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UPWARD MOBILITY - Robert Davila

Everyone needs association with peers
with whom he can communicate easily.
Without that, it's like a flower without water.

 

Robert Davila was born in a large family of migrant Mexico farm laborers in California. He has since worked his way up the career ladder to become Vice President for Pre-College Programs at Gallaudet University.

Success hasn't spoiled Bob Davila. He remains a wonderfully warm person, proud of his family and comfortable with deaf people in all walks of life. If he had not lost all his hearing at age eight, he would probably still have made a name for himself; but losing his hearing while Spanish was his first and only language and practically growing up in residential schools for the deaf seems to have brought out the best in him.

 

My mother and father were born in Mexico and came to California during their youth to find work as migrant farm workers. After they got married, they raised a large family while moving all over California following the different crops at different times of the year. They would move north and pick fruit and vegetables in the summer, go south to pick winter vegetables, then back north to help plant spring crops. We didn't have a permanent home.

I'm the youngest of five boys. One sister died when I was a small boy and two sisters survive. My father died when I was six years old. That was before I became deaf. After my father died, my mother took responsibility for raising the family. I didn't go to school because, like many Spanish speaking farm workers, we were always moving around.

My family spoke only Spanish, so Spanish was my first language.

When I was eight years old, I became very sick. My mother thought I had the flu but I had spinal meningitis and it left me profoundly deaf. All the children slept in the same bed with me every night but, by some miracle, none of them caught my disease. In a family where there was no money and no real home, the impact of my deafness on the family wasn't very great; it was just another problem among the many the family faced every day.

Several months later, my mother was contacted by a social worker who told her about a school for the deaf at Berkeley. My mother knew she had to do something to help me get ready for the future so she packed everything I had in one suitcase and put me on the train to Berkeley.

The interesting thing is that when I arrived at the California School for the Deaf, I still thought in Spanish. I learned signs quickly. I learned American Sign Language (ASL) because I was with the students every day, but I still thought in Spanish. Later, I picked up English but I continued to think in Spanish until I was about 12 or 13 years old. That changed slowly. Obviously, I now think in English but when I have to speak Spanish, I can make the changes in my mind.

In a way, I was really very lucky. I was in the right school at the right time. When I arrived at school, I didn't know that everything they had there--the services, the food, the dormitory and the books--were free. I thought my family was going to be charged for everything so I would eat only a little bit. I knew my family couldn't afford to pay for all those things. Later, when I found out it was all free, I was still suspicious. "What do I have to do to get this for free? Nothing! Just be deaf?" I couldn't believe it.

I remember when I was about 10 years old, I was standing out on the playground one Saturday afternoon and I saw a few of my good friends all dressed up with ties and jackets and I asked them. "Where are you going?" They said they were going out for dinner and the movies. I asked, "Where?" They said, "Oakland, the next town over from Berkeley." I asked "Why?" "Because we're on the honor roll." "What does that mean?" They said that means we got the best grades in school and every month they picked one boy or girl from each class in high school and treated them to dinner and the movies.

I kept thinking about it. The only movies I had ever seen were by looking over the fence at drive-ins or the movies shown at the school. The next Monday I asked my teacher, "Is it true that all the children who make the honor roll can go out to dinner and movies?" The teacher said, "Yes. That's the tradition here." "What do I have to do to get on the honor roll?" "Study hard and get good grades." Well, I understood that part but I wanted to know what else. "That's all." Emil Ladner was the teacher. He was a wonderful teacher and one of the people who greatly influenced my life. He also has a Hispanic background and we have been good friends for many years. I identified with him in many ways.

Anyway, he told me all I had to do was study hard and I'd get on the honor roll. That was the kind of motivation I needed. From then on, I made sure I went to the movies every month!

The reason I'm telling you this is that when I was small, I was very poor and deprived of many things that other children normally have. When I went to the residential school and found that I could have many of the nice things in life like the other students, it really inspired me.

In most families, the deaf members are coddled, pampered and kept isolated because the parents imagine that deaf people can't manage for themselves. In my family, it was the opposite: I was the leader. For many years, and even today, my family will ask me for advice, support, money or whatever they need. I grew up with a large responsibility, not only for myself but for my mother and brothers and sisters. Sometimes my mother would write me a letter in Spanish and ask me to please translate something to English.

Really, I have a wonderful family. We have always been very close-knit.

