Stories that linger: Breaking the ‘glass box’

  • Kim LaRocque, a former student at the Clarke School for the Deaf, seen here at age 9. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Editor in Chief
Published: 12/30/2019 3:24:36 PM

At the Gazette, some of us still use the old card catalog that occupies the dull mauve metal cabinets near our break room. A good part of one drawer is dedicated to the Clarke School for the Deaf. Dozens, if not hundreds, of clipped articles detail years of history at the world-renowned school, founded in 1867, that pioneered and promoted oralism — a pedagogy focused on speech and lip-reading — and drew support from President John F. Kennedy, President Calvin Coolidge and First Lady Grace Coolidge, among others.

But amid these archives — which include articles about everything from the school’s fundraising and enrollment efforts to contests and anniversary celebrations — no article ever mentioned the years of abuse that many students endured at the hands of former teacher Mary Numbers and her brother, administrator Fred Numbers, during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. That is, until the summer of 2018 when the Gazette wrote about a report released to alumni of what is now the Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech; the independent investigation, conducted by law firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, found evidence of physical, sexual and emotional abuse at Clarke’s residential school on Round Hill Road, which closed in 2012.

Of course, the report doesn’t tell the whole story. Not long after its release, staff writer Dusty Christensen began to contact former students of the Clarke School to hear their accounts. Over a span of several months, he spoke to 16 alumni — all using video phone and ASL interpreters — 12 of whom went on the record for the article, “In a glass box.”

The story lingers, and so does the image of a glass box conjured by former student Sheila Griffin Grady, who said she believes the abuse was meant to deprive deaf students of their “natural, native first language” — American Sign Language, or ASL — and that students “lived on eggshells” and existed in a state of anxiety and isolation at the school. 

“My vocabulary was very limited ... in our world, my classmates and I, we were kind of in a glass box,” Grady said. “We could see everything, but we couldn’t communicate — we couldn’t get through that glass to connect with people.”

Christensen’s report is effective on several levels: as a detailed and balanced investigation, an emotional human narrative, an educational primer on oralism and its place in civil rights history, and an enlightening look at a community and culture that doesn’t want to be “fixed.”  

When it came out, reactions ran the gamut: Some readers were grateful to finally see this side of the Clarke’s history exposed; others were angry at the Gazette for reporting on the “distant past,” with one letter writer commenting that the piece “read like sensationalism, akin to tabloid journalism.”

While it’s important to separate what happened at Clarke back then from the institution it is today — and to recognize that many wonderful teachers and administrators also passed through its doors — the past informs the present and the future. Clarke created a “limited fund” to provide financial support for medical and mental health treatment for alumni who were victims of abuse. But as Christensen reported, some of those same alumni still want more transparency from the organization.

The story lingers for them, too.


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