FARMINGTON – Visiting Mt. Blue Campus is a fully sensory experience.
There is the art installation hanging above the Bjorn Auditorium doors that greets people as they enter the building: dangling glass pieces that hint at jelly fish or something else sea-like, sending pink hues of sunlight across the front lobby. There is the ‘new car’ smell still lingering in the halls, mixed with infamous scent of the wrestling room despite its discreet location behind the gym. And there is the soundtrack of school days: startling bells, echoing intercom announcements and the consistent rush of conversation, plus the occasional fiddle tune or assembly chant or athletic team cheer.
The sound of Mt. Blue can be the most demanding: the chatter of teenagers like 300 squirrels anxiously preparing for winter. But for Mat Otte that soundtrack falls short.
“That’s the one negative that really impacts me- communication and socialization. Like my soccer team and my track team. I need an interpreter, I need all this stuff to communicate with them and for us to clearly understand each other. And it’s the same with everyone,” Otte signs with interpretative work by Jennifer Rogers.
Otte was born profoundly deaf in Hefei, China. According to stories, he was found abandoned in a train station and was brought to a nearby orphanage. With no language and no way of communicating, Otte depended on watching those around him and mimicking what they did. The facility offered no resources for Otte to learn sign language.
“It was difficult. Everything was hard,” he said.
Otte was abused both physically and emotionally while at the facility, working long hours to help earn his keep. Finally, at seven years old, Otte was whisked away by his adoptive mother.
“I just remember seeing her one day and we were together all the time after that,” he said.
Otte and his new mom traveled back to her home town in Maine, where he was quickly set up with an American Sign Language instructor. At first Otte was overwhelmed by excitement at learning how to communicate with those around him. He learned one word at a time, while also absorbing a completely new culture, new friends and new family life.
“At first learning was awesome. But I was frustrated all the time. It was awful. It was so hard. I tried teaching other students how to sign, but it’s hard. They forget. I have to find other ways to communicate with them, like writing or texting. It’s hard,” Otte said.
Now, 11 years later, Otte has mostly mastered ASL, though he says he isn’t quite there yet. He and his friends and teammates have found ways to communicate with one another, mostly through writing, but it’s still hard he said.
“I would like it to be more equal. Hopefully new technology will continue to grow to help it be more equal. I heard that hearing people’s lives are easy. But deaf lives are a struggle and it’s a struggle to communicate in everyday living. It’d be nice if hearing people would learn to communicate with deaf people. It’s important,” he said.
Otte said he’s interested in the scientific world of making life easier for people- from helping bridge the worlds of the hearing and the deaf, to looking at California’s wild fires and possible solutions. Next fall he’ll start at Rochester Institute of Technology, where he’ll study alongside other deaf students.
“I’ll be able to communicate with other students for the first time in my life. I’ll be able to participate in a brainstorm,” he said.
Before leaving Farmington, however, Otte will have the opportunity to address his peers at graduation in June- a moment he’s looking forward to.
“I want to tell them how great they were. Everyone has been so supportive,” he said.