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Deaf People: Laurent Clerc

Diane Naranjo
4/27/2008

Laurent Clerc 1785 - 1869


Louis Laurent Marie Clerc was born on December 26, 1785 in La Balme-les-Grottes, France. He was born in to a well known family. His father, Joseph Francis Clerc, was the royal civil attorney, justice of the peace, and served as the mayor of their village from 1780 to 184. His mother’s father was a notary public in a nearby town.

Clerc was profoundly deaf. When he was about a year old, he had been left alone for a few moments, in a chair by the fire; he fell and badly burned his face. The scar left by the accident inspired his name sign, two fingers brushed against the right cheek. His family believed it was the accident that deprived him of his hearing and sense of smell; but he may have been born that way.

When Laurent was seven years old, his mother took him to a physician in Lyons, a city close by La Balma, to be treated for his deafness. After two weeks of painful injections of liquid into his ears, Laurent returned home with no cure.

Laurent’s early childhood was spent exploring the village, helping take care of their cows, turkeys and horses. He did not go to school and did not learn to write. “My brother and sisters communicated with me in “home sign,” gestures that were scarcely more than pantomime but had become abbreviated with use.” (Lane 1984). However, he received neither an education nor an organized mode of communication.

In 1797, when Laurent was twelve years old, his uncle after whom he was named, Laurent Clerc, enrolled him in the Instit National de Jeune Sourds-Mirets in Paris. This was the first public school for the deaf in the world. The school was started by a priest named Abbe De L’Epee. This school became the model for hundreds of other schools that were to be established later. The school was directed by Abbe Rock-Ambroise Sicard.

Laurent’s first teacher, Jean Massieu, was 25 years old and deaf like him. Massieu became his mentor and lifelong friend.

Clerc excelled in his studies. However, Abbe Margaron, an assistant teacher, tried teaching him to pronounce words. Clerc had difficulty in pronouncing certain syllables which infuriated Margaron. “One day he became so impatient he gave me a violent blow on the chin; I bit my tongue and dissolved in tears” (Lane 1984). He swore he would never speak again. This experience strengthened his belief that signing is the method of communication by which deaf students should learn.

Clerc learned to draw and to compose in the printing office of the Institution. After just eight years of schooling, Clerc was chosen to become a tutor and a year later was hired as a teacher.

In 1815, Clerc and Massieu went with Sicard to England where they lectured and demonstrated their teaching methods. One of their lectures was attended by a minster from Hartford, Connecticut, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.

Mr. Gallaudet had become concerned that there were no schools for the deaf in the United States. His friend and neighbor, Mason Fitch Cogswell had a daughter, Alice Gogswell that was born deaf. They had gathered support from friends and members of their community, and Gallaudet traveled to Europe to learn about teaching methods for the deaf.

Earlier, Cogswell had loaned a book to Gallaudet – the Theorie des Signes, written by Sicard. Now that Gallaudet was in London, he was introduced by a Member of Parliament to Sicard. Sicard then introduced Gallaudet to Clerc. Clerc and others invited Gallaudet to visit and attend daily classes in their Institution in Paris. He gladly accepted the invitation.

By 1816, Clerc had become Sicard’s chief assistant. He taught the highest class in the Institution. Gallaudet was given private lessons by Clerc. Gallaudet was so impressed by Clerc that he invited him to go to America and help him establish a school for the deaf there.

Clerc was only 28 years old and knew the work would be enormous. However he was motivated by the fact that other deaf Americans had no language and were receiving no education. So on June 18, 1816, Clerc and Gallaudet left for America. The voyage lasted fifty-two days, where Clerc used that time to teach Gallaudet signs, and in return received tutoring in the English language from Gallaudet.

Clerc, through the interpretation of Gallaudet, delivered many speeches and demonstrations of their teaching methods in order to get public, legislative, and financial support for their goals. They raised $12,000 from the public and an additional $5,000 from the Connecticut General Assembly.

“On April 15, 1817, rented rooms made up their school which opened with seven students – Alice Cogswell being the first to enroll.” (Canlas, 1999). The school was originally called the Connecticut Asylum at Hartford for the Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons, but is now called the American School for the Deaf. Gallaudet served as the principal and Clerc was the head teacher. Clerc devoted his life to the interests of this institution which was very successful.

On May 3, 1819, Clerc married Miss Elizabeth Boardman, a former pupil. A year later, their first child Elizabeth Victoria, was born.

Clerc taught students and also trained future teachers and administrators, both hearing and deaf. Many of their students went on to become productive deaf citizens and educated deaf leaders, spreading his teachings and making Clerc the greatest influence in establishing new deaf schools in the States at that time. Clerc’s students and trained teachers founded other schools around the nation, using Clerc’s teaching methods. In all, more than thirty residential schools were established all over the nation during Clerc’s lifetime.

Although Clerc never attended college, he was given several honorary degrees for his pioneering work in deaf education.

Clerc’s mode of instruction was French signs. His students learned those signs for their studies. However, for their own use, they also borrowed or altered some of those signs and blended them with their own native sign language. As the Hartford students and teachers widely spread Clerc’s teaching in his original and in their modified signs, deaf communication acquired an identifiable form. This gradually developed into the American Sign Language, used in education and integrated into the personal lives of America’s deaf population and its culture.

Clerc died on the 18th of July in 1869 at the age of 84. He was respected and honored by all. “He ranks as one of the greatest deaf men of all time, and is probably second only to Gallaudet as a benefactor of the deaf of this country.” (Carroll, 1991)
 

References:

Canlas, L. (1999). Laurent Clerc: Apostle to the Deaf People of the New World. Gallaudet University Laurent Clerc National Deaf Center. Retrieved 26, Apr. 2008:

Carroll, C. & Lane, H. (1991). Laurent Clerc. The Story of His Early Years. Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.

Lane, H. (1984). When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf. New York, NY. Random House.


 


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