The Slimmest of Evidence
An Open Letter to George M. Teegarden March 11, 1852—November 14, 1936
In the death of George M. Teegarden at Columbia Hospital last Saturday night, Wilkinsburg [Pennsylvania] lost one of her most eminent citizens.
A native of Jefferson, Greene County, Mr. Teegarden with his parents moved to Iowa when he was a child. As a public school pupil he lost his hearing at eleven years of age and was sent to the Iowa State School for the Deaf. Later he attended Gallaudet College, Washington, DC, the only college for deaf people in the world. At the time of his graduation from Gallaudet the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf was being organized at Turtle Creek in 1876. Mr. Teegarden accepted an invitation to join the teaching staff of the new school and remained with it until his retirement forty-eight years later. He contributed more to the development and increase in the value of the school than perhaps any other one teacher in its history. He was instrumental in the introduction of printing in the school. As teacher of printing at one time he was the first editor of the Western Pennsylvanian. He was the author of several textbooks and was a recognized leader among the deaf nationally. Mr. Teegarden was a poet of unusual ability, his poems portraying a keen appreciation of the beauties of nature and a rare love of home and friends. Some of his sweetest poems were those he wrote in the last of the eighty-four years of his life. Quiet and unassuming, Mr. Teegarden lived unostentatiously, loved most by those who knew him best.
—From the Wilkinsburg Gazette, November 19361
Dear Mr. Teegarden,
Although you are long dead and have become a secondhand memory for the children of the students who once knew you, I feel compelled to reach across the decades from your simpler time to my far more complex era.
Obviously I was never among your many students at the Western Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf and Dumb (as the current Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf was then known), but I would have loved being your student. You taught at the school for forty-eight years! That says a lot about your devotion and commitment to teaching, but that’s not why I wish I had been one of your students.
No, I’d like to go further than that—much further than that.
Like many deaf children, I had parents who never signed, and I was forbidden to sign. That ban lasted until I turned fifteen and dared to learn signs on my own. I have often wondered whether the quality of my growing up would have been better if I’d had parents who tried to understand me and my needs as I was, not as they wanted me to be. You see, Mr. Teegarden, I was raised by a variety of foster fathers during the week for more than nine years. I had to commute two hours on weekends to attend a speech-oriented program for deaf children during those years. These foster fathers never understood me or encouraged me to be myself. Sure, my biological father wanted me to learn more than anything, and that I did. I never got to know him too well because he was too busy working as a meat cutter to feed his family of eleven along with a Siberian husky. What I didn’t realize growing up was how much I needed another deaf writer in my life, someone who didn’t think it was enough just to write, but who made a point of choosing words carefully. You would have made a terrific father and a writer-mentor to a grateful son and budding writer.
I have been so spoiled by this age, a time when communication is instantaneous and seems glib enough to explain the human condition through 30-second sound bites and advertiser-fed iconography. However, the human condition is far too complex to be explained so briefly; it can only be experienced. When I read your stories, I feel very much like a child, not because the language you use predates the simple elegance set forth in William Strunk’s and E. B. White’s Elements of Style, but because there is something about your style that allows me to be a child. I don’t have to be obsessed with the magic and potions concocted by J. K. Rowling in the Harry Potter books or with exploring the parallels between C. S. Lewis’s Narnia tales and the New Testament. I can be someone once young who can see both the beauty of imagination and the ugliness of life without dwelling on their moral implications. Love and death are given the same weight in your stories. You were not afraid to make your presence felt through a sharp admonishment at the end of your cautionary tales.
You so clearly saw your role, not only as a teacher but also as a father at an institution where so many deaf students were separated from their hearing parents. It is not surprising that you had only one child, Alice, who herself went on to become a teacher of the deaf in White Plains, New York. Nowhere in my research could I ascertain whether you’d named your daughter after Lewis Carroll’s most famous literary creation, or even after Alice Cogswell, Laurent Clerc’s most famous pupil, but if so, neither reason would surprise me. Your love for Alice was clear for all to see in the poems you dedicated to her. Yet I could not find a poem specifically about your wife. How did you truly feel about her? Was she an obligation, and your daughter a joy? I find it odd that you do not mention your wife in your writing.