In my senior year at high school, I took the Gallaudet College entrance exam. I was the first person in the family to finish high school and was confronted with the wonderul opportunity to go on to college. That was a very important time in the life of my family. You took the exam for Gallaudet in the spring and then had to wait till summer, when they'd send you a letter to let you know if you had been accepted or not. Every day we'd go back and forth to the post office two or three times a day looking for that letter. I'd take two or three brothers or sisters with me and we'd walk to the post office hoping to get that letter from Gallaudet. I remember the day a letter arrived with "Gallaudet College, Washington, D.C." on the envelope. I was too scared to open it. We ran all the way home and showed the letter to my mother. My mother asked, "What does it say?" So I finally opened it and it said I was accepted.

I graduated from Gallaudet with the class of 1953. An interesting thing about that class is that eight other members had been my classmates at the California School for the Deaf. I think we motivated each other. We have always been close friends. All have also been successful in their careers.

One of the things about being deaf and a member of the deaf community is that many of our life-long friendships begin when we're little kids in school. When I go back to California to visit my family, I often meet deaf friends and even after 30 or 40 years, we remember each other well. It's a wonderful feeling.

After I graduated from Gallaudet College, I wanted to become a teacher. I wanted to teach in California to be near my family but at that time, there was only one school for the deaf in California and there weren't many job opportunities. I finally got a job at the New York School for the Deaf at White Plains (it is also called Fanwood). I was planning to stay two or three years and then move to California. I wrote letters of application every year and, finally, in the fourth year I was offered a job at the New California School for the Deaf at Riverside. The funny thing is that after I got the offer, I started to think differently. Before that, I dreamed about going back to California and after I got the job offer, I started to think, do I really want to move there? My wife and I sat down and made a list of the pros and cons. We had too many good things happening for us in New York and I had plans to continue my professional growth, so we decided not to move. I think now it was one of the best decisions I ever made in my life.

There were more opportunities for professional growth in New York than in California at that time and I was greatly influenced by many good deaf people. A deaf person, like any other person, requires the stimulation of other people. Especially when a person has an inquiring mind, it helps so much to associate with other bright deaf people. While I was at Fanwood, I lived near Yerker Andersson, Taras Dennis and Andy Vasnick. Yerker was a young man at that time with a background somewhat similar to mine. He was born in Sweden. He dreamed of going to Gallaudet some day and studied English independently when he was a young adult. He's now president of the World Federation of the Deaf, has a doctorate in sociology and is a full professor at Gallaudet. Taras became famous as a teacher, community leader and intellectual. Like me, he grew up poor in a tough environment. Andy became a member of the National Theater of the Deaf and director of student life at the New York School for the Deaf. The four of us were really close. We still are. Intellectually, we stimulated each other. We'd have some wonderful discussions, often not getting to bed until two or three in the morning on Friday and Saturday nights.

And that's not something that's uncommon among deaf people. Everyone needs association with peers with whom he can communicate easily. Without that, it's like a flower without water (signing emphatically). It was an important part of my life, as important as classroom activities, if not more so.

We all started as teachers. Yerker was a counselor for a while and Taras, in semi-retirement, is a professionally trained counselor serving not just the students at Fanwood but adult deaf people in New York. But basically, we have been and are members of the teaching fraternity. The four of us eventually continued our professional growth and development to the point where we went on to other jobs and accepted larger responsibilities.

I was the first deaf person ever elected president of the Convention of American Instructors of the Deaf, the first deaf person to be elected president of the Council on Education of the Deaf and the first deaf person to be elected president of the Conference of Educational Administrators of the Deaf. In the 150 years of serving professionals in deafness, only two people have ever led all three organizations. The other was Dr. Richard Brill, who for many years was superintendent of the California School for the Deaf at Riverside.

At the time I started my teaching career in New York, many people on the professional staff at different schools for the deaf were not college trained. I remember when I started teaching at age 20, only five members of the large teaching staff at my school had college degrees. About six years after I started teaching, I got a letter from Albany, N.Y. The New York State Education Department informed me they had noticed I was teaching with a B.A. degree and said I had three years to get my M.A. or I would lose certification. I ran to the superintendent and said, "You know most deaf teachers have only bachelor's degrees. Can't they make an exception?" He said, "Oh, no, no."

I had had no experience going to college with hearing people. I wondered if I would be able to do it. I felt very confident in the deaf world but when I got out, I felt like a fish out of water; I needed to build more confidence. I applied for admission to Hunter College in New York City to start work on my masters to meet the certification requirement. They didn't think there would be any problems.

I wasn't the only deaf person in my first class. Taras Dennis enrolled with me. There were all these hearing people and there was the hearing teacher who didn't know any sign language or finger spelling. You know, at that time there weren't any interpreters or support services. The deaf person would sit up front, try to keep his nose clean and ask other students if he could copy their notes. He might ask the teacher for a list of supplemental reading. That's what it was like in the old days. Anyway, I got my masters and it wasn't bad after all. I was proud of my ability to keep up with the hearing students and keep my teaching job.

