WHITE LAKE — A Raleigh resident with ties to White Lake has put his story to paper.
On July 30, 1969, Fallon and Betty Melvin welcomed their second son, Billie Fallon Melvin III, into the world in Rockingham. Everything did not go as planned, however.
“They told us they would stay with him all night, and, if he made it through the night — which they didn’t think he would — they would airlift him to Duke,” recounted Fallon.
Born without a lower jaw, inner or exterior ears, but with a recessed upper jaw, scoliosis, and too many ribs, Val — as he came to be called — spent most of his time in and out of hospitals.
“We were encouraged to find an institution for him when he was young, and this was the 70s, so people did that, but we just couldn’t, because we loved him too much,” Fallon said, tearing up. “He’s never heard a sound in his life, never spoken a word, but we noticed something different in his eyes. He was sharp — things were happening inside that we didn’t know about.”
The couple took their son to Duke and to sign-language therapy, and, as he began approaching school age, they looked into the North Carolina School for the Deaf in Wilson.
“They gave him an aptitude test, and they didn’t want us to take him home,” recalled Fallon, getting emotional again. “They said his mind was racing, and he needed to learn. That was the most difficult time we ever had, the day we left him there. His brother was squalling, and we were all emotional. We’ve always been so close, you see.”
The family had high hopes for the school.
“The deaf live in a lonely world,” explained Fallon. “Someone once asked Helen Keller which was worse — being blind or being deaf. She said, ‘Being deaf is worse. Being blind separates you from things, but being deaf separates you from people.’ They live in their own world. His mother and I did our best, but we never knew what he was thinking.”
One might be tempted to think those who understand the loneliness would band together, but the deaf culture is just like every other culture, and people form cliques. The child without jaws or ears but with a hole in his neck became the way, as it often does with children, for some to feel better about themselves.
“Children can be cruel,” Fallon said. “They bullied him, but he killed them with kindness. He’s always been a wonderful person.”
“(Humphrey) worked hard to help me learn and helped my classmates trust me,” Val said of his teacher. “I don’t know what I would have done if it wasn’t for her. I love her with all my heart, and I will never forget her.”
Val went on to graduate with honors from the school, then got an associates degree in computer programming from Wake Technical Community College. He worked for the North Carolina Department of Revenue until a rod in his back prohibited him from sitting all day. He currently lives in Raleigh in an apartment he designed, drives his own car, and teaches sign language at a large church in Raleigh — First Pentacostal Holiness.
“I’m so proud of him,” Fallon said, his voice cracking. “He’s as unselfish a person as I’ve ever met, and he’s always doing things for people. He’s never used his disability to do anything for himself.”
After seeing the French film Marie’s Story, an account of French nun Sister Margeurite’s efforts to lead a blind and deaf girl out of darkness and into communication, Val began to consider his own similar experience.
“He just sat down at our table at the (White Lake) cottage and started writing,” Fallon said.
He faced an obstacle, however. The challenge that’s faced deaf people for centuries is the same one beginning to affect many American students today — the spoken language is almost completely different from the written one. Signers, for example, don’t use the pauses speakers use, so the need for punctuation is not evident, they invariably omit articles like “the,” and verbs aren’t always conjugated, leaving the audience to infer verb tense from context. In addition, predicates often precede subjects, making the grammatical structure of sentences as different from spoken English as English is from Latin or Spanish. Changes like these necessitated Val have a translator for his manuscript.
He turned to his parents.
“He would churn out a page, and I would sit on the back porch translating what he’d written,” recalled Fallon.
At several points talking about his son’s accomplishments, Fallon was beaming, obviously proud of the obstacles his son has overcome.
“You ought to hear him — he can move a crowd,” Fallon choked out. “He’s always been an inspiration to us.”
The book A Child’s Teacher: A Story of Hope hit the book stores last month, and Val is holding a book signing at White Lake on July 15. He hopes, according to his father, to share his story of faith and to honor the teacher who showed him compassion and love and helped him learn confidence alongside life skills.
With the aid of an interpreter, the book signing will take place from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Melvin home, located at 1937 White Lake Drive.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.