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Family Lip Reading

New norms, new skills

Over the past year, a new normal has taken shape. Wake up (later than usual), breakfast and coffee (more than usual), ready ourselves (dressed more casual than usual) for a day of online learning, working, and staying home. At the long desk in front of our living room window, which I now believe was a touch clairvoyant design, we start our days sitting in a row. And we make our way through the complexity of remote preschool, first grade, third grade, and work.

Learners in a row and our supervisors asleep on the job.

That this is challenging is not a revelation to anyone. Over the past year, I’ve read many blogs written by parents on the verge of a break, trying to keep up with school, work, and mental health. We do what we can each day to limit our tears and maximize our laughs. Some days we’re triumphant, other days not so much.

But these remote students are also mastering an unpredicted skill – lip reading! Who knew a pandemic would be the catalyst for this learning. Something I’ve spent my entire life perfecting but never thought as much about as I have this past year.

My dependence on lip reading became evident to all of us when the world put on masks and covered their faces. Gone was all the visual data I rely on to hear. Cue frustration and anxiety. I am a full believer in masks and the protection they provide; I just wish I could hear through them. We tried the clear plastic ones but found them to be foggy and sticky. My masked interactions with the world are stressful and sometimes futile. Panic at the dentist, confusion at the post office, a clueless nod to a neighbor – did I just agree to something?!

We spent much of the summer talking about how I need to see someone to understand what they’re saying. This fascinates the girls. In addition to being my helpers in a world of masked speakers, they also started practicing their lip reading and speaking with no sound. “What am I saying, Mom?” and then a silent, over-emphasized word or two. I can get almost anything (I often say lipreading is my superpower). So now this is Reese and Addie’s go to way to ask if they can stay up later than Jimmy to watch an extra episode on Disney+.

All this lip reading practice reminds me of my Mom’s stories about lip reading groups growing up.

Mom was about twelve or thirteen when Pepi (my grandfather) started hosting a lip reading group in their dining room every Thursday evening. The group enjoyed convening at their house because Mimi (my grandmother) would make coffee and tea and serve desserts from the Crowne Bakery. There were twelve people in the group, plus a leader, and some participants remain vivid in Mom’s memory. … the group leader, Mrs. S, was the tallest woman in the world. She always sat at the head of the dining room table. Then there was Mr. R, the only other man in the group besides Pepi. He lived at the YMCA, or so they believed. Pepi would pick him up at the “Y” and bring him over early so he could have dinner with the family. There would always be funny business at the dinner table on nights when Mr. R was there. Inevitably someone would find themselves in trouble and with no dessert.  

The “lip readers” were wonderfully polite. Mom remembers it being fun when they would come to the house, and yet a little strange to understand. After all, it was a lip reading group, not your average gathering, so there wasn’t much noise coming from the dining room. They would read off papers, mouthing the words to each other to practice. Pepi was great at this, one of the best in the group. Mom and her siblings would try to spy on them, but they never understood what was being said. Mom remembers that suddenly without warning laughter would erupt from the room. It was like a canned laughter, coming out of a silence that would send the young secret spectators into hysterics. 

I suppose we have our own little lip reading group going here. A new skill for a new time. Someday, they too will be able to “see” what a coach is screaming to her players on TV or their teachers are talking about in the hallway away from their students. Until then, I will grant the extra episodes, especially when they are successful asking with no sound at all.