The Baby-Sitters Club #16: Jessi's Secret Language by Ann M. Martin
In which Jessi learns American Sign Language, Stoneybrook gets a little more diverse, and Karen wastes food.
I wish I knew about linguistics when I was eighteen. Maybe if I had known about linguistics when I was eighteen, I wouldn’t have entered university as a Computer Science Major, instead of an English major. It took me a college dropout and ten years later to learn about the perfect major for me — linguistics. There is a degree where you just play with grammar and learn languages? Those are the two things I sit around and do all day.
It seems that Jessi Ramsey and I share a common interest — language. Unlike some other people, we put the onus of understanding on ourselves. Do you want to understand someone from a different country? You should learn their language. Some people think the other person should learn English, therefore putting the onus of understanding on the other person. What a ridiculous way to think. You want to know, you do the work.
In the latest book, Jessi is given an opportunity to expand her understanding in what is, so far, one of my favorite BSC books. Let’s get to it.
The first thing Jessi tells me in her first entry into the BSC canon is that she’s very good at languages. That’s a great skill to have. I do believe that learning a new language is more about effort than innate skill. However, Jessi claims that after a single week in Mexico, she was “practically . . . bilingual.” I don’t want to be a jerk, but I kind of doubt that. Unless she understood the intricacies of the subjunctive case. Then she would be a WEIRDO. Ask your friends in Spanish 211 about that one, kids.
Jessi is so good with language that she’s been able to equate ballet with language. Language is expression and ballet is expression through body movements. It’s an excellent comparison that really opened my eyes, so thank you for that. If I were trying to communicate with dance, I would sound like a certain former president, which is like an illiterate gorilla who stares directly into the sun.
We get a little bit about Jessi’s family life, including her younger sister Becca and her baby brother Squirt. In their basement, her parents built a dance studio for Jessi to practice, which she does every morning. She wakes up before her alarm at five in the morning and immediately practices. We may share a love of language, but waking up to do physical activity at sunrise is not something we share. I’m usually going to sleep at five in the morning and when I wake up, I check my phone and pull my covers above my head before I even think about waking up.
Then she hits us with this passage.
My family is black.
I know it sounds funny to announce it like that. If we were white, I wouldn’t have to, because you would probably assume we were white. But when you’re a minority, things are different.
Take that, reader, with your preconceived notions on race! I hate you tell you, Jessi — white is still the default race and it is bullshit. If someone doesn’t expressly say that a character is a different race, it’s assumed they’re white. Just look at when a character that has never been plainly stated as a white person is cast with a black actor. A bunch of man babies get all pissy. Jessi spills the tea right here.
She goes on to lament that in her old neighborhood in New Jersey, black and white families mixed. In Stoneybrook, black families are an anomaly. She talks about how she can’t tell if the people of Stoneybrook don’t like black people (are racist) or are wary of them because they’ve never encountered other black people (are racist). Either way, not a great look, Stoneybrook. I guess it’s not as idyllic as we’re led to believe.
Anyway, Jessi is trying out for a role in the ballet Coppelia, which is about some doll maker and a dude who wants to marry a doll (there is some light doll cosplay), and Coppelia is a real thing. It was not made up for the purposes of this book’s plotline.
At the BSC meeting, we get to meet all the girls, including long explanations about Claudia’s wild clothing that the other mothers wouldn’t let them wear. I still have no idea why palm tree earrings are so frowned upon by the generation that streaked, dropped acid, and had sex in front of Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. If someone could explain that one to me, I’d appreciate it.
A new client calls the BSC — the Braddocks. They are looking for a babysitter willing to sit regularly for a deaf child and his sister and they want the babysitter to learn Ameslan. Our resident linguist takes the job.
During Jessi’s next dance class, her instructor Mademoiselle Noelle (my first instinct would be to name the ballet instructor Mademoiselle Baguette, but I am a jerk) announces the parts for Coppelia. Jessi earns the role of Swanilda — the lead. Two other girls, Katie Beth and Hilary, implant the idea that Jessi didn’t actually earn the role and Mademoiselle Noelle is just playing favorites. Mrs. Ramsey tries to reassure her daughter that Mademoiselle Jones would not jeopardize the recital just to play favorites.
