Story by Mary Browder • Editor-in-Training
Photo by Jon Shapley • Video Editor
“How do you explain to a six-month-old that we were scared, inexperienced and that his condition was tearing us apart?” said Austin Community College student Kayla Peavler at ACC’s October Literary Coffeehouse at Austin Java. With the help of a microphone, Peaver’s soft, wavering voice pierced through the attentive silence — the heavy silence of an enthralled audience. She spoke evenly, persevering through the story with a mother’s patience, occasionally quivering at points of genuine pain.
My husband blamed me — he was very meticulous when it came to fault. I didn’t take enough care of myself when I was pregnant, too much walking, not enough rest, I saw all that red meat you ate. I snuck a glass of red wine once. He told me Matthew would never be normal, that without hearing he’d never grow up to be the son he always wanted. A son just like him.” she said.
Peaver alternated between lifting her manuscript for occasional glances and signing the parts of the story where she was addressing her son. Her story, titled “Little Rabbits,” described the challenges and frustrations of a hearing mother with a deaf and possibly mentally disabled toddler, particularly after the collapse of her marriage. Yet there were also moments of deep tenderness. Among the most moving points in her story was her slow, patient finger- spelling and mouthing of each sound in the word “mom.” The story climaxes with the mother losing her patience and breaking a dish, a shard of which inadvertently cuts the small child. After she immediately takes him to the hospital to treat the resulting superficial wound, Child Protective Services removes Matthew from her home. Despite the apparent heartbreak, the story ends on a brighter note: Matthew is adopted as the mother begins to come to terms with her inability to give him the life and care he needs.
It wasn’t until after her readings that several audience members realized the piece was fiction. It was easy to assume that the piece was creative nonfiction, or at the very least semi-autobiographical short fiction. Peavler is 23, and could very well have been a teen mother now rail-thin from the passage of time and years of grief. She is not a creative writing major, but nobody in the room would have guessed it. Indeed, this second time Coffeehouse reader majors in American Sign Language (ASL). Her dynamic facial expressions and emotive vocal tone were not only powerful components of her performance, but reflective of an empathy that is essential to her studies, work and eventual career goals.
“ASL interpretation is different from other kinds of language translation. Interpreters aren’t like machines, and good interpreters need to be able to emote and express their humanity,” she said. “The deaf community is all about relationships, whether that’s within a family or between students, teachers, friends or anyone else.”
Peavler takes these relationships seriously — she is also a member of ASL Friends Unite (AFU). Her off-campus work with AFU helps her keep strong ties within the deaf community while she is studying. While most students plan to complete an associates degree within two years, Peavler has taken fewer classes over more semesters.
“I want to graduate with a 4.0…and I will,” she said with a smile to match her certainty.
This performance — her second at the monthly Coffeehouse events— was less about her personal writing than it was about her desire for total immersion within the deaf community. Peaveler has high ambitions and big plans for her life after she earns her interpreting degree at ACC. She plans to apply to Gaullaudet in Washington, D.C., which is the largest deaf university in the nation.
“The school only accepts about 15 hearing students any semester. So that’s a lot of competition,” said Peavler.
Next month’s Literary Coffeehouse is on November 14, and will also be held at the same Austin Java location on 1206 Parkway, near South Lamar Boulevard and 12th Street.