Each of my favorite of your stories feels like a new card pulled out of an ever-shuffling deck. The framing around the image looks the same, but when I read closer, I see more in the imagery you painted in your stories. You have a focus; you write so cleanly and directly that the stories are actually fully conceived “short-shorts,” a fiction genre that has been an obsession of mine for a long time. I don’t think that short-shorts were considered a genre in your time because very few people in those days thought that the work of living writers was worthy of academic and cultural dissection. The short-short is difficult because of its rigid limitations. Most people agree that such a story should be one thousand words or less and should fulfill the minimal story requirements of having a beginning, a middle, and an end. Yet it is a marvelous form because all the best writers—no matter how long their work may seem—have perfected the art of condensation in thought and meaning. If one can master the short-short, one definitely can write better, longer works of fiction. The same is true of poetry because poets who master the various form limitations involving meter, rhyme, and structure can generate a conciseness that may be difficult to achieve yet pays off handsomely for the reader.
There’s something else at work in your stories. In her book American Childhood, Anne Scott MacLeod points out that in the era before 1860
children’s stories were static and repetitious. There were few departures from conventional opinion, few surprising points of view. Controversy was as rare as genius in the literature.
The focus of the stories was extremely narrow. They were written to teach, and specifically, to teach morality. … Characterization and plots were purposefully flat. Nineteenth-century theorists of child nurture were tireless in pointing out that children learned much better by example than by precept. … Since complexity could only have obscured the messages, characterization was simple and it was always easy to identify the good and bad models. Lazy, fretful Louisa was contrasted with her cheerful, industrious cousin, and the story showed how the differences in their temperaments shaped their lives. … In story after story, good character was contrasted with bad, and appropriate conclusions drawn.2
If MacLeod’s comments about the state of children’s literature prior to 1860 are true, and if you had as voracious an appetite for reading as I imagine you did, then I am sure you saw through these predictable narratives. Instead, it seems that you sought to jolt the reader by describing mishaps in different ways. MacLeod observes that
what small excitement there was in the stories was furnished by the consequences of childish misbehavior. A girl whose fondness for sweets took her into the pantry by night to lick the honey jar managed to burn down the house with the candle she left there. A boy who skated on thin ice against all parental warning fell through and narrowly escaped death by drowning. There was, in fact, a plethora of narrow escapes in the literature, all fitting and frightening results of moral error. But near-disaster was usually close enough.3
Mr. Teegarden, this is true of many of your stories. You do not shirk from the reality of death. You deal with it in a matter-of-fact way in your stories. This is hardly surprising because in your time many people worked on farms and accepted the death of animals as part of life. It was also true that parents often created large families as a way of sustaining a viable workforce on the land should some of the children die young due to various illnesses. I still wonder, however, how you taught your students about the realities of your times. You barely mention them anywhere in your work. For example, you don’t discuss the rise of industrialization, the migration of agricultural workers to urban factories, and the institutionalization of Jim Crow laws and segregation in the South after the Civil War. To my knowledge, you never mention the fact that during the years you taught at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, Pittsburgh was very much a bustling city due to the thriving steel industry. Some of your poems on the idylls of nature may have been an indirect response to the rise of the factory smoke in the Pittsburgh air, which earned the city the nickname “the Smoky City.”4 More important, I was unable to find any reference in your work to the infamous Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf in September 1880, also known as the Milan conference. The American delegation and one British delegate cast the only two votes in opposition to the ban of sign language. The two most influential resolutions passed at Milan were
1.The Convention, considering the incontestable superiority of speech over signs (1) for restoring deaf-mutes to social life, and (2) for giving them a greater facility of language, declares that the method of articulation should have the preference over that of signs in the instruction and education of the deaf and dumb.
2.Considering that the simultaneous use of signs and speech has the disadvantage of injuring speech and lip-reading and precision of ideas, the Convention declares that the pure oral method ought to be preferred.