Jessi has her meeting with the Braddocks. It’s not an official baby-sitting session — it’s just to explain the unusual demands of sitting for Matt, who is deaf. Mrs. Braddock introduces Jessi to American Sign Language and lends her a signing dictionary. It’s a good introduction to any kid who hasn’t heard of ASL and goes over the basics of signing in a frank, informative way. Mrs. Braddock also adds a little bit about the history of ASL.
“One thing you ought to know is that not everyone agrees that the deaf should communicate with sign language. Some people think they should be taught to speak and to read lips. However, in lots of cases, speaking is out of the question. Matt, for instance, is what we call profoundly deaf. That means he has almost total hearing loss. And he was born that way. We’re not sure if he’s ever heard a sound in his life. He doesn’t even wear hearing aids. They wouldn’t do him any good. And since Matt can’t hear any sounds, he can’t hear spoken words, of course, and he can’t imitate them either. So there’s almost no hope for speech from Matt. Nothing that most people could understand anyway.”
This is a problem. Not with Matt, but with the people who want the deaf to lip read. They are the type of people who hear someone speaking a foreign language and say they should speak English. Those people think the onus of communication should be on the other person, not themselves. Everyone should cater to their style of communication, even if it’s impossible (like lip-reading) or stupidly complicated (like English).
Maybe they’re insecure because they could never learn another language, and instead of directing that energy toward learning another tongue, they take it out on the people they’re jealous of. Or they’re so paranoid and so self-centered that they think everyone is talking about them in Vietnamese. Or maybe they feel left out, and since they’re white (the only people who complain about this are white people, don’t @ me), they’re not used to being excluded. Or they’re racist — I’m not sure. I’ve never cared what language people speak if they’re having a conversation that doesn’t involve me.
I have learned to fingerspell in case I need to communicate with a deaf person because A) I like learning new alphabets and languages, B) it’s easy to learn — took about forty-five minutes, and C) it’s a useful skill to have. We should all learn how to fingerspell. When ASL was invented, it was quite popular, but the assholes of the world said that people who are deaf shouldn’t be learning this “secret language.” ASL was forced into the underground, as the prevailing method for teaching the deaf was “Oralism,” which is an idea as stupid as the word itself. “Oralism” is the idea that deaf people should learn how to read lips and speak. A few intrepid teachers taught ASL in secret schools and they kept the language alive until its resurgence in the 1950s. Their dedication is a clear testament to the brilliance of sign language and its creators, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc.
Anyway, back to the book. Jessi finally meets Matt and Mrs. Braddock teaches Jessi some basic signs that Jessi will need immediately. The BSC member leaves excited to learn the new language.
Our first handwriting chapter is Mary Anne at Jenny Prezzioso’s house. If you don’t remember, Jenny is the finicky one, and this chapter is no exception. Jenny doesn’t want to do anything, but Mary Anne gets her to take a walk. They come across Jessi, Matt, and Matt’s sister, Haley. Jenny makes a big deal out of Matt not hearing her, including screaming at him and calling him weird. Cool kid, Mrs. Prezzioso, yelling at deaf people for no reason. Haley blows up at her brother. She yells that he stinks and he can’t hear her and then she storms off back into the house.
Sometimes we forget about the people around a disability. Haley just wants to be normal, but her brother makes that impossible. She shouldn’t take it out on Matt, of course, but her anger is understandable. And Jessi empathizes with her isolation, being a part of the only black family in Stoneybrook.
Jessi finally has her first real baby-sitting job with Matt and Haley Braddock. After their snack and the announcement of Jessi’s signing name (the fingerspelling for “J” combined with the sign for dancing, which is adorable), Jessi takes the kids over to the Pikes’, which seems to be the first thing every new family has to do in Stoneybrook. Turns out the Barretts are also visiting the Pikes’ house. They all seem to get along, including Matt, and Haley teaches them to sign the word for “stupid.”
Later, Mallory and Dawn babysit for the Pikes’, which starts with a song that makes Margo Pike throw up (that spaghetti one — it’s really not gross by today’s standards). The kids are sent to the rec room, where they are suspiciously quiet. It turns out they are arguing with each other in their secret, made-up, sign language.
