Letter to the Editor: ASL in the ’90s

To the Editor,

My name is Alek (Friedman) Lev ’97, and I’m responding to “Signs of the Times” by Himeka Curiel. It’s wonderful to learn about the ASL classes to be taught by Assistant Professor of the Practice in American Sign Language Pedro Pascual. Students will benefit from his expertise and it’s crucial that ASL be taught by Deaf teachers. In the article, however, Curiel notes that ASL courses “have been offered since 2001,” which isn’t quite correct. ASL classes go back at least to the 1990s, and I know this because I took them, and they changed the course of my life.

Going into the spring of my freshman year, somewhere in early 1994, a friend of mine (Mia Lobel ’97, podcast producer extraordinaire) offhandedly mentioned that she was taking ASL, and hey, I should try it. “Okay,” I said, which marked the fewest number of syllables ever used that ultimately would lead to a skill, a profession, an opera, a film, and a wife.

So that spring, I took ASL 1. (That’s what we called it, anyway. Technically it was “Group Tutorial, Undergraduate 412” given credit/no credit for 0.5 credits.) As with all Spring semesters of this iteration of Wes ASL classes, it was taught only by teaching assistants who would lead a full-length class on Mondays and then would each take a TA session with a smaller group later in the week. Mind you, there were seven or eight teaching assistants, each typically with eight to 10 students in their charge. Some back-of-the-envelope math tells us that, yes, there were regularly more than 60 students in the ASL 1 class. In fact, the statistics we were given were that one in every six Wes students at the time took ASL 1. It was popular. We are talking ultimate frisbee popular. We are talking hacky sack popular. And I was particularly lucky. In my semester, we had two Deaf TAs in the class: one (Danny Lacey ’96) was my section TA, and the other was Amy Pollick ’96 who, in the course of human events, I started dating, and am friends with to this day.

In the fall, the course was taught by its coordinator, the late Professor Norm Shapiro. To quote from an article in the Wesleyan Connection:

“Shapiro arrived at Wesleyan in 1960 after receiving his BA and MA from Harvard University, completing a Fulbright Fellowship at Université d’Aix-Marseille in France, and returning to Harvard for his PhD. He stepped down from regular duties in 2017 but continued in his roles as Distinguished Professor of Literary Translation and Poet in Residence.”

He was hearing and had taken ASL courses with a man named Adrian Blue (whom I would later meet, and in whose house, years later, I would shoot a horror film; a story for another day), and when he was confident enough in his skills, Norm created the ASL program.

I’m writing this because while it is definitely time that a Deaf professor teach American Sign Language, I want to honor and thank Norm Shapiro, who passed away on April 3, 2020, at the age of 89, for the work he did to bring signing to hundreds, if not thousands, of students over the years. And for me personally, it changed everything. I started in ASL 1, then went on to intern, study, and then tour with the National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD) which at the time was centered in Chester, Connecticut, just a bit down the road from Middletown. (NTD’s first public performance in 1968 was at Wesleyan’s ’92 Theater, and its artistic director in the mid-90s was Will Rhys, a graduate of Wesleyan.) I became (and still am) a nationally certified ASL interpreter. I’ve interpreted everywhere: in classrooms, boardrooms, and emergency rooms. I’ve interpreted for presidents, Broadway shows, a Rhodes Scholar touring China, and for a dude trying to defraud the American government of 9/11 benefits. Signing takes you everywhere.

And I’ve combined the ASL that I began at Wes with the other paths of my life: film and theater. I’ve gotten to interpret and act with Deaf West Theatre here in Los Angeles, and I recently directed the film WHAT?, which was made by Deaf investors, Deaf producers, a Deaf cinematographer, and mostly Deaf cast. I even just co-directed an opera with a Deaf and hearing cast. I’m telling you. Everywhere.

Norm: Thank you for everything you did in those years prior to 2001; you brought so much joy to so many people. (Wesleyan also occasionally brought in outside folks to teach ASL 2. I was one of ’em.) All that said, we all know now what Deaf people have always known: American Sign Language needs to be taught by Deaf teachers. Learning ASL is not like learning French. When you learn ASL, it must be done with reverence for the language, and an understanding of the oppression that the language itself suffered (in 1880, an international conference in Milan dictated that all education for the Deaf be taught using the “oral method” and sign language was banned worldwide in schooling for decades upon decades), and the generations of Deaf individuals who thus suffered as well, and who have been fighting exclusion and discrimination ever since, right up until today. When you learn ASL, you are asking to participate in the very heart of Deaf culture, and that isn’t a permission that should be granted by hearing people. Not anymore. Not even hearing people like me who are firmly a part of the Deaf community. I may be part of the family, but I’m an in-law at best, and it’s not my place to unlock the door for other visitors.

So, I’m ever grateful to Professor Shapiro. Signing and Deaf Culture—and Deaf artists in particular—have become a daily part of my life. And back at the National Theater of the Deaf, which it only ever occurred to me to check out because of Norm’s class, I met another hearing person, fluent in ASL, who loved the language and toured with the group. Five years later, I married her. Thanks, Norm.

And now I’m absolutely thrilled for Professor Pascual, for Wesleyan, and for the students who will benefit for years to come.

Alek (Friedman) Lev
Class of ’97

Editor’s Note: The article has been updated accordingly.