A loud bell starts the lunch break at Yehud Comprehensive high school. Within minutes, the cafeteria is crowded with children, and the hallway is full of noise. Only one corner remains perfectly quiet: Some 15 pupils are talking to each other in sign language, almost completely cut off from those around them.
At first glance, the separation between hearing and deaf students seems questionable, but the latter say they welcome it.
"After spending so much energy lip reading and trying to follow what goes on in class, I want to rest a little during the break and talk to my friends," says Shani Meshulam of Rehovot.
In class, the hearing-impaired pupils usually sit in the first row, so they can read the teacher's lips. But some of them speak enviously of the hearing pupils, who can sit in the back, lay their head on the table and take a nap.
"I have to be alert all the time. Apart from when I sleep, I look only at lips. It's very tiring," says Shani, a 12th-grader.
Michael Kadosh, also a 12th-grader, says, "We listen with our eyes. We can't blink, because we might miss something important."
The hearing-impaired pupils give the teachers marks. A good teacher is not necessarily one who gives the most interesting lessons or ensures students understand the material, but one whose lips can be followed. He must speak clearly, have relatively thin lips, and not wander around the classroom or turn away from the students. "How many times can you ask the person sitting beside you what the teacher said?" says Shani.
A beard or mustache can make teachers difficult to understand. So does insufficient lighting or dazzling sunlight. And some teachers quickly forget the pupils' request that they stay in one place.
Meeting each other during the break gives the hearing-impaired pupils a chance to relax from the pressure and concentration in the classroom; the hearing children do not always have the patience to speak slowly and clearly.
Within the group, the students distinguish between the deaf and the hard of hearing. The deaf say their situation is better, and that they are "cooler" and more active socially.
"People don't notice the difference between the deaf and the hard of hearing," says Sigalit Bar-On, who belongs to the second group.
"When I was a little girl, they used to call me deaf in the neighborhood, but I'm not. It's not a bad thing, but it's important to me to define myself as hard of hearing," she says.
One of the teachers says that sometimes the deaf students say someone hard of hearing has "crossed the line, is too good to hang out with us anymore."
"They have a sense of pride, which is an excellent thing," she says.
Yehud Comprehensive has some 1,500 students, and its large size is an advantage. The hard-of-hearing students are not restricted to one identity; they can wander between social groups. "We have the benefit of three worlds here - the deaf, the hard of hearing and the hearing. You don't find that in many places," says a student.
The hearing-impaired group appears especially close-knit. When they meet at each other's homes for parties, Shani's mother Yael Meshulam says, the neighbors often complain about the loud music. But the bass is how they feel the music.
"We also don't hear ourselves laugh loudly," says Shani.
Seventy-six hearing impaired students, about half of whom are deaf, study at Yehud Comprehensive. Unlike other schools, which put them in separate classes, here studies are integrated. Students determine through their hearing ability and motivation whether to study with their classmates and receive special aid, or with a smaller group of six or seven other hearing-impaired pupils.
Subjects like mathematics are usually taught together, in part because much of the material is written on the board, in contrast to more verbal subjects like history or literature.
"There are no concessions or allowances for the hearing-impaired," says Riki Tzur, who is in charge of the students' placement. "For example, they cannot come to class late because they didn't hear the bell. This is the last chance to prepare them for real life. There they will be a lot less protected."
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