Friday, August 22, 2014

The Baby-Sitters Club #16: Jessi's Secret Language

Let's go way back in time. It's 1988 according to this book, which means that I was eight years old and just discovering the BSC books and a young girl named Jessi Ramsey just moved to Stoneybrook. In case you didn't know, Jessi is an amazing ballerina, which this book lets us know on page one. By page three, we also know that she's black and a transplant from New Jersey, which is okay because at least in Connecticut, she has her own barre to practice moves in her basement.

At the next BSC meeting, a new client named Mrs. Braddock calls in for help. Her son is deaf and she needs a regular sitter willing to learn the language. Mary Anne and Dawn want to keep their schedules free, Claudia has an art class, Kristy lives too far away, and Mallory has to sit for her siblings, so Jessi gets the job. Even though she knows it will be hard, she looks forward to it.

Jessi has to go over for a few hours to learn some signs and meet the kids. I sincerely hope that Mrs. Braddock actually pays her for this. She gets a copy of the ASL illustrated dictionary and learns some of the basic signs that she needs to work with Matt. Haley makes it clear that she isn't that happy. Jessi makes a comment about how she can't get to know him if he reads all the time, and Haley basically asks, "what about me?".

While all of this is going on, Jessi auditions for a role in Coppelia. She worries that she won't get a role because she's too black or not good enough but she lands the lead role. Katie Beth and some of the other girls talk about her behind her back. They say she only got the role because she's a teacher's pet or because she's the newest girl in the school.

Jessi is of course a natural with ASL. She basically teachers herself hundreds of signs in a few days and learns the whole alphabet in one night. Mary Anne brings over Jenny P one day, who makes fun of him, calls him weird, and demands they leave. To make Matt feel better, Jessi takes him to meet the Pikes. They all love him and start learning sign language too. Claudia teaches Karen, Andrew, and David Michael about signing, and Karen asks Jessi to teach her some words. Pretty much everyone in Stoneybrook wants to learn ASL, and Jessi ends up teaching the entire club, including Logan, some important words.

After a rehearsal for the show, Jessi meets Katie Beth's little sister. It turns out that she's deaf and goes to a special school. Since she only comes home for holidays and special events, none of her family knows any signs. Jessi talks with her and teaches KB some simple signs. The two girls start getting along.

Jessi takes Matt and Haley back to the Pikes. Haley finally admits that she hates her brother sometimes because he gets so much attention and is so different and that she sometimes wishes he was normal or was never born. Jessi tells her how she sometimes feels that way about her own siblings and how it's normal, which makes Haley feel better about herself.

She then arranges for Matt's school to receive invitations to her big show. Haley and Mrs. Braddock do sign language for the kids in attendance, and of course Jessi does a great job. Matt brings her a big ass bouquet of flowers, and another kid walks up on stage. It's KB's little sister bringing her a bouquet too. The whole BSC shows up to support her, and her grandparents bring a surprise guest: Keisha. She gets to introduce the club members to her best friend and cousin. The Ramseys then decide to take everyone out to eat to celebrate her big moment.

*I think it's funny that in the later books, we always get a description of Dawn, even after she permanently moves back to California. This book never even mentions Stacey and she comes back in a few books.

*Jessi mentions on page one that she wouldn't have gotten the job if she wasn't so good at languages, but she actually gets the job because no one else wants it or can take it.

*Apparently being good at picking up a foreign language makes you good at sign language. Jessi supposedly was nearly fluent in Spanish after a single vacation. Uh-huh, sure.

*Haley has a rat tail! Is this every mentioned again in the other books? Jessi describes it as a short haircut in the front with a long tail in the back, which is totally a rat tail. I can't remember any girls I knew having one, but all the cuties in third grade had them LOL.

*The Braddock house looks just like Mallory's house. Jessi says that the same guy designed most of the houses in the neighborhood. Um, so the same house can comfortably hold four people or ten people?

*Kristy is shocked to learn that at 37, her mom is still young enough to get pregnant. Given that I'm 34, that made me feel very, very, very sad. On the other hand, am I the only one who figured Elizabeth was a lot older than that?

*Why do these YA books always use Coppelia? I know it was the ballet Jessica and Elizabeth did in SVT, and I'm pretty sure it was in some other chapter books too.

*Jessi has an insane schedule for a kid. She now sits for the Braddock family and has a BSC meeting on Monday and Wednesday, goes to dance class and a meeting on Friday, and has dance class again on Tuesday, plus she has homework every night too. When does she have time to breathe?

*We find out that most of her classmates in her ballet school are 13 or 14, which makes her getting all these leads even more ridiculous. Then again, I seem to remember in one of the later books that Hillary (or another girl?) only has one last shot to dance the lead before she has to move to another school, so it's probably a continuity error that older girls were in this class.

