WASHINGTON — When I was in high school, there was a girl I really liked. But I was afraid to approach her because, in my cartoonish romantic imagination, she resembled Veronica from Archie and I resembled Poindexter, the little dweeb from Felix the Cat who always wore a graduation cap and had no discernible libido.
To give myself an edge in the pursuit of this girl, I decided to learn everything I could about her, which turned out to include that she was studying to be an interpreter for the deaf. So I went to the library and learned to sign a few simple words. And the next time I ran into her in the hallway, I hand-signaled what I'd intended to be a friendly greeting. Afterward, as I was standing there alone, I realized that what I had signed was not "Hi" with an exclamation point after it, but "Ho," with a finger pointing at her.
I never again entirely trusted sign language, which became a problem a few weeks ago when I spoke to a writing class at Gallaudet, a college for the deaf.
I was excited to get this invitation, because I figured that for the first time in my life I wouldn't have to be self-conscious about my voice. My voice is oddly high, and because I am also a Jew from the Bronx, I sound like a eunuch with a kazoo up his nose.
And, true enough, no one heard my voice — as far as the deaf were concerned, I sounded like James Earl Jones. But I did manage to make a fool of myself in other ways. Suffice it to say that it took me a few hours to learn a few basics about speaking to the deaf through a sign-language interpreter.
1. To be understood, YOU DO NOT NEED TO SPEAK LOUDER, or enunciate elaborately, or gesture extravagantly as though you were Shojo, the drunken orangutan character of Japanese theater. And if you do these things, deaf people will find you amusing even when you are not trying to be.
2. You have to get used to people not looking at you when you speak — instead, they are looking at the interpreter beside you. I know this should be an easy concept to master, and it probably is for most people, but my ego kept getting in the way. I kept wanting to say, "Hey, bozos, the show's over here!" which in addition to being impolite would have made no sense anyway, in translation.
3. You have to trust the interpreter, because you realize you are entirely at her mercy. This is particularly hard if you are a natural wiseass, because you know that if you were an interpreter, you would be unable to avoid the occasional prank, such as interpreting "It is important not to overuse adverbs" into "I have three nipples."
Overall, my speech went well. For one thing, the students were smart, interesting and engaged. For another, I felt as though my entire life had been structured to get me to that moment, allowing me to tell my favorite joke to that particular audience. I told it:
A Cosa Nostra godfather summons his bookkeeper. Because the bookkeeper is deaf, his bookkeeper's cousin comes, too, to act as an interpreter.
The don says to the bookkeeper: "There's $5 million missing, and I think you know where it is." The cousin interprets this, and the agitated bookkeeper signs his answer back, which the cousin interprets: "He says he doesn't know anything about this! He says he'd never steal a penny from you, Godfather!"
The don reaches into a pocket and produces a gun, which he lays on the table.
"Tell him to tell me where the money is, or I will blow his brains out right now."
The cousin signs this. The bookkeeper frantically signs back: "It's in a suitcase in the attic of my summerhouse in Montauk."
And the cousin says: "He says you don't got the guts."
Gene Weingarten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.