Jessi has rehearsal and afterward, Katie Beth’s sister, Adele, shows up. She’s a Grammy Award-winning singer. Just kidding. She’s Katie Beth’s deaf sister. Jessi gets to show off some of her sign language skills. Katie Beth doesn’t know any ASL and can’t communicate with her sister. Jessi tells her about her “sign language is like dancing” theory and the girls leave on amicable terms.
Claudia sits for David Michael, Karen, and Andrew. Claudia tells them about the “secret language” all the kids are doing. This is so Claudia can distract Karen from making inedible food for ghosts. They call Jessi all night to ask her how to say stuff in ASL. It ends with Karen signing “I love you” to Claudia. I don’t care if you love me, Karen, don’t waste food on ghosts.
We get to hear about Jessi's routine for a few paragraphs and suddenly months have passed. Jessi and Haley have bonded over sibling resentment, and Jessi encourages her to remember the good times with her sibling. They also talk about accessibility for deaf people, with things like Closed Captioning. Although, I’ve watched TV with CC since I discovered it when I was a weird little kid. “You mean I can read TV? Sign this book nerd who watches anything including infomercials because we don’t have cable right the fuck up!”
There’s this whole clock and dagger part where Jessi talks about her “secret plan” that involves Mademoiselle Noelle, Mrs. Braddock, and Matt’s teacher. Jessi goes to Matt’s school, which is a school for the deaf in Stamford. Jessi speaks to Matt’s class about ballet and how it’s expression using your body, not unlike sign language. She also says that deaf people can feel the music’s vibrations. Because of this, the first performance of Coppelia will be a special one and Matt’s entire class is invited to attend.
Kristy babysits for Becca and Charlotte comes over. Not much happens, but Becca knows what is going on and tells Charlotte, but won’t tell Kristy. The BSC all have tickets to opening night, but Kristy is still impatient.
Opening night finally comes. The special surprise is that before each act, Haley is going to narrate the events of the story and Mrs. Braddock is going to sign what Haley says.
Jessi finally takes the stage as Swanilda, to which Jessi remarks, “When I’m onstage, I am the dance.” Whoa, Jessi, a little intense there.
Since it’s the end of the book, the performance goes off without a hitch and is a big hit. Matt and Adele meet. The BSC gushes over Jessi’s performance. Mallory meets Keisha. Mr. Ramsey takes the whole family and the BSC out for ice cream. All’s well that ends well.
This book is a perfect encapsulation of the things that made The Baby-Sitters Club so good. It didn’t shy away from sensitive topics like race or deafness. It introduced the difficult subject matter with care while still making it accessible to a child or someone who is completely unfamiliar with the topic. The dedication thanks Patsy Jensen for her “sensitive evaluation of the manuscript.” I’m not sure but I would guess that Ms. Jensen is a sensitivity reader for Ann M. Martin. If that is true, I cannot commend Martin enough for her willingness to seek out an outside knowledge source to ensure the material is correct and empathetic.
Rereading this one was a joy. Entries like this one demonstrate the positive influence the BSC had on me and millions of other readers. I cannot say enough good things about this book. Not only is it important, but it also plays to my niche interest in linguistics.
And, if I can make a suggestion, learn to fingerspell. It doesn’t take long and will only improve the world.
Edit 2022/12/24 - Amy here! I wanted to provide some additional information from some more knowledgeable listeners. First of all, “Ameslan” is definitely not used. It is ASL or American Sign Language. Secondly, making up your own signing for your name is a big no-no. And lastly, yes, an eleven-year-old probably shouldn’t be looking after a special needs child. This is more evidence that Stoneybrook is not the middle-class paradise it purports to be. Finally, I tried to find more information on Patsy Jensen, and all I can confirm is that she is a children’s book author. Now, that doesn’t preclude her from being a sensitivity reader, and that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a special connection to the deaf community or that she doesn’t have some kind of expertise. It means that she’s not renowned for her work in the deaf community. If you would like to add something, let me know. There’s a contact form on the website or hit me up on any of my socials. Since I wrote this on Christmas Eve, Happy Holidays! Stay inside if there’s a blizzard or else hundreds of TikToks of you falling on the sidewalk will pop up on my FYP. Stay safe! See you next time!
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