Teaching the Unteachable
For the first 27 years of his life, Ildefonso lived in isolation. No, he wasn’t in solitary confinement or on a desert island. He was born totally deaf and never even learned that there was such a thing as language.
When Ildefonso was a boy, his Mexican-Indian family wrote him off as unteachable. During his mid-20s, he was taken to a special-needs center in Los Angeles, California. Several teachers tried to educate him, but they also thought he was unteachable.
Then came Susan Schaller.
When Schaller first met Ildefonso, he was sitting in a corner of a classroom. “His face looked like a painting from a Mexican mural with wild black eyes above high cheekbones,” she wrote in A Man Without Words.
She approached him, and in sign language, said, “Hello, my name is Susan.” Ildefonso looked at her and signed back: “Hello, my name is Susan.” Schaller shook her head and signed: “No, I’m Susan.” He responded: “No, I’m Susan.”
This continued for several minutes. Everything she said, he mimicked. But Schaller was sure she saw intelligence in his eyes. “There was a bewilderment and fear in his look, and something else as well—alertness, intensity and yearning,” she wrote.
She soon realized that his mimicking her meant he didn’t understand that she was using signs to convey ideas. She realized that he didn’t know language existed.
The enormity of this is hard to grasp. For us who use language to formulate every thought and convey every idea, the concept of languagelessness is almost incomprehensible.
Ildefonso didn’t know he was deaf or that sound existed. His whole life, he’d seen people’s mouths moving. He saw others responding to those movements, but thought everyone else figured it out visually. He thought, I don’t get it, so I must be stupid.
Schaller was convinced he wasn’t stupid. For hours a day, she would try teaching him signs. For hours a day, he would fail to understand. It went on for weeks.
Although they were only inches apart, Schaller said they might as well have been on different planets. She wondered if he was too old to be helped. Maybe he’d been languageless for too long. She considered giving up.
But she persevered. “I refused to accept the idea of hopelessness,” she wrote.
After several fruitless weeks, Schaller had an idea.
She sat Ildefonso on the classroom’s edge. Then she placed an empty chair across from herself. She stopped talking to Ildefonso and spoke only to the empty chair. To the chair, she would hold up a picture of a cat, and explain the word cat.
Then she would hop into the other chair and pretend to be Ildefonso. She would pretend to finally understand. With facial expressions, she would demonstrate: I get it! This motion of the hand is a symbol representing that furry animal!
Schaller went back and forth, playing both student and teacher. Ildefonso watched it all from the sidelines. This continued for days. Ildefonso often looked bored.
One day, as Schaller was signing cat to the invisible Ildefonso for the hundredth time, she saw the actual Ildefonso shift.
“Suddenly, he sat up, straight and rigid, his head back and his chin pointing forward,” she wrote. “The whites of his eyes expanded as if in terror.”
Ildefonso had broken through! He realized that the idea of a cat in one person’s mind could join the idea of a cat in another person’s head—just by signing the word cat.
He surveyed the room and understood that everything has a name. He slapped his hands on the table and looked at Schaller. She signed table. He understood. He pointed to the door. She said door. He understood.
After a few minutes of rapid learning, Ildefonso realized what this meant. He collapsed on his desk sobbing. He saw the prison he had lived in for 27 years. He saw that he’d been cut off from society. He understood why he’d always felt so isolated.
It was emotional for student and teacher, but they soldiered on. After the breakthrough, teaching Ildefonso to speak was easy. He was intelligent, eager to learn, and passionate about language.
Schaller saw that her work was done. She left Ildefonso to keep learning with other teachers.
When she visited him five years later, Ildefonso was fluent in American Sign Language, and could read and write English proficiently. She asked him to describe what his world had been like before that breakthrough.
The question unsettled Ildefonso. He said he was incapable of thinking in the dark way he used to. He didn’t remember what his thoughts were for those 27 years. He said he couldn’t discuss that “dark time.”
A rich lesson lies in this story. In most roles in our lives—as husbands and wives, as fathers and mothers, as siblings, friends, employees—we will be more valuable if we are more effective teachers. Sometimes those whom we teach might have major barriers to learning, and we as teachers may need to dismantle those barriers.
We will often need phenomenal drive, patience, resourcefulness and perseverance, like Schaller had with Ildefonso. If we use these tools, we will be better able to enrich the lives of others. We might even be able to teach the unteachable.