These resolutions passed despite the fact that American residential schools for the deaf had been successful in using sign language to educate their students. As a result of the Milan conference, the quality of education for deaf students in the United States began its eventual downward spiral when deaf students were forced to learn via the oral method during their peak years of language acquisition. Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, which had accidentally come about as he attempted to create a hearing aid, was a key influence on the conference. He persuaded many educators of the deaf to ban the use of sign language in their teaching of deaf students. He thought they should redirect their energies in using the oralist method as the main way to educate deaf students. Mr. Teegarden, how did you really feel about Mr. Bell and the oralists? Were you too afraid to speak out against the well-funded and well-oiled oralist propaganda machine of the Alexander Graham Bell Association and its Volta Review, the oralist Pravda of its day? Or were you simply afraid of losing your job? If so, I’m sorry to report that these possible reasons for not speaking out have not changed much from your time to mine.
When I first came to Gallaudet College (now University) as a freshman in 1984, I learned quickly about the signing deaf community’s long-standing hatred of Alexander Graham Bell and his campaign against sign language. Why, those eight resolutions passed in Milan back in 1880 had nearly killed off the use of sign language in formal deaf education! How could Bell support such a crusade against sign language when he himself was the son of a deaf mother and the husband of a deaf woman? Bell also opposed intermarriage between deaf people and supported eugenics as a way of eliminating hereditary deafness, which he viewed a most undesirable trait. Your people must have felt intensely betrayed by such an insider who had been around deafness all his life.
Not all is completely silent with you, Mr. Teegarden. You celebrate in poetry and prose the achievements of hearing men, such as Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and the Reverend John G. Brown, who worked hard to make their institutions succeed. Yet it is rather telling that you do not celebrate the accomplishments of deaf leaders in print as much as you do the others. Such lapses in your writing only makes me wonder whether you felt that hearing people were somehow superior to deaf people.
Mr. Teegarden, I wish I could have come to you with my early rambling attempts at fiction and poetry. You could have shown me the best way to write more economically. Less is more, and careful word choices are crucial. (Another note to myself: Stop after the first “more.”) You would have understood that each sentence written is a simple brick that contributes to the solidity of each paragraph until the story becomes an unshakable brick house. (Perhaps you find my metaphors awkward, Mr. Teegarden, but metaphors are my way of explaining the untranslatable in precise terms.) Perhaps you would have told me to keep my opinions out of my writing and allow my facts to speak for themselves. Please forgive me. It is not every day that I write a letter to a writer whose work intrigues me. But the more that time passes with documents, letters, and people who once knew you disappearing, the more obscure your image becomes.
Just who are you, Mr. Teegarden?
Reading all about you in the issue of the Western Pennsylvanian published in your memory made me so envious of that golden age of deaf education in which literacy and intellectual development were valued above all else. It is clear that you believed in those things more than anything else, and you also loved teaching. You worked with two other people to write Raindrop, a collection of stories for use with deaf students. Yet there is no indication in the work of who wrote which stories. Even though I did not include any material from Raindrop in this work, the book’s initial success eventually led to your publishing your own book, Stories, Old and New. I have mined that book for material here, along with poems from your self-published work Vagrant Verses.
Ironically, it is not words themselves that interest you. You are not a stylist by nature. When you are, it is by sleight-of-hand—pun unintended and intended at the same time—that I would be hard pressed to categorize it. Your style is not as easily definable as, say, Ernest Hemingway’s. Still, I don’t see you as the kind of a writer who struts around the room like a peacock but more as one who does not particularly want to be noticed. You would, however, want your thoughts and ideas lingering in the intimate air between the reader and the page. Your style may be quite inconspicious, but your stories are extraordinary in ways that may not seem obvious to the average reader.
The uniqueness of your stories, Mr. Teegarden, lies in the fact that you never wrote for the hearing reader. Your story “The Ugly Aunt” is a good example of your storytelling abilities. It reflects the fact that you wrote as a person who had to communicate in both English and American Sign Language (ASL) every day. Let’s look at the first few sentences of the story:
Long ago there was a little girl whose parents were dead and who had no brothers and sisters. This poor orphan was left all alone without friends to take care of her. She had no relations. Her name was Geraldine. She was very beautiful and she was always anxious to learn and willing to work. This was well for she had to earn her own living.5
The ASL-familiar reader will find these sentences incredibly easy to transliterate. A possible translation in ASL glosses follows:
Before short girl parents dead none brothers sisters. Girl abandon alone none friends take-care none family. Her name G-E-R-A-L-D-I-N-E [name sign Geraldine]. Herself wow beautiful herself eager learn willing work. Good because earn money survive.
