Md. School for Deaf gets first deaf chief

July 26, 1992|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Staff Writer

FREDERICK -- Ask James E. Tucker for a brief history of the Maryland School for the Deaf, and he takes you back to the early 1800s and the founding of the country's first school for the deaf in Hartford, Conn.

Ask him how the Maryland School for the Deaf educates its students, and he runs you through the entire history of deaf education in the world.

Mr. Tucker is effusive as he talks about deaf people and their history. He says educating the public is a primary mission in his new job as superintendent of the Maryland School for the Deaf.

He is the first deaf person to head the school in its 125-year history.

He has been deaf since birth. His parents are deaf, and he has a deaf brother and sister. His wife is deaf, and so are her parents. But don't offer Mr. Tucker your sympathy. He doesn't want it. He doesn't merit it, he says. "I never liked the word disabled," he says. "I never considered myself disabled." And he says: "Deaf people are capable of anything."

His statement echoes I. King Jordan's famous pronouncement during Gallaudet University's Deaf President Now protest in 1988: "Deaf people can do anything -- except hear."

Mr. Tucker played a major role in the protest that temporarily shut down Washington's university for deaf students. He was one of six adults who directed the protest behind the scenes. The weeklong revolution resulted in the appointment of I. King Jordan as the world's first deaf university president. It also launched a worldwide civil rights movement of deaf people.

Mr. Tucker, then a 29-year-old English teacher at Gallaudet, rode that "renaissance wave," as he calls it, to his new job, which he began two weeks ago.

During a wide-ranging, three-hour interview in his office in Frederick, he is effervescent as he talks through an interpreter about his ambitious plans for Maryland's deaf children, his own deafness, those historic days at Gallaudet, and the often-trampled rights of deaf people.

"We wish to lead our own destinies," he says. "For so many years Gallaudet was like South Africa. Deaf students were ruled by hearing people. I believe the majority should rule."

Roland Steiner, head of the search committee that hired Mr. Tucker, says the committee did not set out expressly to hire a deaf superintendent, but that it did want a superintendent who could communicate clearly with deaf people.

Mr. Tucker's age was a concern initially, Mr. Steiner says. Mr. Tucker is 33, although he's quick to point out he turns 34 in November.

Mr. Steiner says committee members spoke to Mr. Tucker's colleagues, who said he was always young for the job he held, but that he always exceeded expectations.

Muriel Strassler, director of public relations at Gallaudet, says she often selected Mr. Tucker -- "Jamie," she calls him -- as a spokesman for the university. "People can relate to him beautifully; people just love him," she says. "But he brings another important quality to the job.

"Because he's deaf himself, he provides an excellent role model for deaf students. They can look up to him and say, 'I can do anything. I can even become superintendent.' "

The Maryland School for the Deaf has campuses in Frederick and Columbia. About 100 students, many with multiple handicaps, attend the Columbia campus, and about 230 go to school in Frederick.

Mr. Tucker says one of his goals is to enlighten the public about the school. It is not an institution. It is a state-funded public school with cheerleaders, athletics, drama productions and vocational and academic programs.

But the state has cut funding the past two years, from $14.6 million in 1990 to $12.5 million this year. The school has terminated 28 workers and delayed starting new programs.

Mr. Tucker says: "I pray our economy picks up. Right now we're running on bare bones." He says he would like to see the Maryland School for the Deaf take responsibility for all deaf children in the state, not just the ones who attend the school beginning when they're 4 or 5 years old.

He says 95 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents. Most hearing parents don't know sign language or anything about deafness. They've never even heard of the Maryland School for the Deaf.

"We are seeing human wreckage every day," he says. "We are seeing deaf babies not obtaining language and culture the first five years of their lives. Can you imagine yourself growing up the first five years of your life in a closet?"

Mr. Tucker wants to set up satellite offices around the state that would teach hearing parents and their deaf babies about deafness. Most important, the babies would learn sign language, he says.

"Deaf babies can see, so teach them through their eyes," he says. "Once they develop a language base, you can teach them anything."

Mr. Tucker began learning to sign when he was 10 or 11 months old, he says. But then he attended an elementary school that banned sign language and expected him to read lips -- an impossible task for a student, he says.

After the eighth grade he transferred to the Austine School for the deaf in Vermont. For the first time he understood his teacher.

Then he attended Gallaudet University, the Mecca for deaf students. He also studied American Sign Language at San Diego's Salk Institute.

Mr. Tucker eventually returned to Gallaudet to teach English. After the Deaf President Now protest he became director of admissions.

As a high school student at the Austine School, Mr. Tucker was a star athlete. His senior year he was deaf All-American in basketball.

He remembers his last game. It was the state playoffs against a hearing school. His team lost, but he scored about 25 points. A local sports reporter featured him.

He doesn't remember the exact words that started the story, but it read something like: "He scored. The crowd roared. But he couldn't hear it." That offended him. It still does. "I scored, and the hearing defense couldn't stop me," he says. "That should have been the story."

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