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.
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.)?