Train Go Sorry by Leah Hager Cohen

When I added Train Go Sorry to my TBR, I wasn’t sure what it would be about, but I knew I wanted to read it. The phrase “train go sorry” was the first idiom I learned in ASL. The sign for the train going looked, to me, like the perspective lessons I received in drawing class, with two lines converging at the vanishing point. Connections between ASL and art and literature always take me aback, and when I describe why I want to be an interpreter, I think about my background in crafting stories and my younger years as an artist. I don’t think I’ve shared too much about my art here, so I may have to do that after we finally get settled in at the house. Currently, most artworks are stored safely so we can decide where to hang them on our newly-repaired and painted walls.

Upon getting Leah Hager Cohen’s (she/her) book, I realized it is nonfiction. Part memoir, part observation, Train Go Sorry was published in 1995 during a time when, according to Hager Cohen, schools for D/deaf children were facing unique challenges. In the opening, the author notes that Train Go Sorry is largely from observation; she tried to be uninvolved in situations unless she felt she needed to step in as interpreter. Because interpreters are bound by a code of ethics that forbids them from repeating what happened in an interpreting situation, those parts are left out. However, Hager Cohen writes that she avoided interpreting as much as possible for the sake of the book.

Books in which the author observed and then wrote always unnerve me a bit. For instance, Hager Cohen follows two students at Lexington School for the Deaf. One, a young Black teen named James who likely would have followed his brother into the streets if he hadn’t been able to move into the dorms at Lexington. The other, a Russian Jew named Sofia whose family immigrated to the U.S. and doesn’t know how to communicate with or accept their Deaf daughter. At times, the author adds what the students were thinking and feeling, or describes the experience of leaning against a cold wall. Perhaps I just need to accept this form of writing — and Hager Cohen does it well — but my brain always chats in the background, “How do you know? How do you know?”

There were several facets in which Train Go Sorry could have taken shape. Hager Coehn and her two siblings lived at the school and were raised with ASL and English. Their father was the superintendent. Other than her adopted brother, the Cohen family is white, and the students are largely Black and Hispanic. The family is all hearing, and the students are D/deaf. Why are the Cohens there in the first place? The author’s grandfather, her dad’s father, was Deaf, and so her father is a Child of a Deaf Adult (CODA). Even today, on spaces like Twitter, conversations around how CODAs fit into the Deaf community are discussed, sometimes quite emotionally.

Train Go Sorry is an interesting look into Lexington School for the Deaf because it was historically an oral school, teaching deaf children to speak, but had to recognize that ASL is an actual language and then find staff who are Deaf and/or use ASL. What happens to people who have worked there for years and don’t know ASL? What about Deaf people who want jobs in Deaf schools? What about that old question: how will Deaf people who can’t talk survive in a hearing world?

I’m not Deaf, I’m hard of hearing, so my experiences are not the same, yet that last question always surprises me. In the book, Sofia goes into the community and carefully shapes her words as she asks local businesses to buy advertising in their yearbook. And then the employees talk back and Sofia can’t hear. Instead, Sofia stands there and guesses what the employee said, more often than not simply waiting until she’s given a clear indicator that she should leave. My feelings always come back what I’ve learned in interpreting class in which we discuss how many years the students spend learning to talk, and how the result can mean they’re many grade levels behind because they were denied language for so long. We’ve even discussed oralism (learning to speak) over language acquisition (ASL) as an ethical issue.

But, students like James are determined in their studies regardless of which mode of teaching Lexington currently uses. The school can offer IEP diplomas, meaning it’s a certificate of completion, not an academic credential. Or, they can test for the Regents exam, called the RCT. I’d never heard of these diplomas before and Googled more about Indiana and Michigan. They’re different. In Train Go Sorry, Hager Cohen explains James’s day taking the RCT in an effort to move on to college. Given that American public school always seem to be struggling, I gained more knowledge of what the end of high school looks like for different people.

I enjoyed how varied each chapter in Train Go Sorry is. For instance, Sofia is also college bound, but there’s more focus on her bat mitzvah, which she was denied for a number of reasons. Also, while Hager Cohen spends some time on language acquisition and assisted hearing devices, as many memoirs and fiction books about D/deaf people do, she also follows the students’ personal lives: friendships, family, school tests, classmates, and field trips. On the other side is the administrative concerns: who should work at the school, what and how should they teach, what is the Deaf community asking of them, and is their funding going to be pulled and their students mainstreamed.

I tried to read Train Go Sorry without leaping to conclusions, to just read the experiences of people at the Lexington School for the Deaf and in Leah Hager Cohen’s family. As a result, I got a broader perspective of the complexities in the Deaf and CODA communities in relation to public education.

CW: audism

How much do you know about school policies and decisions in your area? If you have children or grandchildren, are you involved at their school (PTA, PTO, fundraising, field trip volunteer, etc.)?

18 comments

  1. I do the same thing in nonfiction when the author speculates how someone felt about something. Especially when they’re writing about history that there was no way they were present for. It actually makes me like the author less and then I tend to avoid their other works. I want facts with my facts not your projections of feelings you don’t know about.

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    • In this case, the author was raised inside the school (her family lived in the dorms) and she was present for everything. Thus, I wonder if she asked people she followed around to tell her what they were feeling, both physically and emotionally, in that moment. It’s possible! With historical nonfiction, I’m super judgey. They can’t know, and so they put in stuff to immerse us. Actually, I just finished reading a book about the birth of forensics in the U.S., and in the end the author, a journalist, talked about how he had been an EMT and was in nursing school when he veered instead to journalism. He noted how journalism and forensics are similar in the sense that both are SUPPOSED to be about just the facts. That’s it. No speculation.

