RANDI BARON LIVES IN TWO WORLDS — the silent one she's inhabited since birth and the noisy one she wasforced to grow up in.
For most of her 21 years, Randi could neverhear more than brief snippets of conversation. She tried to hide herdeafness and her reliance on lip reading, the least obtrusive -- andleast visible -- way of compensating for what her ears would not allow her to hear.
But now, at Gallaudet College in Washington, the former county student has learned to accept herself.
At Gallaudet, which is tailored for its deaf students, she has developed the self-esteem lacking for most of her life.
"Growing up, I never accepted myself," she says. "I felt out of place."
Randi looks perfectly in place now, skipping across a cement waterfall maze -- a favorite student shortcut to one of the coed dorms. Along the way, she greets friends and hugs her Alpha Sigma Theta sorority sisters.
Her brown curls shine in the sunlight as she points with pride to her room. Not that one has to look hard -- huge aqua, gray and white Greek letters extend across three windows of the dorm suite and are almost impossible to miss.
Unity -- whether among sorority sisters or the entire student body -- is a common theme on campus, where everyone speaks with their fingers.
"I am happier at Gallaudet than I have ever been. I understand now that I am not a strange person," she said during a daylong conference at the BWI Holiday Inn last month. The gathering was organized tohelp county administrators and teachers better serve disabled students.
Seated at a table with three other former county students, Randi participated in a workshop titled "Looking Back." During the discussion, she seemed to block out everyone except her interpreter and her mother.
"I've accepted having an interpreter," Randi said. "It helps. Instead of looking at every single person, I look at one to geteverything. If someone had a mustache or turned their head when theywere talking to me, I used to just nod even though I didn't get everything they said. Now, I have learned to say to them that I do not understand you."
Her volume unconsciously loud, her concentration focused, her legs crossed and head tilted to the side, Baron was not bothered by the attentive faces of teachers and principals. At Gallaudet, she has learned that it is OK to ask the hearing world to meet herhalfway.
As a student in Anne Arundel County, she declined interpreters, afraid that she would draw attention. She finally settled foran amplification system connected to a microphone worn around the neck of her teachers.
But today at Gallaudet, she appears unrelentingly normal, gossiping about male students and upcoming tests and caring for the small pet she is baby-sitting in her room.
In fact, it is the "normal" visitors who must struggle to fit in among all the content and relaxed faces. But students are happy to accommodate those who do not speak their language.
Seated on her dorm room floor, Randi translates the conversation with roommate Michelle Ferris.
"She wants to know if I will go on a double date," Randi explains. Her reply? "I don't know, I have to study."
(Privately, Randi complainsthat there are too few males on campus. "I don't like that," she says, then flashes her infectious smile.)
The girls' suite, which includes three bedrooms and a shared bathroom, is filled with pictures of dolphins -- the sorority mascot. Numerous pictures of friends and family, reminders of home, are scattered throughout.
Randi scurriesacross campus, trying to make her biology lecture in time. On the way, she stops to speak to biology lab instructor Elizabeth Gillespie about making up an exam.
Her teacher gives in, and Randi hurries down the hall to class -- just in time for yet another exam.
Coming to Gallaudet has done more than give Randi confidence. It's given hera career goal. Baron has decided to become a therapist, helping others on the road to recovery.
"Before I didn't know what I wanted inlife," she says. "Now I've finally found it."
Randi's mother, Ellen Baron, credits the county school system with preparing her daughter academically. But Gallaudet, she says, helped Randi accept herself.
"I know, academically, she was prepared from attending schools inAnne Arundel county," Mrs. Baron says. "More prepared than many of the students who were not mainstreamed. I felt she had an excellent education. She is now telling us that since she's been at Gallaudet, she's learning to feel good about herself by seeing other (deaf) students.
"It's hard to know what is going to be best for you child," Mrs. Baron adds. "You get different advice. As a parent, you make mistakes."
But Randi doesn't talk about mistakes. Instead, she talks about personal growth and coming into her own. The girl who used to sitat the lunch table at Arundel Senior, nodding and smiling even though she could not hear entire conversations, is gone now.
Her adviceto county school officials? While she agrees with mainstreaming, disabled students should be offered mentors with similar disabilities tohelp them understand that they are not alone.
"Remember when you asked us if you were the only deaf person?" Randi's mother asks. "Deaf people are coming into their own in today's society and feel they don't have to fit into our ideas of what life is."
With her academic preparation in hand, the popular student is developing a side of herself that had long sat dormant and in need of nurturing -- a side Baron and others like her will need if they are to be truly mainstreamed into society.
She knows her options are greater than many of hercollege friends, whose hearing loss is far more severe. But she mustfirst learn to accept herself -- an education that is taking place in Washington, where Randi Baron has learned that being deaf also means being normal.