Note from Uncle Dale: Sometimes You Need to Walk Away

I am sitting on a plane on the last leg of an 11 day family vacation. Nope not a typo. Eleven.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Actually it was. They call vacations like this “the trip of a lifetime,” mainly, I have learned, because you only want to do it once!

My older kids are in college and getting married and so this was the last chance we may have to get out of town with just our own little unit.

Travel has been very important to us as a family. When my oldest was 15 my lovely bride, Aunt SuperTam, started to see the short time we had together and said “we need to take more vacations as a family! We need to have those memories!” In a strange way that is what has driven much of my professional life since. We recall our family vacations with tag lines like “was that RID or NAD?” and “at which college were you guest lecturing when we…”.

This past 11 days was a rare pure vacation (ok one dinner meeting with a Computational Linguist. But that dinner was a pure joy. I have not seen Dan in far too many years and I realize I do not want that many years to pass again before I spend an evening in the presence of his brilliance. That is not hyperbole. And, to be honest I pre-taped an on-line workshop… but that was three hours out of the 11 days).

ANYWAY.

For 11 days I walked away. I had no email access by choice, no phone or text access for half the time because I was at sea. I walked away.

But.

Everywhere I went I found myself doing the “Sign Scan.” My eyes constantly darted around the crowd, on the ship, in the theme parks, always seeking the marked handshape and intentional movement that sets off my ‘Deaf’dar.

I caught it only once while we were boarding a ride and group of family and friends who are Deaf were exiting. We had a hasty “Deaf? Nope hearing, interpreter. Whq eyebrows “you where you?” We exchanged States and the flow of the crowd carried them away. I saw them only once after that. The ride had a feature that allowed recently disembarking riders to spray current riders with water. They hung out to make sure to baptize our new and brief meeting. We flashed 🤟’s all around and they were gone. (Full disclosure, I also had one encounter with hearing hands as well. At one of the theme parks we visited two ASL students from a local college saw the “Rule One” shirt I was wearing-I stand by my swag!-and they asked me, in ASL with hands that could not yet think for themselves, if I “got it from the Uncle Dale’s Rules Blog.” I replied, “kinda.” They both looked at me with WHq eyebrows. I explained, “shirt? Uncle Dale himself give-me himself.” They smiled and both signed, “lucky!” and were gone. I agree. I am lucky).

After the brief at-a-distance meeting with the Deaf family my wife laughed and asked if I felt “better now.”

I did.

I miss ASL when I am away from it, even briefly.

On the first day of our cruise I presented myself to guest services and told them I am a certified ASL interpreter. I explained that I did not know if there were any persons who are Deaf aboard and was not expecting them to tell me, but I wanted them to know I was around if there was an emergency and to let them know that I would be willing and able if needed. I do that in situations where there are large crowds and the possibility of an emergency. It has nothing to do with Deafness or even ASL. It comes from the one and only time I have ever needed to use my CPR training. But that is a story for another time.

This story is about walking away from interpreting. Now I am well aware that Rule 73 states that it is not possible to walk away from interpreting; like the mafia once you’re in you have to die to get out (the fact that I interpret now is proof of that Rule’s truth).

However, at one time or another each of us stands at the threshold and says “never again.”

If you are aghast and saying to me, “Not me! Never! I would never walk away from interpreting or ASL!” Remember, if you are reading this your long life is not yet over. If you have walked away and you are reading this… you left, but you couldn’t leave it alone, could you. Grin.

For those who can’t imagine the idea of walking away I give you this basic truth, you can only visit a land that is not your own for so long before you have to go home. (CODAs, you have dual citizenship. Having never been a CODA I cannot speak to your experience, I can only rely on my observations and I have seen many CODAs take long long walks in the hearing world pausing only occasionally to check-in with their Deaf family at “home.” But again I can only speak from my center not yours).

For the non-CODAs, sooner or later something gets to you. Vicarious trauma, crisis fatigue, or, as it was for me, the emotional distress caused by my consistent proximity to social injustice just wore me out and clouded my judgment.

For many years I worked as a staff interpreter for the State agency. I was sent to interpret in court, or at the jail or at prison. A lot. For a while not a day went by that I was not at one of those three venerable institutions. I was a witness to institutionalized audism that still makes me shudder.

I saw judges and lawyers make agreements before they consulted the Deaf client, before they ever called me in. My job was to interpret while they told the Deaf Client the fate they had decided without the Deaf Client’s input. I interpreted for judges ordering Deaf Clients to parenting classes that I knew would refuse to provide interpreters, or inaccessible drug programs or anger management treatment when the Deaf Client had every right to be angry! I interpreted while Deaf inmates were denied treatment programs because they were “not set up to deal with special needs.” I interpreted for inmates denied parole because of their “attitude” which meant they did not follow the CO’s commands-because they could not understand them. I found it harder and harder to hold onto even the myth of neutrality.

Then came the case.

I will spare you the gory details but at its core was a child for whom a day of just physical abuse was a vacation. When the first report of suspected abuse came through intake someone wrote DEAF in large black letters on the file. It was then passed from investigator to investigator, each of whom apparently thought “I don’t know where to begin, someone else would surely be better suited. So, the report sat, uninvestigated, for years. The damage to this child’s body and soul compounded daily until someone was finally ordered to follow up after an audit.

That case changed me. I was done saying “someone should do something” and decided someone was going to be me.

And that was it. I quit interpreting and went to law school. I walked away with no plan that I would never return.

Ready? I am about to confess a sin. Ready? There was at least one Deaf student (or more) in my law school class.

I kept my hands in my pockets. I hid.

I needed to be single minded on law school. I did not want to be sucked back in or distracted because I had never met a “PLEASE FOR ME” I could turn down. I walked away. For my first year of law school. I hid (except from my train posse… that is also another story).

Just as my second year was beginning I was walking across campus and I passed a Deaf friend from Utah… it took me a second to remember that we were in Boston. We looked at each other so out of context and both of us came to our senses at the same time. After hugs and catch-up (he didn’t know I was in law school. He was in a distance learning grad program and had to be on campus for three weeks each year) we decided to grab lunch. He had a quick stop he had to make, so we walked and talked and suddenly I found myself in the office of Accessibility Services for the University. I walked straight into a group of Interpreters who had seen me, often, but had no idea I was fluent. I was caught. A minute or so later the interpreter coordinator stepped out of her office and gave me a combination death-stare & come-here finger. That was it. I was back in. Before I left I had my schedule for the next semester.

You know what? It was different.

It was fun again.

I had balance. I could feel the joy of interpreting when I was dressed in the solid dark colored shirt and fight all of those social injustices when I put on my lawyer tie.

I am not saying that it has not been without its bumps and knocks. I have to jealously guard the wall between my roles; turning down appointments and referring legal clients to avoid conflicts. However, as I said, what I found was balance.

Wow. I did not start this Note with the intent of writing So You Don’t Want to be an Interpreter Anymore (nothing but love to Bob and Janice).

My intent was to say sometimes even jobs you love can burn you out. And sometimes you have to walk away. Sometimes for a little while and sometimes with the intent that it be forever. But remember, forever is a long long time. There are very few actual forevers in this life.

I love to interpret. It blessed my life every day I can do it. But I could not say that if I had not walked away and gotten my head and heart together.

Sometimes you have to walk away. There is no shame in it. Sometimes you come back and there is only joy in that.

Rule 431

Dear Mentor,

My ITP taught me how to interpret, but you taught me to be an interpreter.

Thank you.