While the English grammar of your stories seems slightly convoluted and repetitious in places, the proper ASL grammar remains intact in transliteration so there is no need to translate. For the uninitiated reader who knows little about ASL, it must be emphasized that ASL is not “English on the hands”; it is not only a language on the hands but a legitimate language on par with spoken languages. ASL has its own set of idioms, grammatical rules, and expressions that can be translated into English.
You wrote these stories to teach your students the importance of improving their reading and writing skills. What strikes me most about your stories is your ability to combine both ASL and English so flawlessly. Your stories are almost transliterations to the point where I, as an ASL user, can imagine you standing in front of a chalky blackboard and signing the stories smoothly and effortlessly. You were able to convey phrases in ASL in ways that your students could understand. In those days no one argued over whether your signing was ASL or Pidgin English; it was just a sign language for the deaf. I’d be very intrigued to know your thoughts about Dr. William Stokoe’s groundbreaking assertion in 1960 that ASL is a bona fide language unto itself and not an inferior backup for those who have failed to master the art of lipreading English. I wonder how you would have felt about ASL had it been legitimized during your lifetime. I am sure you would always have continued to sign, but I know that English was equally as important to you as an educator.
Even though I may write in English for the stage and the screen, it is still difficult for me to write in a way that requires very little translation from English to ASL. My personal solution to this problem is to use ASL glosses in writing to represent signed conversation. It is not an elegant solution, however.
That is why, Mr. Teegarden, I am in awe of you as a young child might be in awe of his father, a man who clarifies the differences between right and wrong and who isn’t afraid to act on those differences. You were unflaggingly realistic and yet so supportive of us deaf children. Many of us never received this unconditional acceptance from our non-signing parents. I suspect you, as an alumnus of a deaf residential school, understood and appreciated your strong bond with the deaf children living at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. Otherwise, you would have gone elsewhere after graduating from Gallaudet. But you stayed at the school for five decades. You held the same job all that time and took on additional teaching and editing duties at the print shop. Who knows how many students you influenced by remaining in one place. I was deeply moved by the tremendous affection with which students and other alumni wrote about you in the pages of the Western Pennsylvanian upon your retirement from the school. You really were the father that they never had because their home was where their hands felt most comfortable. You knew their language, and you weren’t afraid to use the power of ASL to convey simple and complex English concepts.
You wrote a short book called Common Words in Different Senses. Many examples of the same verb used in different contexts appeared in this book. For instance, you listed many possible uses of the same English verb gathered.
The men gathered apples.
The boys gathered up sticks.
The dog gathered the sheep.
The people gathered at the church.
A mob gathered on the street.
The reporter gathered news.
The seamstress gathered the skirt at the top.
The boy gathered his wits together.6
I am sure you would have translated the verb’s meaning in each sentence into ASL. I would not be surprised if you knew that this was an effective way to teach English to ASL users. I can easily imagine you, Mr. Teegarden, standing in front of your class, finger-spelling the verb gathered, and then translating each sentence into ASL, again while fingerspelling the verb gathered. Your students would have learned the word’s varied meanings in two languages this way. You would have used ASL signs to convey the different meanings for a particular English word, demonstrating that meaning depends on context. Conversely, you would have told your students that one sign could be translated into several English words. For example, the sign for “street,” could be written as street, road, or avenue. In short, so much depends on context. Your goal was to teach your students to communicate effectively in both languages. That hasn’t changed one iota from your time to mine.
The students who put together the school newspaper, the Western Pennsyvlanian, wanted to enter the printing and lithography industry, two of the most viable occupations for deaf people in those days. The periodical was one of many produced by the deaf community all over the country. So many newspapers were published during the period from the 1850s to the 1940s, that it is regarded as the “Golden Age of the Little Paper Family.”7 The fact that articles in the Western Pennsylvanian often quoted, with acknowledgments, from other publications of the Little Paper Family shows a genuine sense of community in the deaf world. I believe this spirit came directly from mentors like yourself who taught these deaf students how to print. You realized how crucial it was for any deaf printer or writer to master English. You knew this mastery would empower them to write their own stories of prejudice and discrimination for others in the deaf community to read. In the “Golden Age of the Little Paper Family,” literacy was not only paramount, it was self-evident among deaf people. It is peculiar, then, to note that so few deaf people had books published during this same period. I wonder, Mr. Teegarden, how were you treated as a deaf writer? And why did you use the amusing pseudonym T. G. Arden for some of your published works? How I wish you could answer such questions!
