Me, Sign Language, & Failure
I am the young man on the left in the photograph. I was 16 years old - on stage with two amazing friends performing dance and sign language to the song "Three Guesses" (Henry Mancini - it's available on YouTube). Yes, that is a teenage Jimmy Broccoli in a bow tie, a vest, and with obviously dyed blondish long hair.
From age 15 - 18 I was very active in a local theatre group for children and teens. It was deaf theatre, though almost everyone within the group was hearing. We frequently performed locally (in Las Vegas, NV, USA and throughout Nevada) and occasionally toured the western United States - visiting California, Colorado, Utah, and other nearby states.
Upon joining the group, I was immediately drawn to ASL (American Sign Language). It's a physically expressive language that relies heavily on emotion, facial expressions, and hand movements. It's visual storytelling.
I practiced sign for hours - every day, for years. This dedication led me to teaching (at age 17) a 12-week ASL class for two dozen elementary school teachers. At the end of 12 weeks, every student was able to effectively sign a song of their choosing and understood the basics of sign and the rules and concepts that govern the language. It was an amazing experience for me and for the students (teachers).
I attended ASL college classes to improve my skills and was thrilled when the Arizona Board of Interpreters traveled to Las Vegas to provide a few of us with a certification exam. It was 100% visual and relied on my ability to sign well and to interpret the signs of a signer on video. If I were to pass the exam (and everyone knew I would), I'd be the youngest certified ASL interpreter in the United States. I was 18 years old.
I consider myself, at my current age, near emotionally bulletproof and not easily intimidated. At age 18, I was absolutely terrified when I entered the college room that led to the exam. 5 very polite and professional interpreters introduced themselves - and the exam began. I had trained, intensely, for 3 years for that exam. I was about to become the youngest certified ASL interpreter in the United States. The world was about to open itself up to me - opportunities in every direction.
But I panicked, performed poorly, and failed the exam. Of the 6 who tested, I was the only one to fail it (though I tested for the highest level of interpreter - level 4 - while the others tested at levels 1 and 2) - and I failed by 3 percentage points. I went into the exam as the most prepared, the most skilled, and the candidate everyone expected to pass. But I didn't pass and I didn't become the youngest certified interpreter in the country. It didn't happen and I never tested again.
I consider this experience one of the most important and life-altering in my life. I had become accustomed to succeeding. I learned faster than most, I spent the time to improve my skills, and I worked really hard on becoming one of the best. Getting knocked down and being told "no" was a powerful - and temporarily debilitating - lesson that I really needed to learn. After I walked out of the exam (in tears), I didn't sign again for a few years. If I couldn't be the best, I wanted nothing to do with it.
Then, during my 22nd year I, on a random day, began to sign to songs on the radio. I quickly realized I had lost none of my skill. I remembered almost everything I had learned as a teenager. And it was fun again. From that day forward, during staff meetings I would occasionally interpret for deaf employees at various jobs I held for the next several years - but never professional pursued interpreting again. It became a hobby - a really fun hobby I continue to share with the amazing friends I maintain from those early years.
Failure is an amazing lesson. And I'm so glad I learned it in early adulthood. It will knock you on your ass without a 3-second countdown. A powerful lesson I needed to learn at that time in my development. At the time, I was beyond devastated (and knew everyone was disappointed in me) - but now, I'm thankful for the experience.
In the photograph, I'm on the left - 16 years old, with hopes and dreams and expectations and ideals that would fill the oceans.
And I wouldn't change a thing.