America’s apostle to the deaf
Born on December 26, 1785, Louis Laurent Marie Clerc was the son of Joseph-François Clerc and Marie-Élisabeth Candy. Louis’ life began in a remote village, La Balme-les-Grottes, Isère, in southeastern France. His father followed in the footsteps of the men in his family by serving the king through the Royal Commissary and as mayor of their village.
At the age of one year old, Louis fell from his high chair in the kitchen. The accident resulted in him receiving a severe burn on his right cheek. A fever soon developed and it was later learned his senses of smell and hearing were damaged. It was never known whether the fall caused the loss of these senses, or if the loss was already there and just now discovered. The injury also resulted in a permanent scar to the right side of his face below his ear.
At the age of seven, Louis traveled with his mother to be seen by a physician in Lyons, in an effort to receive treatment for his deafness. Despite enduring two weeks of painful injections of liquid into Louis’s ears, they returned home with no cure. As a result, his parents kept him home. For the next 11 years, Louis would explore the village in which he lived, as well as care for his family’s livestock. He received little education and was not taught to write.
In 1797, Clerc was enrolled in the Institut National des Jeune Sourds-Muets, the world’s first public school for the deaf. The school had been established by a priest named Abbe De L’Epee and would become the model for 100s of school that were later established around the world. Clerc’s instructor, Jean Massieu, was also deaf and became a lifelong friend. Louis proved to be an excellent student and in 1805, began to tutor others. The following year, he was part of the teaching staff.
Despite the fact Clerc excelled in most of his studies, he did falter in one respect. An assistant teacher named Abbe Margaron attempted to teach Clerc to pronounce words. Certain syllables were quite difficult for him to pronounce and his inability to do so infuriated the instructor. During one lesson, Margaron’s impatience with Clerc got the best of him and he delivered a violent blow to his student’s chin. The assault caused Clerc to bite his tongue and burst into tears. At that moment, he swore he would not speak again, and he never did. It also strengthened his determination to use sign language as the method by which deaf students should be taught.
In 1815, Clerc traveled to England with Massieu and Abbe Sicard, the school’s director, in an effort to introduce their teaching methods. Here they met Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet from Hartford, Connecticut. Gallaudet was invited to accompany the three men on their return to France and experience the school’s instruction program. Gallaudet then invited Clerc to travel to Connecticut with him to help establish America’s first school for the deaf. The 28-year-old Clerc agreed to a three year stay, after which he would return to France.
The voyage to the United States began on June 18, 1816 and required 52 days to complete. The two men made good use of the time as Clerc taught Gallaudet sign language and Gallaudet taught him to read and write English.
The two men worked together to raise funds for the school. $12,000 ($221,680.00 - 2021) was received from the public and the Connecticut General Assembly contributed another $5,000 ($92,367.00). In 1819, the school received its first annual grant. In 1820, the US Congress awarded the school a land grand in the Alabama Territory. This was the first instance of federal aid offered to a school of special education in the United States.
Originally named Connecticut Asylum at Hartford for the Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons, the school’s name was later changed to the American School for the Deaf. Gallaudet served as the school’s principal and Clerc its lead teacher. In that capacity, Clerc not only taught classes, he also trained teachers and administrators.
The school’s doors opened April 15, 1817 with 31 students. Originally housed in the abandoned Bennett’s City Hotel, the school moved to its permanent location in 1821. As the first deaf teacher in America, Clerc became one of the most prominent deaf men in American history.
Clerc originally used Old French sign language. In time, this was intermingled with local and regional sign language, creating American Sign Language (ASL). Clerc's efforts began to spread and during his lifetime, more than 30 schools for training the deaf had been established throughout various states; among them Michigan, Wisconsin, Kentucky and Alabama.
In the process of developing ASL, the sign Clerc used for his name was derived from the scar on the right side of his face, which he had received as a small child - a "U" hand shape twice downward stroked by the right side of the face.
As the three year time span in America neared its end, Clerc’s plans to return to France were thwarted by one of his students, Eliza Boardman. When she became his wife on May 3, 1819, Clerc chose to remain in the United States. Their first child, a daughter named Elizabeth, was born the next year and later followed in her father’s footsteps by becoming a teacher at ASD.
“The Apostle of the Deaf in America” was 73 when he retired from teaching in 1858, having done so for 50 years. Despite being retired, Clerc remained connected and faithful to the American School for the Deaf until he died.
Every decent man, and every real gentleman in particular, ought to apply himself, above all things, to the study of his native language, so as to express his ideas with ease and gracefulness. Laurent Clerc