Dancing Fingers

"At school Lisa wouldn’t participate in group activities. When children came with their mothers to her house, she’d set her dolls out for them to play with, then go off by herself."

During morning meeting, Lisa always sat by herself. She was an attractive, 5’2” brunette, with thick, clean hair that sometimes flopped down over her large eyes. She couldn’t speak, and her deafness was so profound that she didn’t respond even to loud sounds. So while the other clients listened, intermittently, to the roll call, announcements, and discussion, Lisa would glance nervously around the room, wiggling her fingers rapidly and continually as she rocked back and forth in her seat. When the meeting was over, she’d walk to the workfloor with hurried steps.

About a third of the clients at the Center were women, many of whom worked in the Sewing Department. The three areas that I supervised—first the Toy Department, then campground cleanup, then the Glass Department—were the dustier, more physical work areas. As a result, most of the clients assigned to my crews were men; Lisa was one of only a handful of women I supervised over a long period of time.

Lisa’s nervous hands thirsted for activity. Her first afternoon in the steelwooling area, she polished an unheard-of seven glasses. Several months later, when I transferred from steelwooling to grouting, I took Lisa with me, partly to give her a more challenging job, but also because I knew she could help me. From the beginning she was a superb grouter, better than any other client, working the grout with the deftness of a potter. I gave the other grouters one glass at a time, but I gave them to Lisa in groups of four. She’d set them in a row, then take each glass in turn, quickly applying the grout. When she finished the last one she’d return to the first, getting back to it before the grout had hardened. She’d go in order again, wiping the excess grout off and smoothing the top and bottom edges in her whirling hands. Then she’d rub hard and fast with the coarse steel wool, getting the glasses so clean that the final steelwoolers hardly had to touch them.

She brought her own coveralls each day and washed them at home each night. She always got right to work, and when she finished she’d sit patiently, not making a sound, not raising her hand, just looking at me with wide-open eyes, waiting for me to come check her glasses. The only time she broke her silence was if I showed her a spot where the grout had fallen out. Anxiously she’d rock in her chair, fixing the glass while emitting nervous gasps and peeps.

Some clients, like Cyrus, were highly sociable in spite of being nonverbal, but Lisa was not. She stayed to herself. She even shied away from eye contact unless she was being addressed. Lisa could understand what was said to her in gestures or sign language, but her own signing was limited to mimicking—i.e., repeating whatever the other person had just signed. She was as introverted around me as she was around everyone else, though on Monday mornings and Friday afternoons she always gave me a wave.

And we did have one extended dialogue. After she had been on my crew about a month, the academic schedule changed, giving her a class every day after lunch. The afternoon this went into effect, as the clients were leaving the lunchroom, I sent her to the classroom. Then I headed downstairs. Partway down, I realized she was following me. I turned and pointed upstairs. Shaking with laughter, she pointed upstairs also. I continued down the ramp, while she stayed ten or fifteen feet behind me. When I got to the steelwooling area she was dogging me still, so I marched over and pointed upstairs emphatically. I saw her pointed finger shoot straight up also, as though I were watching myself in the mirror. She turned and ran up the ramp, grinning and gasping, looking back several times. I was putting on my apron when her head reappeared, popping around the corner. She laughed and pointed upstairs frantically. I tossed my apron on the table, then led her back upstairs to her classroom.

The next two days we gave repeat performances. On the fourth day I pointed toward the classroom one time, and after that ignored her. I worked in the steelwooling area while Lisa remained nearby—grinning, gasping, pointing, retreating, and reappearing. Eventually she went upstairs, and after a few more days she started going directly to class. All the fun had gone out of it now that the dupe had wised up.

There were only two clients I ever saw her have any contact with. One, Alex, came from the School for the Deaf, where Lisa had also spent a number of years. He used crutches for walking, making him both slow and vulnerable. If they were going in the same direction, Lisa would sneak up from behind, goose him, then scamper by. Alex never paused, never jumped; he seemed to consider this just part of the normal course of things.

Ray was her other victim. He had recently gotten his first set of dentures and was having trouble adjusting to them; he’d remove them when it was time to eat, then gum his entire meal. At lunch he’d put his dentures on the table, and Lisa, sitting opposite him, would reach over and poke them. Ray would growl in protest; then Lisa would sit back, wiggling her fingers and grinning. A minute later she’d pounce again, and Ray—slow-moving and half-blind—could only flail his arms and cuss as he saw his teeth being nudged about. Eventually we moved Lisa to another table in order to give Ray a little peace and his teeth a little dignity.

