Unruly Voices

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The Butterfly Cage

Joy, heartache, and corruption: Teaching while Deaf in a California public school

Rachel Zemach

A tender and perspective-shifting book that offers a rare level of understanding about the subtle and and no-so-subtle layers of internalized oppression and deep feelings and dilemmas of Deaf people, written by former Deaf teacher Rachel Zemach.

This mesmerizing, funny, and disruptive narrative invites you to be a fly on the wall in a Deaf classroom at a hearing school, experiencing the immense frustration, unbridled joy, and indelible humor that arise for Deaf adults and children in a hearing environment.

Rachel struggles with staff, administration, and aides who sabotage her efforts at every turn. The students contend with a principal who removes their textbooks, intercom announcements that are totally inaccessible and a system that renders them all defenseless against these dysfunctional and often absurd forces.

You’ll meet seven-year-old Laszlo, the brilliant, language-hungry boy who will capture your heart, and the political, fiercely intelligent elite members of the Deaf community who rally to change legislation after his life takes a shocking turn at age sixteen when he makes a heart-wrenching decision.

In a series of short, distinctive chapters, Zemach shares her personal Deafhood journey, poignant scenes from the classroom, shocking individualized education meetings and their impact, and the larger political and historical picture surrounding Deaf education.

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About The Author

Rachel Zemach

Rachel Zemach

The child of Caldecott Award-winning children’s book authors, Rachel Zemach grew up surrounded by literature, art, and humor. After becoming Deaf suddenly at age ten, she attended a series of schools that had one thing in common—a lack of accessible education—until, four years later, she found herself at a school for the Deaf. Thus began a love for American Sign Language and the richly idiosyncratic, passionate, and innovative culture and community of the Deaf.

While raising a family, after completing a degree in education, Rachel Zemach began teaching in the Deaf classroom of a local public school. Shocked at the deprivation she encountered there, she retired with a sense of urgency to write this book. She now lives with her husband in Northern California.

6 reviews for The Butterfly Cage

  1. Mark Drolsbaugh

    “This is a powerful read. Those who have worked in the field of Deaf education and truly get it will nod affirmatively. Those who are new or not as familiar with the needs of Deaf children are in for an eye-opening experience. The book starts out like a nice, leisurely drive through the countryside and then holy smokes — strap yourself in! — you realize you’re in a fighter jet pulling 7 G’s. Rachel Zemach masterfully leads you through a world where we can and should be doing better. For good measure, Zemach adds a comprehensive list of tips and strategies that are must-read for parents, teachers, administrators, and allies of the Deaf community. A valuable resource.”

    Mark Drolsbaugh, author of Deaf Again

  2. John Geogegehan

    The Butterfly Cage blows the lid off the California public school system’s treatment of deaf students. You will be both enlightened and outraged!”

    John Geogegehan, author of Hear Today, Gone Tomorrow: A True Story of Love, Hearing Loss, Heartbreak and Redemption

  3. Larry Siegal

    The Butterfly Cage by Rachel Zemach is a remarkable, beautifully-written, and important book. For those of us involved in education and with any experience with the vibrant Deaf Community in America, this is absolutely a required reading. But Ms. Zemach takes us way beyond to the larger issue of the beauty and diversity of language and the fundamental right that we should all have to to develop and access language. I am honored to recommend this book.

    Larry Siegal, author, Special Education attorney and Hastings law professor

  4. Raymond Luczak

    “Many books about educating the Deaf have struck me as a tad dry, but Rachel Zemach’s The Butterfly Cage is anything but dry. She shares her many years of teaching her Deaf students while trying to work within the “system” to provide a better—and more equitable—experience for them. While this may seem like a “big-picture” book filled with some truly heartbreaking scenes, we do meet many unforgettable characters, all of whom are beautifully rendered to illustrate clearly how and what must change in the future. The Butterfly Cage is a clarion call not only to reconsider how Deaf students have been historically served but also how they deserve a far better chance now to improve their own lives not as Deaf people trying to be hearing, which is actually a form of oppression which is brilliantly delineated in these pages, but as Deaf people as themselves with their own set of unique cultural attributes: diverse, vibrant, and powerful.”

    Raymond Luczak, author of A Quiet Foghorn: More Notes from a Deaf Gay Life

  5. Mal May

    The Butterfly Cage is a fascinating and heartfelt dive into the hidden world of education for Deaf children in a public “mainstream” school. Zemach brings her students to life for us, and shares their trials and triumphs, heartbreaks and moments of pure joy, all while taking us along for the twists and turns of her own life journey. Whether or not you’ve ever known and loved a Deaf child — or any child — this is a book you won’t want to miss.”

    Mal May, former school psychologist at a school for the Deaf

  6. Michael Thal

    “Rachel Zemach, a Deaf educator, encounters challengers who know nothing about educating a deaf child, but all the power to inflict damages that can last a life-time.”

    Michael Thal, author of the The Lip Reader

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