When I began putting your stories into my computer, I realized that things have come full circle for me. I may not be a lithographer, but like the deaf lithographers of yesteryear, I have prepared this book myself for a publishing company in the field of deafness. Through my mastery of English and an understanding of the mechanical and technical aspects of publishing, I have the power to change the world in a very small, almost inconspicuous, way. Mr. Teegarden, I have no doubt that you would have shown me how I could write this or that sentence in a better way. You would have insisted that I participate in the Gallaudet Literary Society, were it still in existence. The members held debates before three judges who decided which side had the stronger argument. Storytelling and poetry readings followed the debates. It would have been an extraordinary opportunity to grow intellectually and artistically in both English and ASL.
Oh, Mr. Teegarden, at times I don’t know when to stop writing. I find the computer a necessary evil. On one hand, I think it is the best thing that ever happened to writers. Complaints about how tiring it is to write in longhand or to punch manual typewriter keys have disappeared. Suddenly, there is no pain involved with writing nonstop. One no longer has to worry about getting to the bottom of the page or having to go back to the middle of a paragraph to put down that perfect sentence. On the other hand, the computer has made it too easy to ramble on about nothing in particular. We writers today do not know when to shut up. But you did know when and how to stop. I have come to believe that good writing these days is more about knowing when to stop than what to say. That is why I find your stories such a breath of fresh air—they are short, painless, and told with a sense of wonder. Also, the time-consuming reality of setting type in your day meant that your writing had to be precise before you turned it in. Your words were set in metal; a publisher couldn’t automatically repaginate if you cut a whole paragraph in the middle of a chapter.
It reminds me again that good writing is all about careful choice. The perfect adjective can do the work of three peppery adjectives, which, when placed together, leave a flat aftertaste. But you have gone further than mere word choice. You are deeply interested in moral choices, the very stuff of literature. Too few writers today explore moral choices in their work; it is almost as if the very concept is embarrassing. Mr. Teegarden, you are resolute in your moral views of the world and you condemn bad decisions without condemning the people involved.
The fact that you were deaf means a great deal to me because, like many deaf people, I am not from a deaf family in which members pass deaf cultural traditions down the generations. I agree with your friend George Veditz, the first leader of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), who understood the importance of preserving our cultural heritage in every way, including film. That is why I felt I had no choice but to learn how to shoot and edit movies. I did not do this because I think being a filmmaker is a cool profession in today’s media-oriented culture. (I can assure you that the long hours and the level of dogged persistence required is anything but cool.) I do this because I want to preserve something for the deaf child of the future who, even if fitted with cochlear implants, will learn that she lacks something in her life until she experiences the full power of being deaf and the joy of communicating through signing. Even though you lost your hearing at age 11, I would like to think that you feel the same way, that being deaf is totally fine.
This is where I stop short. You almost never mention deafness in your writing, let alone your own life-changing experience of losing your hearing. Granted, with your awareness of Deaf culture, it would seem a no-brainer to me for a writer like yourself to launch into lengthy discussions about your experiences growing up at the Iowa School for the Deaf, coming of age at Gallaudet, and working at the Western Pennsylvania School of the Deaf. I have not been able to find much mention of these experiences in your writing that I have seen to date. I think you did not discuss your deafness because you lived and worked primarily with deaf users of ASL and, therefore, your deafness wasn’t as much of an issue as it might otherwise have been. At first, I wondered whether you felt the same isolation as I sometimes have as a deaf writer, but I don’t think so. You had charge of a printery, and you also wrote for the school newspaper. You participated in what might be called “Deaf culture” today. You probably would be totally surprised by how deaf people regard themselves today—with justifiable pride. You also would have been pleased with the degree of research into our history, language, and culture present in academia today.