Lisa was twenty-three years old and had always lived with her parents. She was the second of four children. Her mother, during her pregnancy with Lisa, contracted rubella, which can cause serious birth defects, including deafness and intellectual disabilities.

Her parents weren’t sure how to raise her. With a child who couldn’t hear, was it fair to punish her or make demands? Reluctant to discipline her, they were grateful for any compliance they got. Even at age four Lisa would run outside to urinate. One day her mother decided she’d had enough, and sat Lisa down on the toilet. Lisa screamed and fought, but her mother held her there for forty-five minutes, until she produced. The next day it took thirty minutes, and on the third day only ten. After that, Lisa used the toilet on her own.

Yet she continued to manipulate her parents. She was in charge of her own diet until age six, usually opting for Kool-Aid and mashed bananas; her parents were relieved that she ate at all. It was only when she entered the School for the Deaf that she learned she would either have to eat a solid food plus milk, or not eat. The school also made her use a knife and fork and spoon, instead of eating everything with her fingers. Her parents saw that the school had a dramatic effect on her behavior, and so themselves became more confident about setting limits.

Lisa found ways to resist, however. At age seven, any time her father was about to spank her, Lisa would pull down her underpants, causing him to back off. This worked twice with her mother as well, but the third time she let Lisa have it on her bare bottom, and that was the end of that.

Isolated by a cocoon of silence, Lisa usually played by herself. Occasionally she burned off energy by getting up in the middle of the night and riding her rocking horse. Her three brothers were her only playmates. Sometimes she ran into the living room, turned off their TV, and turned the radio on full blast, having learned how that dial could make them jump.

At school she wouldn’t participate in group activities, but when she got home she’d imitate things she had seen other kids doing. When children came with their mothers to Lisa’s house, she’d set her dolls out for them to play with, then go off by herself.

Lisa attended the School for the Deaf from ages six to seven, but then had to leave because the school felt it could not help her academically. Her deafness was complicated by her purportedly low intelligence—she never did learn to sign or read well—though the state institution in Boulder decided it wasn’t right for her, either. She stayed home for three years before the School for the Deaf agreed to take her back.

She remained there until age nineteen, when she came to the Center. Lisa became one of the mainstays of the Sewing Department, with fine eyes and sure hands and a fast foot on the pedal. Every three or four months, though, she’d let loose some horrendous shrieks, and after several years in sewing her outbursts intensified. Bored and frustrated, she began slashing the products she was working on, and one afternoon she picked up her sewing machine and seemed ready to drop it. Her supervisor ordered her to put it back on the table, which she did; but the next morning Lisa walked into the room and tossed her machine on the floor. A few weeks later she threw it out an open window.

Clearly she needed a change, so in early 1981 we transferred her to the Glass Department, where she became entrenched my last year at the Center. During that time she never once screamed or acted out in any way.

Lisa’s outbursts were directed at things, not people. She didn’t threaten anyone or try to hurt anyone. She really was a gentle person.

But she was also an electrified bundle of energy, and grouting, more than sewing, gave her the physical activity she needed. When the Sewing Department was inundated with orders in late 1981, we sent Lisa upstairs to help out for a couple of weeks. One morning she walked into the sewing room and was given the news: she could return to grouting. Her eyes widened and she shot off toward the ramp, grinning and gasping.

In the spring of 1982 Molly was the grouting supervisor, but one day when she was absent I supervised her crew, which included Lisa. At the end of the day I went outside, where the clients were waiting for their buses. It was a sunny but windy afternoon in the high forties, and everyone was huddled together near the door. When I ambled out to the driveway, though, I happened to glance around the west side of the building, and there sat Lisa, alone. She was sitting against the wall, bundled in her parka, soaking up sunshine and solitude. She seemed almost self-contained.

I walked over, squatted down, and signed, “Good work today.” She repeated my signs. As I left, she was excited, wiggling her fingers and smiling.

Molly had arranged the grouting area so that the top producers—Lisa, Ben, Jesse, and Leon—all sat at one table. Twice that day I looked over and saw that Ben, Jesse, and Leon had stopped working. Without saying a word, they watched open-mouthed as Lisa’s hands did what their hands did—but in a much higher gear. Lisa kept her eyes on her work except for occasional nervous glances at her strange, mesmerized admirers, who beheld with awe this silent woman and her flying fingers.

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