On my first day of class, my professor began class with a prayer. While students closed their eyes, listening to the professor’s plea for wisdom in our studies, my eyes remained wide open. Was it because that pile of new textbooks near me screamed, “Look how beautiful we are. Read us.” No, although it was tempting. I looked elsewhere for a more important reasonâ€”the moving hands of the person sitting across from me. I listened to the prayer not with my ears, but through my eyes.
I am deaf. Opposite from me was an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter.
Being deaf at a seminary brings unique challenges to overcome. The first challenge was to select a seminary. I based my decision to enroll by what the seminary had to offer; such as the school’s orbit of influence, prestigious faculty, and tuition fees. Yet I had a question that separated me from hearing prospective students. Could the seminary provide an interpreter? The added concern all deaf seminarians must consider.
There were several seminaries I could choose from. The first three were well known, the fourth was the seminary of my undergraduate alma mater, and the fifth was small.
Since the first three were endowed with large grants, the issue of hiring professional, certified interpreters was not a question. The fourth, with its tight budget, could only provide student interpreters, the same policy in place as my undergraduate years. Those interpreters learned ASL informally, such as in a high school foreign language requirement or through a deaf friend/parent. At one time, I met a student who learned American Sign Language through Sesame Street and books. Imagine how would he interpret a simple subject like, ‘Can you find a pink polka-dot van?’ to a complex subject such as, ‘Discuss Van Til’s usage of the Trinity as a philosophical answer to his metaphysical question.’ A seminary lecture would be filtered through the mind of an interpreter with preschool-level sign language skills. I marked off this seminary.
In a twist, I enrolled at the last choice, the one who could not afford to provide an interpreter. However, the reasons for my interest in this school were its small size and faculty’s emphasis of interdisciplinary learning. Typically, a student craves a personal relationship with his professor, and at this school, I was sure to get just that.
Ask any college student about his relationship with professors, and you will likely get an answer like this, ‘The teacher was stimulating, fun, and nice.’ But it is usually nothing more than that. Often a student gets a teacher for no more than one or two courses, which breeds surface relationship between the two.
The first three choices have a huge student population and are research-orientated, so professors have very little time to understand the unique situation of bringing the gospel to the deaf population and its culture. The seminary in which I enrolled has several professors in residence, enabling me to have a professor for more than one or two courses. Sitting under him for hundreds of hours, I could learn about his strengths and weaknesses, listening to stories of life, family, and ministry. In turn, the professor learns how to interact with a deaf person, deaf culture, and the deaf ministry. A relationship is built.
So how did I function without an interpreter? I didn’t. Unlike many deaf seminarians, I am blessed with a hearing wife who could interpret well. For unusual words or theological concepts, we flesh it out and make up for non-existent signs. For ancient language courses, to pronounce Greek and Hebrew terms correctly was unfeasible. But I am not alone, hearing students struggle as well to pronounce the Greek, Hebrew, and the names of Dutch and German theologians. The positive side of being deaf is that I don’t have a professor laughing and poking fun at my wrong pronunciation. For this I am not too sorry for my hearing friends who are cursed with a capacity to hear clearly, yet speak unclearly. May God help them more than me.