon us as we looked on at this dumb intelligence which was being led by the mind that is greater than ours.

Nor should the boy a little older be forgotten, a pale, sickly child, who goes regularly to church on Sundays, and seems to enjoy it. One day, when a copy of the "Madonna and Child" was shown, and one of the other children was puzzled by the subject, this boy told his companion the story of the Saviour from his babyhood to his cross in these natural signs, not dreaming that his teacher had seen it all.

For a long time after children enter the school they think their fathers and mothers and teachers are all like themselves, and have learned to speak in the same way as they are being taught. This delusion lasts for some time, but generally fades out gradually. Once in a while, however, it comes as a shock. One of the younger pupils who still had this idea, as she sat watching her teacher and a visitor, noticed apparently that the teacher sometimes spoke to the new-comer without looking at her, and that she answered in the same way. It struck her for the first time, evidently, that these were not dependent upon the movements of the lips. As the visitor departed, the child went up to her teacher, and, pointing after her, laid her finger on her teacher's lips, and, looking up at her, shook her head. "She did not watch my lips?" asked the teacher. "No, she hears." And she pointed to her ear. The child, then pointing to her teacher's ear, looked up in question. "Yes," answered the latter, "I hear too." She stood a moment trying to understand it; then she laid her finger on her own ear, pointed to herself and slowly shook her head. The knowledge of her difference from the common order of things had come to her.

As one passes from the youngest to the oldest class, the progress is very marked. In some of the rooms the pupils only say separate words, in others a few sentences; but in the last a surprise awaits every one. There sits a class of nine pupils from about thirteen to sixteen years old, who, at the low-toned request of their teacher, rise, come forward to nearer seats, and recite the answers clearly and correctly to the questions of an ordinary geography lesson. Five or six of them spoke with especial ease, and the teacher assured the visitor that, not only could a prolonged conversation be kept up with them upon any subject, but that, in fact, the class had probably understood all the visitor had been saying since she came in. Their faces lighted up when one of them hesitated a moment for the answer, and each one showed an anxiety to be questioned; they whispered to one another, and were reproved for it just like the restless little creatures imprisoned for five hours daily in any other school in the city. One girl, in particular, spoke with such a pleasant inflection and so much animation, that the visitor said, "She must be a semi-mute, surely?" "No," the teacher answered; "all of my pupils were born deaf." Of two who seemed a little backward, she said: "They are not strong children, and their articulation is not so good as the others; but it is a great advantage to them to be able to understand what is said to them, even if they never speak very well." She further stated that all the usual studies of the upper grammar-school classes were pursued by her own. It seems to all who see it a marvelous thing; but the ignorance still prevailing in regard to the system and its results is incredible. The teachers say they are asked the strangest questions every day: Why they do not teach the children to sing; whether they use raised letters; whether their work is not easy, as it must certainly require but little education to teach such benighted minds. But everything was outdone by the prominent member of a board of education who, after expressing his amazement as he passed from grade to grade of the school, asked, "How long is it before they begin to hear?" A wonderful system, indeed, he must have thought it; and he could not plead the possession of a depth of general ignorance such as a chance glimpse discovered in the mind of that woman who came in to visit the school, and, after taking a large part of the teacher's time to explain the method, looked over the young faces before her once again, and asked, "Now, air thim sinsible?"

One of the most beautiful things about the school is the affection existing between the teachers and pupils, and among the children themselves. Many of the little ones are poor, and are clothed mainly by the teachers and friends of the school, and when one of them appears in a new dress all of her fellow-pupils rejoice with her.

After they leave the school, which many do to engage in some employment, they are proud to keep up their proficiency, and encouraging and curious things are heard of them. One is a teacher in a Sunday-school; one is vigorously pursuing her studies in a branch of the Society for Home Culture; another practices her piano-lesson an hour a day; one boy is a promising student of wood-engraving; and the other day a lady recognized in the young girls who were talking happily together beside her in a horse-car two past members of the Horace Mann School.

All this is fair fruit from the labors of that Eppendorf scholar who sowed his seed a hundred years ago, and it would gladden the hearts of the many men who have longed to see this result from the darkness of the middle ages until now. Separate instances have been known in all time, where devoted men and women have given a lifetime to this work, and counted it well spent. We do not know the impulse which led the Spanish monk, Pedro de Ponce, in Leon, to the wonderful toil and patience which must have been required before his four deaf-mutes talked with men in the sixteenth century, but we hardly doubt that it began in the affliction of some one dear to him; for, almost always, until the feeling of duty which we owe to these sufferers became so general as it is now, in the isolated cases that stand out from the pages of all history we read between the lines the record of a devoted love.

Even if some of the pupils of the Horace Man School, and the similar institution in Northampton, should never be able to hold protracted conversations upon all subjects, there are many sentences with which they will always be able to gladden the hearts of their parents and friends.

As some one has wisely said, it would be well worth sustaining the system if the child only learned to say "Father, mother, I love you." For the parents feel the happiness of hearing one word pronounced by the lips of their children; and the father who said to the teacher that he would give his ten-thousand-dollar farm if that little girl of his could speak to him, echoed the greatest wish of many other hearts than his.

But the children learn more lessons than are mentioned in the school reports—neatness, obedience, gentleness, kindness; and thus are the teachers in many ways setting these captives free.