Later, I became assistant principal responsible for the elementary school at Fanwood. I stayed there as assistant principal and then started thinking about all the deaf people entering doctoral programs across the U.S. I heard about the deaf people who earned their doctorates and were able to get wonderful jobs and promotions. Opportunities were opening up for deaf people and I was full of ambition. My wife and I talked about it and thought we could support each other if I went back to school. We felt that if I wanted to make a move to a better position, I would need better credentials.

So I applied for admission to a doctoral program at New York University and was accepted. I took one course, then they told me I couldn't keep my financial support if I took only one course; I had to take a full load. They also said I couldn't keep a full-time job; the support was only for full-time students. I wasn't sure I wanted to give up my job. How would I support my family? We had two young children. I withdrew.

Later I thought about it some more and decided to go ahead. I applied to Syracuse University for the Ph.D. program in Educational Technology and Curriculum Development and met the requirements for admission.

I had to give full attention to my studies so I resigned my job at White Plains and moved my family to Syracuse and rented an apartment. I stayed there as a full-time student for three years. I was a very difficult time because we had only a small monthly stipend. We felt the future rewards would make it all worthwhile.

Sure enough, once I graduated, several jobs offers in California, New York and Washington, D.C., came to me. I wasn't planning to move to Washington; I was thinking about going back to California, a dream I had been putting off for many years. But I visited Washington during the time I was writing my dissertation and talked to some people at Gallaudet. There was a job opening in the Graduate School and I was urged to apply. At that time, there were no deaf teachers in the Graduate School. Once I got my Ph.D., I got the job and returned to Gallaudet and enjoyed it very much.

I had acquired a lot of experience in teaching and administration but this was something new. I felt that I could be a good teacher at the graduate level. Soon after I started as a full-time teacher at Gallaudet, the position of Director--what they now call Dean--of Kendall School opened up. I decided to apply and after the interview, I got the job. With special permission, I was able to keep my teaching position at Gallaudet while directing the Kendall Demonstration Elementary School. I did that part-time while going back and forth. Even today, as Vice President for Pre-College Programs, I still teach one course at the university. If I don't teach, the only things I'll read are memos and I feel that teaching is a good way to keep up with my discipline.

I worked at Kendall School for four years and during that time, the school was in very bad shape. There were a lot of political problems, problems with the community and the parents were upset about many things that had been promised but hadn't been developed. During that time, we were planning to build a new school--a big, beautiful facility. I took the lead in that and we were able to finish it. The school now has a large number of students and the program is fully developed.

I'm not sure the school has been able to meet all the expectations; there is room for improvement. I was Dean at the Kendall School for four years, until 1978, then the President of Gallaudet College, Dr. Edward C. Merrill Jr., reorganized the institution for better administration and to permit more growth and interaction among the units of the college. So I was promoted to the position of Vice President of Pre-College Programs. That gave me responsibilities for both Kendall School and the Model Secondary School for the Deaf (MSSD). I became responsible for two national demonstration programs with about 340 employees and professional staff and over 600 students. In my position, I report directly to the President of Gallaudet College; I'm a member of the central administration.

Many things have happened in our profession in our country over the last 10 years. We are experiencing developing trends that potentially threaten the educational systems for deaf children that we have worked so hard to develop. There is a movement in America today to move away from special schools. With the movement into the mainstream, children will face well-meaning but unskilled teachers who do not have the communication skills required and who don't understand the special problems of deafness. That worries us. Special schools and residential schools do have a place in the system but we can already see that the character of the student population in residential schools for the deaf is changing. We see more and more severely handicapped children. The residential schools are becoming a dumping ground for deaf children with severe secondary problems that the mainstream programs either can't or don't want to handle.

At the Model Secondary School for the Deaf, over half the students have never had a special school experience before coming to the MSSD. They come from public high schools. They have grown up in hearing schools, they arrive at age 13 or 14 and start feeling socially isolated and frustrated with the lack of meaningful interaction with hearing people so they start coming to MSSD. We see many students coming here because they need the company of other deaf children. Peer interaction and influence is very important, it's something we can't ignore; but it's probably the least considered factor in the decision where deaf children should be placed. That's a mistake.

I was talking about growing up in a bilingual family and environment. It was interesting but I can see now, it must have been hard on my mother. I'd leave home in September to go to the residential school and stay until Christmas. After the Christmas break, I'd go back to school and not return home until the end of June. All the years I was growing up in the residential school and at Gallaudet, my family never had an opportunity to visit me at school. My mother never had any contact or communication with anyone who had anything to do with my education. She couldn't speak English. Now, as a school administrator, I'm very committed to parental involvement in school programs. When I look at my own mother, she never had any involvement. Maybe I was lucky that it turned out so well for me, but it also says something for the staff at the schools for the deaf.