I am curious to know why you shifted your focus from writing stories to writing poetry after the publication of Stories, Old and New. I do not understand this because, frankly, some of the poetry is not particularly good or revelatory, even though you show good technique and command of meter. This reminds me of Thomas Hardy, who, when his great novels Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure horrified both readers and critics, decided that he would achieve better acceptance as a poet. He wrote a great deal of poetry, which he held in high regard. Unfortunately, most of it is not very good. I wonder if you were like Mr. Hardy in this respect. After all, you self-published your collection Vagrant Verses. It is unclear why you stopped writing short stories; the few you did write later appeared sporadically in the Western Pennsylvanian.
I have another quandary when trying to ascertain your true nature. You were born in 1852 and, therefore, came of age during the Victorian era when one did not talk directly about those things in life deemed unseemly. Or if one did, it was always couched in coded language that I must work to understand. Judging from your appearance—a stern-looking man with a mustache and a tight pair of wire-rimmed glasses—I think you probably would have felt extremely uncomfortable talking directly about sex and emotions. I note, however, that some of your stories are downright violent and nasty. Despite your seemingly stoic nature, you wrote the following letter as a token of your thanks to the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf upon your retirement.
To my Friends:
You “retired” me from the position I have held at this School for some years and you did it with gifts and kind words of commendation as one does to an old friend when he sets out on a long journey into unknown lands—expressions of appreciation and sincere friendship. For this I thank you.
True friends are those who encouragingly bear with one’s faults and shortcomings in thought and understanding and these I feel I have had in abundance. They have been an asset in the business of life and made it worthwhile so I can but feel that I have been abundantly blessed. Through the years of service here, I cannot remember one who has not “shown himself, or herself, friendly.”
A very wise man has said, “The making of friends, who are real friends, is the best token we have of a man’s success in life.” Judging by this standard, and by your expressions of esteem, I can feel, I have attained to a fair measure of success in life and I do appreciate the encouragement meted out by my friends.
Again I thank you one and all.
G. M. Teegarden8
This letter reflects your kind nature that comes through in your other writing. Fathers are often perceived as relics of an earlier time and, therefore, allegedly have little to offer their children except to inspire scorn, fear, and possibly, pain in their souls. Because men are supposed to be strong, burying their emotions deep inside creates an invincible facade. I wish I could know what you really felt growing up, especially after you lost your hearing and learned ASL at the Iowa School for the Deaf, but that is the psychobabble part of me seeking explanations for the mystery of you. I will never truly know the father figure you so clearly were except through the stories and poems in this book. I do know that your writings reflect your nature and inspired a great deal of affection and respect from generations of your students.
I sensed your omnipresence when I read your stories, yet I continue to have questions about you. Who were you to have penned these words? Why did you choose to tell these particular stories? And those poems, which seem designed to please more than anything? Even though you wrote many stories derived from the Bible, how did you come to hold such different worldviews? You are mysterious, Mr. Teegarden, and I am afraid that after being raised on today’s diet of instant tell-all, I find myself hungry to know you better. The stories and poems you published provide the slimmest of evidence of the man you were. I hope that future deaf writers will read your works and feel inspired to create a language of their own, knowing that you did it so well before.
Your writing was of such an understated achievement that I was compelled to put together a collection of your stories and poems. I imagine that you would feel embarrassed by my efforts if you were alive today. But fathers, when they do their job well, often remain unsung heroes.
Not so, George Moredock Teegarden. I sing to you now.
1. George M. Teegarden obituary. Reprinted in the Western Pennsylvanian (28 January 1937), 75.
2. Anne Scott MacLeod, American Childhood: Essays on Children’s Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1994), 89–91.
3. MacLeod, American Childhood, 91–92.
5. George Moredock Teegarden, “The Ugly Aunt,” in Stories: Old and New. (Edgewood Park, PA: The Institution for the Deaf, 1896), 10.
6. George Moredock Teegarden. Common Words in Different Senses (Edgewood Park: The Institution for the Deaf, n.d.), 26.
7. John Vickrey Van Cleve and Barry A. Crouch, A Place of Their Own: Creating the Deaf Community in America. (Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, 1989), 98.
8. George Moredock Teegarden, letter, Western Pennsylvanian, May 15, 1924.