*I love that SVT used an actual doll as Coppelia. When KB gets the role of the doll in this book, she literally says that someone could just use a doll in her place.

*Don't forget that Jessi tots doesn't want to be a professional ballet dancer! Of course in the later books, which according to the continuity of the series is like two months later, all she wants to do is become a professional dancer.


  1. When I read the bit about descriptions of Dawn vs descriptions of Stacey, I first thought, "Well, Jessi hadn't met Stacey." Then I remembered that Abby describes Dawn despite not meeting her!

    Jessi's point about learning foreign languages is valid, because ASL is not just symbols for spoken (American) English. It has its grammar rules, for instance. Exact Signed English is symbols to replace spoken English, word-for-word. But when she uses it as the reason she got the're right, it's because she was the only one available!

    Yeah, Haley's rat tail. I'm a few years younger than you (almost 30). I remember some kids having them and thinking they looked so gross and weird. But Jessi describes them as cool...I disagreed!

  2. Abby definitely describes Dawn in all her books, but in a way like "I've never met her and don't know her but let me describe her perfectly."

    As for the rat tails, I can so clearly recall the little boy my little girl self had a crush on and how his went down past his shoulders. I'm so glad those never made a come back :)

    1. Just yesterday, I saw a boy with a rat tail. Sigh.

    2. NO!! They cannot come back! I will not let them come back! lol

  3. I'm really tempted now to hunt down this book and re-read it.
    When I was in middle school (so 1995-ish?) I made friends with a Deaf girl in my school. There weren't any other deaf kids in our lunch period and none of my friends had that lunch period, so when I saw her sitting alone I made friends with her.
    Being so young and hanging out with her and other deaf kids fairly often meant I learned a semi-conversational level of ASL pretty quickly. In the beginning I had to write notes, sketch quick pictures and pantomime a fair bit, but before that school year was out I could converse and joke entirely in ASL (well, I think I probably used a kind of pidgin ASL/Signed English).
    Of course, 12-year-old me thought this meant I was totally fluent and totally super smart. I was lucky in that when I moved to a new city in high school, the school had ASL classes as part of the foreign language program. By my ASL 2 class I realized I was laughably not fluent, but I caught on quickly, majored in Interpreting in college and worked for the local non-profit organization for the Deaf.

    I'm really curious now to re-read this book since when I first read it all I knew of sign language was how to fingerspell my name and how to sign 'I love you' and now it's such a huge part of my life. It'd be interesting to see how hearing folks in 1988 perceived deaf people and ASL.

    I'm glad that it looks like they touched on the fact that many Deaf kids go/went to schools far away from home and that their families usually didn't sign. That was something that was absolutely shocking to me as a teen. Once I went to a friend's house and automatically signed an introduction to her mom just assuming that kid-that-only-communicates-in-ASL means mom-that-can-communicate-in-ASL. Her mom rolled her eyes and said "great! Another one of those deaf-mutes" and walked away. I figured her mother was an exception but found out later in my more formal classes that parents that are barely-conversational in ASL or better are the exception. Parents that don't sign at all are the norm. It's sad as hell. It's changing, but it's still largely the case.

    Also, having an ear (so to speak) for languages *can* make ASL easier to learn. I live in south Texas and therefore learned some degree of Spanish by simple osmosis. When I was learning proper ASL grammar it helped that a fair bit of the grammar is more similar to Spanish and the other Romance languages than to English. Also, ASL is based on French Sign Language which is, in turn, based on French, so being familiar with Romance languages really can help. For example, the sign for "good" uses a B-handshape because the word in French is "bon." And maybe I'm mistaken, but a ballet dancer would be familiar with some basic French, right?
    Having a strong sense of spacial awareness can help as can being visually observant (particularly to details and nuances), but being someone for whom languages come naturally helps a lot.

    In high school a fair number of the kids in my classes took ASL thinking it was just English represented in signs and therefore would be a simple matter of memorization. No written essays to worry about. No grammar tests. They figured it would be by far the easiest of the foreign languages offered. Most of those kids quickly floundered in class and a large portion of them went on to take Spanish 1 the next year rather than ASL 2, and many of them claimed that while Spanish was hard for them, it was much easier than ASL.

    But, yeah, Jessi got the job because she was free. She *took* to the job (maybe partially) because she was good at languages.

    1. Have you watched any of Switched at Birth, and if so, what do you think of the show? I love it, but I don't know how realistic it is. There is a scene with a guy on the show where his mom acts just like the one did in your story. My only experience with signing comes from a few lessons as a kid and that show (LOL), but I think your story is so cool! Do you still sign now?