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  2. This sounds like an interesting read and that shift from a focus on being able to speak aloud to sign language at the school (and hiring staff accordingly) would be a fascinating reflection of shifts in perspective.

    I know a little bit about IEPs and the different documents that can come at the end of finishing school but not a lot. One of the shifts I’m experiencing is understanding school from a parent perspective rather than through Peter’s experience as a teacher. I’m not super involved at the school yet but that is actually one of my goals for next year, once I’ve got two kids there.

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    • Oooooh, I didn’t even think how your perspective would shift because Peter is a teacher. I wonder if there will be some crossroads where the two of you disagree because you’re coming from different perspectives. However, I think having both a teacher and a parent caring about a school is awesome and should be a great collaboration.

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      • Overall, I think it’s a good thing to have the perspective from both sides. It helps me to be more sympathetic with the school staff because I can easily imagine the work they’re putting in at home. And I can offer a better counterpoint for Peter when he needs to bounce ideas off of someone. So far our school experience as parents has been smooth but I can imagine that a time might come when we find ourselves with different perspectives, especially if one of the kids were to butt heads with school authority. So far the biggest thing I’ve noticed is that other parents have realized I am not a Safe Space to complain about teachers to!

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          • Haha, typically people who don’t know me! I have learned to drop in the fact that I’m married to a teacher as soon as a conversation heads into school-related territory. When Peter and I were first married there was a teacher strike and we lived in a very politically conservative town where even people who knew us loved to tell us how overpaid teachers were and how easy their job is. One of the many reasons we don’t live there anymore…

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            • I forgot that when you moved into your new house (which I remember) that you left from another town! I can’t fathom in 2022 telling an American teacher that they make too much. Most of them have a night job, too. Some have come forward to say they can’t teach anymore because they make more bartending.

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              • Teachers in BC have quite a strong union so stuff like health benefits and pension are very good. And generally I think teachers in Canada are paid much better than teachers in the US. But we also live in an area with a high cost of living so factor that in and BC teachers are some of the lowest paid in the country. But there are always going to be people who believe teachers work from 9 to 3, 5 days a week, and get summers off and nothing I say will change their mind!

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  3. So my kids actually go a private school, which I have mixed feelings about. I want to support the public system, but because they are so young, finding additional child care for their after school and days off is nearly impossible unless I find them a dayhome, which I don’t want them to be in (for various reasons that I won’t get into here). So, their curriculum is a mixture of Alberta, and from France, as it’s a French-language first school. I don’t speak French fluently, but being from a different part of Canada where French was taught more widely, I can get by, which is why I wanted my kids to be at this particular school as Alberta doesn’t have great french options in general. This is all to say I don’t know much about the school’s policies etc. I’ve been asked to join their board and help them fundraise, but I refuse, because I want to fundraise for causes that are in need for financial support, unlike this school which has fairly wealthy families as part of it. Whew!

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    • I just learned so much about you! I have read that Jonathan Kozol, a famous teacher in the U.S. who works with impoverished schools, is absolutely of the opinion that no one should go to private school. If wealthy parents have to send their kid to what is thought of as an underfunded school, they would be the people to have the means and time to fix it and get involved. However, that does mean that you’re also forcing your child to go through that challenging, possibly damaging experience. But what if the wealthy parents sent their children to public school and also had private tutors, etc. It’s quite a debate, and while I’m completely pro-public schools, I cannot deny the benefits of well-organized and funded private schools. This may be a wacky question, but what if you were to get involved at the public school? Start voicing your concerns about French classes, etc. so when your kids are old enough to not need day care, the school will be in a better place? I have no clue if that’s even possible, but now my brain is thinking.

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      • Yes i see your point, totally. My concern isn’t really the quality of education actually, its the access to before and after school childcare, which is why we chose this school in the first place. For some strange reason kindergarten is only two hours a day here – so we need to arrange childcare for the rest of the hours of a workday, it’s totally crazy. I tend to spend more time voicing my concerns over the lack of quality childcare in our province, and how difficult it can be to access. Because our school offers childcare until 6pm, this is the main driver for why I chose it (and it’s proximity to our house)

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        • Ohhhh, wow! I never would have thought the kids would go to school for two hours. That’s more like a day camp than school. I totally see your point. We had half-day Kindergarten, and then for a while they did every other day, which is truly wild for finding your kid daycare, and now they go all day every day.

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  4. “Perhaps I just need to accept this form of writing — and Hager Cohen does it well — but my brain always chats in the background, “How do you know? How do you know?”” – yes, I have this issue, too. Although as mentioned upthread, maybe they did disclose to the author.

    I know a bit about how schools work here through friends who are parents. Also we have the same weird mix here in Birmingham we had in Kent but is not common elsewhere, where you have selective schools (grammars and secondary moderns) and then comprehensives, although here it’s more grammars and comps only.

    The oral vs language acquisition debate is fascinating and horrible in what it can do to people, I hadn’t really grasped the issue until I read True Biz.

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    • The more I learn about ASL and interpreting, the more I understand various positions, but at this point in my life, I can’t get over how oralism seems to help people sounds “normal” in public, even though they can’t hear. It feels like when friends had two tin cans on a string, but only having one tin can and the string, but keeping two friends.

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  5. I agree about authors who write non-fiction putting thoughts in people’s heads that they can’t possibly be sure of – I don’t like it, and it normally turns me off a book pretty quickly. Most of the nonfiction I read is history or biography, not memoir, so I don’t encounter that too much because normally the author is drawing on things that have actually been written by the individual in question, or they are honest about the fact that it’s just speculation.

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