As I explained, I was born hearing and I could hear until the age of eight. But what I heard at that time was not English but Spanish. It's interesting to compare the view of English development with my own development. There is a strong feeling among educators and linguists that the important thing is that a child have a language base on which he can build other languges. The concept of bilingualism in deafness relates to sign language use and the learning of English when a child is taught to really understand and develop an appreciation for his first language, which more often is sign language. Frequently, when children are born deaf, American Sign Language (ASL) is the first language and they build on that to develop English. I can parallel that with my own experience. I developed skill in Spanish and I was able to use the foundation of Spanish to build English structure.

I have kept up my speech over the years. At residential school, I didn't speak much and when I came to Gallaudet, I used my speech only occasionally. Of course, many English words were dificult to pronounce but after I entered into the professional life, I saw how valuable it was to be able to take short cuts to talk to hearing people. Remember, I started my professional life at a time when sign language was frowned upon in educational circles. I was working at a school where we had to lead the parents into thinking we didn't use sign language in the class rooms although everyone in the school used it . . . discreetly.

I found out that when I tried to speak and people understood me, then it permitted me to become more efficient in communicating. So I was motivated to develop my English speech to a point where I could use it on an everyday basis, and I have been doing this over the years. My wife and I have two hearing children and I've always used my voice with them. Even today I speak and sign to my staff and they sign to me. It's very difficult to me to speak without my hands, so I use both and feel comfortable. Some hearing people will say my speech is good and ask why I sign at the same time. I tell them it's the only way I can talk; my speech and signs are connected; they're not separate. I've been able to get cooperation from my staff: When they hear me say a word that doesn't sound right, they'll make a note and let me know the proper way to pronounce it. I ask for that kind of help. I'm not too proud to ask for help. I know that as a deaf person, I can't hear myself talk. If I'm using an interpreter, I'll ask him or her to raise their hand if they can't hear me or understand me. I want to be sensitive to their needs just as they are sensitive to mine. I realize that the quality of a deaf person's speech deteriorates with age. These days, I'm more selective in determining when I should use a reverse interpreter or speak for myself.

I learned Spanish through my ear but as far as reading and writing, I never learned how to read Spanish at school; I did that independently and I can now read and write Spanish well. When I went to college, I told my teachers that I knew Spanish. They said, "Oh, really. How come you don't speak Spanish?" Then I would say something in Spanish and they'd say, "You call that Spanish?" It was not the best of Spanish, but barrio Spanish, the kind used by uneducated Hispanic people. I felt a little ashamed about my Spanish, in the same way that deaf people sometimes feel ashamed of their sign language. But it made for good communication in the family and with the migrant farm laborers.

So I decided that I would learn Spanish and learn it right. I studied independently, just for the pleasure. In 1977, I received an invitation to go to Spain to give a speech. I had never been to Spain and I was really excited. First, I wrote the speech out in English. I was to give a series of four papers over a period of eight days. Two weeks before I was to go, I got a letter from them: "Do you mind if we have a copy of your papers in Spanish?" I didn't understand why they wanted that, so I called Spain and asked them why they wanted it in Spanish and they said, "We're expecting you to speak in Spanish. I picked up the phone and spoke a little bit in Spanish and they said, "Oh, it's just perfect." I realized that I could speak Spanish in conversations but I said I couldn't do it for a formal talk. They said, "Oh, yes you can. We think you'll do just fine." So, in a moment of weakness, I agreed to do that.

I had a few hearing friends on the Gallaudet faculty who spoke Spanish so I sat down and practiced my talk with them. They seemed to think I did well and I started to feel more comfortable. When I arrived in Spain, I gave my talk and got a very good response. People said they understood every word.

Since 1977, I've gone to different countries in South and Central American and to Spain again and I can now meet almost anyone and speak to them in Spanish.

Two years ago, I was invited to be the keynote speaker at the National Conference of Educators of the Deaf in Spain. The interesting thing was that there were no deaf teachers in that organization; they were all hearing. After the conference, they gave me special recognition. They made me a Member of Honor, which is different from an honorary member. A Member of Honor is the conference's highest accolade given to a person. I was the first foreign born person ever invited to be a member of that organization and the first deaf person to be so honored. I keep that certificate in my office. It's very important to me because it's part of my heritage.

Recently, I was inducted into the Hall of Fame for Disabled Americans. The hall is located in Columbus, Ohio, and I was the third deaf person inducted. The first two were Boyce Williams and Bernard Bragg. I am in excellent company. I have always been fortunate and privileged to "walk with heroes."

 

Epilogue, 1999


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