Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keefee - Hands, 1919, Photograph
Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keefee – Hands, 1919, Photograph

Aneta, my American Sign Language (ASL) teacher, dropped her bags onto the carpeted floor of Barnes and Noble, immediately making herself at home. She signed that I should find a picture book and then meet her in the corner of the section. I browsed the lines of stories and finally settled upon Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. I walked over to the far side of the store where Aneta sat at the base of one of the windows. Tucked in the corner of the children’s section, we began our lesson. Aneta signed that I should tell the story in ASL, I started to sign: Once there was a tree, and she loved a little boy.

I stopped signing when I noticed Aneta shaking her head disapprovingly. What had I done wrong? She sipped her coffee, holding up her index finger to indicate I would momentarily get an explanation. In ASL, you become part of the story, she signed.She glanced at the first page of the book, then “read” it correctly. She raised her arms in the air, swaying ever so slightly, the way a grand oak might lean almost imperceptibly in a silky wind. Then clutching her hands near her heart, eyebrows crinkled with tenderness and lips pouting sweetly, she mimed love for the little boy. She then turned to me and signed, do you understand? I nodded, turning the book to the next page. The text read, “Come boy, come and climb up my trunk and swing from my branches.” I waved my arms above me, the way Aneta did, letting my fingers wriggle in the air. I walked two fingers, two “legs,” up my arm, then swept them, curled at the knuckles, back and forth, to show the boy swinging from the tree’s long limbs. Aneta nodded cheerfully and then took on the next sentence: “eat apples and play in my shade.” She bent her hand over at the wrist, spreading her fingers apart to provide the boy shade, and then mimed his reaching up to pluck red apples from the tree’s firm but gnarled branches. She pretended to be the boy, squinting at the ceiling as if it were a blinding sun. She then started to twist and pull the fruit from the tree and pile the pieces into a round basket. I smiled in awe: this was a new form of ASL that I had never seen before. It was like a dance.

Aneta and I kept reading and we frequently shifted ourselves into the story. The time passed rapidly. Just as we reached the last page of the book, I glanced up to see two bookstore employees approaching us. I heard their labored breathing before they arrived, but Aneta didn’t notice them until one rudely poked her shoulder.

We were sitting cross-legged on the floor, so the workers towered above us. “EX­CUSE ME,” one scolded deliberately and sternly, the way an adult might chasten a toddler.

“YOU NEED TO LEAVE. THIS IS THE CHILD­REN’S SEC­TION.” I turned to “translate” for Aneta but she didn’t even look in my direction. She just signed back to them confidently, okay, okay; we have ten minutes left of our lesson. I wondered why she didn’t write a note to them if she had understood their message. I had seen her write down her coffee orders for hearing people before. One of the salesmen nudged the other, who just stood there, confused. My heart beat quickly as my muscles tensed. One of the workers shrugged in my direction. I wanted to say something, demand an explanation. Were we breaking the law? We weren’t speaking, after all, and we were making no noise. Where was their manager? Maybe I should have just yelled, “No, we won’t move!” But the blood rushed to my cheeks and the drumming of my breath prevented me from speaking. As the workers turned abruptly on their heels, I heard one mutter to the other, “They’re gonna scare away the customers.” I inhaled sharply, but they were gone before I thought to shout back, “I heard that! I’m not deaf you know! And what’s so scary about sign language anyway?” I angrily turned to Aneta who was calmly choosing a new book. I had to tell her what they said! Make her aware of the affront. Pulse racing, I moved my hands to break the news.

Aneta giggled. She took a long and casual swig of her iced coffee, sugar dotting the side of the cup like frost, laughed again, and signed: they think we’re stupid! Stupid? Aneta? Aneta who writes award­ winning slam poetry. Aneta, who, because she is so acutely attuned to facial expression, can instantly tell if someone has had a bad day. Aneta, who teaches hearing and deaf people to appreciate a different kind of “sound” in the world—the virtual kind, the visual kind, the shapes, movements, and patterns that are simultaneously messy, dynamic, and harmonious.

She opened to the first page of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, and pointed to the first sentence: “at the far end of town where the Grickle-grass grows and the wind smells slow—and—sour when it blows and no birds ever sing, excepting old crows….” My eyes widened, my heart slowed, and the dance began again.