Joy, heartache, and corruption: Teaching while Deaf in a California public school

by | Aug 21, 2023 | The Attic

Anna Mindess and Rachel Zemach

Anna Mindess interviews Rachel Zemach about her memoir, The Butterfly Cage.

Anna Mindess: Your memoir details the challenges, frustrations, heartbreak, and triumphs you experienced as a Deaf teacher of deaf students in a predominantly hearing school. Who did you write this book for? Perhaps there’s more than one intended audience? Have you gotten different responses from different groups of readers?

Rachel Zemach: I wrote the book for hearing people really; especially hearing people with no background in the subject, because one of the biggest problems I encounter is not malice or bad intentions but simple ignorance. People only understand a small sphere of life; mostly things they have been personally exposed to or seen closeup via family members, friends, etc. But the problems arises when people don’t know what they don’t know and make assumptions.

So, I wrote this book to try to explain some things, but to do it in a way that wasn’t preachy or pedantic or boring. I wanted to reverse the ignorance and create an army of allies who would start impacting the world by thinking differently when they encountered a Deaf or hard of hearing person.

The hearing people who’ve read it and say they’ve experienced a shift in their thinking touch me very deeply, because that was the goal.


AM: The book is called “a memoir.” Did you also intend for it to be a call to arms? A manifesto? An exposé? Why?

RZ: You know, it’s funny because I was asked that exact question by a “big five” publishing house, who was interested but ultimately rejected my book. A few others said the same thing; they called it genre-hopping. One wanted it less about the students and more about me, so I did another round of edits, and included more about me (although I refused to make it less about the students.) Then the next rejection from a “big five” publisher said there was too much about me and they’d prefer more about the students! Ha.

In a funny way, the more editors’ feedback I got, the more I realized I had to stick to my own guns about what to write.

But my answer is this; I have a health issue that makes my relationship to mortality, let’s say, altered, so when the editor asked that question, I laughed. Because the book is in fact a manifesto, a memoir, and an expose. I can’t count on having time to write each one separately, and I also felt the different threads in the book belonged together, even if others didn’t see how.


AM: There are many instances where you make a distinction between those who identify as culturally “Deaf” and those who only see “deaf” as referring to a lack of hearing. Can you explain the differences and import of the distinction?

RZ: I used a capital D throughout my book, for a few reasons. I don’t like the divisions between deaf and culturally Deaf people, or Deaf and hard of hearing people, so I didn’t want to reinforce those divisions in the book. One of the beauties of writing is you get to make your own decisions, reflecting your personal world view.

Also, my book is often about children, and I feel they have the right to decide what they want to be called, and they have the right to change their identities over time. And last, I feel the capital D is healthy, proud, and badass. I know some will be uncomfortable with it, but I also think those people are missing out on something cool, and I hope as they read more, they too will shift their thinking a bit.


AM: You’ve had Deaf readers of your book. Were they already aware of the struggles and discrimination that was rampant in your school?

RZ: Some Deaf readers, who grew up without much connection to the Deaf world, say the book has made them feel “seen.” They totally get it. But I think Deaf people with Deaf parents and families, who had language via ASL from babyhood, and attended Deaf schools, might be shocked by some things in the book. Or at least if I told the FULL truth they would have been shocked to experience it, ha!

Because in hearing (“mainstream”) schools, Deaf staff often have very little power and Deaf students have even less. It can feel like a David and Goliath battle sometimes, and a comedy or a Greek tragedy at other times. The obstacles often just feel insurmountable, since the intentions are GOOD, but the thinking of hearing staff is deeply based in the wrong-headed (in my opinion) assumption that speech and hearing and “fitting in” are the goal, rather than language acquisition, understanding and having decent self-esteem.

When people attend Deaf schools, where communication is not a problem since everyone signs, they can be out of touch with how hard it is out there. They’d also be shocked by the cultural oppression that goes on in mainstream schools. But it’s important they know, because 85% of our students attend this kind of school, and they need help!


AM: You also talk about “In-betweeners” like yourself. Can you expand on the label? Are these hard of hearing individuals, those who became deaf later in life, deaf people who have understandable speech, cochlear implant, or hearing aid users? What are the issues you/they struggle with?

RZ: Yes, that’s exactly who I mean by Inbetweener, though I’d add: mainstreamed kids. The biggest issues I see with the Inbetweeners writing impassioned posts on Facebook are loneliness, sadness they’re not part of the Deaf community, fear of Deaf people and of being ostracized by the Deaf community since they don’t know ASL or Deaf cultural norms, and frustration because hearing people like their own spouses don’t understand their communication dilemmas.


AM: What has the process of writing the book, as a Deaf writer, been like for you?

RZ: Oh my gosh, it’s been both hard and so wonderful! Hard, because there are almost no Deaf writers’ groups or editors, so I had to go to hearing writing groups, and hearing editors. They were understandably ignorant about Deaf issues, which was triggering for me emotionally, and meant I had to educate them, often while paying them! On the positive side, I did find a hearing writers group, that I accessed via captions, that was incredibly supportive and showed me I was on the right track, by how deeply and how quickly they came to understand the issues in the book.

The wonderful part has been meeting these people, staying incredibly busy and mentally stimulated, and changing my relationship to the trauma I described by writing about it. And now that the book is out, I see I can, and have, done some good in the world by writing this. Seeing the reactions of people, seeing that what I aimed to do, what I fought so hard to do at times, what I felt an overwhelming need to do, actually worked and people are coming away feeling seen, or enlightened, by the book; that’s a phenomenal feeling.

Rachel Zemach was hearing for half her childhood and Deaf the other half, after an accident left her deaf at age ten. But it wasn’t until much later, over a ten-year period when she taught a Deaf class in a hearing public school, that she began to identify as Deaf-with-a-capital-D. This is her first book.

About The Author


Anna Mindess has two careers: she has worked as an ASL interpreter for 35 years and is the author of Reading Between the Signs: Intercultural Communication for Sign Language Interpreters, which is used around the world to train sign language interpreters and has been translated into French, Chinese and Hungarian. She is also a food and travel writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Atlas Obscura, AFAR, Lonely Planet, Fodor’s, and many other sites. (For stories, see her website.)