“On a Square on a Screen” by Sara Beck

Sara Beck


She is animated in her Zoom square
her hands moving,
her eyes urging us to stay with her, 
to understand
the vocabulary of the election 
in American Sign Language.
candidate. election. vote. party. republican. democrat. independent. win.
It is Election Day 2020, and my brain is crowded with worry 
and cannot make room to process new words taught by a face on a square 
on a screen
but we don’t get it, so she spells it out with her fingers, slowly
for those of us used to signing with children 
who speak an ASL more about impressions of combined letters
than precise spellings
we tend to get so hung up on the pesky individual letters—
pausing to wonder if that p was a k
that we miss the rest of the story and so
democrat and republican are words that I don’t quite catch.
When she calls on each of us, 
waiting the several seconds it takes us to 
catch our sign name on her hands
in her square on our screens,
I do not know what to say.
She pauses, she is patient, though I don’t know why
because as a group, we are painfully slow 
but she knows that practice makes progress 
so she throws me a bone, she says
And I’m thrown off 
because Trump?
and Stella?
I can hardly believe it, but then it occurs to me that 
I don’t even know those words, really,
and maybe she didn’t say that at all and 
even if she did, would it change how I feel 
about this woman who teaches my nephew, 
who teaches me, and my mom, and my dad, 
and my brother-in-law
for free
or maybe just for the feeling of knowing that 
one Deaf child she cares about will have a family
who speaks his language, 
even if they can’t precisely tell 
the difference between the words
republican and democrat?
I am a careful student, as a rule, 
but I leave without learning the difference 
because tonight, I don’t want to see it.
I don’t want to linger on the difference because 
maybe if I don’t know how to describe it,
it will disappear
and we can just be people 
learning each other’s languages
from a square on a screen.

from Rattle #75, Spring 2022


Sara Beck: “My nephew is eight years old, and he is my inspiration for learning American Sign Language. I’ve learned bits and pieces from lots of places—my sister (his mom), TikTok, Instagram, a couple of college courses, loads of books, and during the long year of the pandemic, a brilliant Deaf teacher over Zoom. I wrote this poem to capture a moment in all its contradictory glory, and I share it with gratitude for the messiness of human connection.” (web)

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