All I wanted as a kid in Morton Grove, Illinois, was to be like everyone else. But I wasn't. I'd lost virtually all my hearing at 18 months of age, after a bout of roseola. My parents were determined not to let my deafness hold me back, though. They got advice from a psychologist at Northwestern University's clinic for the deaf, and I started speech classes at the age of three, lip-reading and sign language at five. Mom found a synagogue with services that were both spoken and signed. I loved going to temple and being with other people who "spoke" the same language I did. There in God's house, I felt like I really belonged.
Nowhere else did I feel truly a part of everything that went on, not even at home. I'd see my older brothers singing along with the radio, but I couldn't hear the music without the volume cranked up so high it would have blown out the windows. I wanted to talk on the phone with my grandmother, but I couldn't make out a word she said. It was hard for me to follow stuff on TV, except cop shows, where there was little dialogue and lots of action. I loved cop shows.
At school there were interpreters, teachers who knew sign language. Even without them, I could read lips and speak well enough to get along with most of the other students. But I got tired of sticking up for myself with the kids who laughed at the way I talked, and of being the only one my age who signed.
Sometimes when I got home I'd be so frustrated I'd rip out my hearing aids and throw them across the room. (The technician who fixed them claimed I set a record for repairs.) "I hate asking for help. Why can't I do all the things everyone else does? It's not fair!"
"We all have some things we just can't do," Mom would patiently tell me. "But God gives us other gifts that more than make up for that."
What was my gift then, the thing that I was really good at? At services I'd ask God to help me find it. But before I did, I found something else just as wondrous. A new girl my age came to temple one day. A girl I noticed was signing. I went right up to her. "Hi, I'm Marlee," I finger-spelled my name.
"I'm Liz," she replied. "I'm deaf."
"Me too!" I was so excited my fingers flew. "I think we should be best friends."
For a second, she was too surprised to respond. Then she nodded and broke into a big smile. Our friendship was sealed from that moment on.
Then the summer I was seven I discovered it-the gift Mom had talked about.
I will never forget being on that stage at summer camp, signing my heart out to the beat of the music, and seeing all those people looking back at me, smiling and clapping. This is it! a voice deep inside told me. This is where you belong! The rush I got was like that incredible sense of connection I got in temple, when I felt closest to everything and everyone else in God's world.
At home I'd stand in front of the bathroom mirror and make believe an entire audience was looking back at me. Then I'd pretend to be a camp counselor, a teacher, a mother, a cop like on TV. I would playact for hours . . . until my brothers complained, "Marlee's hogging the bathroom again!"
That fall Mom took me to the newly opened Center on Deafness, where the psychologist from Northwestern directed children's theater programs. The day we visited, they were putting together a musical, The Wizard of Oz, which I knew from television, so I asked, "Who's Dorothy?" The director told me they didn't have a girl for the part yet. I didn't hesitate. "How about me?"
That was the first of many roles I played in their productions over the years. By third grade my friend Liz too had become a regular at the Center. Onstage, it seemed the usual barriers to communication fell away and I had a direct connection with the people watching, like a conversation that went deeper than words. "You have a real gift for reaching the audience," the director remarked one day when I was 12. I hadn't thought of a gift being something I could share; that struck me because I had been studying for my bat mitzvah, the Jewish girl's coming-of-age ceremony, and learning about my place in the greater community of God's world. Could acting be what I was meant to do?
"That's not very practical," some of my relatives tried to dissuade me. I would have let them too, if not for one evening in 1977 when my friends and I performed at a benefit for the Center. I couldn't believe who came up to me afterward. The Fonz from the TV show Happy Days. Cool! He shook my hand. "I'm Henry Winkler," he said. "You were great. I hope you keep acting."