At certain times throughout history, fate has brought together people who were able to do great things together, their collaborations pushing them individually to great heights. Lennon and McCartney. Jobs and Wozniak. Twain and Tesla.
Perhaps lesser-known to many hearing Americans is a partnership that happened by fortunate accident but would go on to shape an educational system, a language, and eventually, an entire culture: that of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc, founders of the first permanent school for the deaf in the United States.
Laurent Clerc, born December 26, 1785 in the south of France, became deaf as a young child and spent his early years uneducated, with little to no communication with his hearing family members. Finally, when he was twelve years old, an uncle convinced Clerc’s parents to send him to a well-known school for the deaf in Paris, the first public school for the deaf in the world. At the school, Clerc quickly learned French Sign Language, reading, writing, philosophy, mathematics and more – so quickly that after just eight years of schooling he became a tutor and was hired as a teacher one year later. In 1815, Clerc was selected to travel to England with the head of the Paris school for a series of demonstrations of his teaching methods – a trip that would change history.
That’s because in attendance at one of those demonstrations was Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a hearing man and minister from Hartford, Connecticut who had travelled to England to research deaf education methods for a proposed school for the deaf in the United States. He had originally come to study at the Braidwood School, an institution that focused exclusively on speech and speechreading, but had been frustrated by the Braidwood family’s refusal to share their methods. When he attended the presentation by the French educators, Gallaudet knew that he had found what he needed for the American school. The Frenchmen invited Gallaudet back to Paris with them.
Gallaudet soon ran out of money, and recognized that he still had not learned enough to start the school on his own. He entreated Laurent Clerc to return to the United States with him, and Clerc, moved by the plight of the uneducated deaf children in America, agreed, abandoning the cultured halls of Paris for the wilds of the New World.
On their fifty-two day sea voyage across the Atlantic, Clerc taught Gallaudet French Sign Language, and Gallaudet taught Clerc to read and write English. In 1817, they opened the first permanent school for the deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. Some students came from the nearby island of Martha’s Vineyard, a community with its own established deaf community and sign language. Most students came from hearing families where they had eked out a few “home signs”, gestures to communicate enough to get by. But all found themselves in a rich community where Clerc’s French Sign Language blended with the signs brought by his students, forming early American Sign Language and the roots of American Deaf Culture as we know it today.
Clerc and Gallaudet went on to establish or help establish schools for the deaf in many other states, and both devoted their lives to deaf education. In December 1974, DC Public Library established Clerc-Gallaudet Week as a way of honoring Clerc and Gallaudet’s birthdays (December 26, 1785 and December 10, 1787, respectively) and promoting library awareness in the deaf community and deaf awareness in the library community.
To learn more about Clerc and Gallaudet, check out these links:
- Laurent Clerc: Apostle to the Deaf People of the New World: http://www.gallaudet.edu/clerc_center/welcome/laurent_clerc_the_man.html
- Laurent Clerc (1785-1869): http://www.lifeprint.com/asl101/topics/clerc_laurent_7.htm
- Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet: http://www.gallaudet.edu/dpn_home/thomas_hopkins_gallaudet.html
- Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet: http://www.lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-layout/gallaudet-thomas-hopkins3.htm