Sept. 25, 2014
By Sean Tenaglia (’16)
Since University of Notre Dame freshman Calvin Kraft began running competitively in the sixth grade, he’s embraced the somewhat quirky lifestyle of many long-distance runners. He wakes up at the crack of dawn to go for a 10-mile run while the rest of the world sleeps. But unlike other runners who often appreciate the silence of those solitary training sessions to escape their usually noisy environment, Kraft understands the absence of sound as a way of life.
His parents are deaf.
“Growing up, it sometimes was a bit of an issue (having two parents who are deaf), but it never really bothered me,” Kraft says. “It’s always been that way for me, so I’ve never really been sad.”
Kraft’s father, Roger, has been deaf from birth. His mother, Christine, lost her hearing when she was 4 years old after bumping her head and contracting spinal meningitis. She nearly lost her life due to the injury and continues to battle hearing loss and issues with balance.
His parents met at Gallaudet University, the nation’s premier institution for the deaf and hard of hearing, in Washington D.C. The couple has four children – Calvin, and his three younger siblings, Natalie, 16, Tessa, 13, and Luke, 11.
Since his parents were deaf, Calvin learned two languages simultaneously as a young child – English and ASL (American Sign Language).
“Sometimes, I say that sign language is my first language because I did learn to sign before I spoke,” the freshman says. “Both my parents speak a little bit, but my grandparents taught me how to speak.
“There is a lot of literature on how babies learn to sign before they learn to speak. The motor control develops quicker in the hands than in the mouth. I sign at home, but I can talk with my siblings too. English is my primary language, but signing has always been a part of my life.”
As a toddler, Kraft came to the realization that his family and home life were not the norm.
“I think I always knew a little bit that it was a little different,” the Fishers, Ind., native says. “As I began to learn and understand about other families, I also started to learn that not every adult knows how to sign and not every adult is deaf.”
But having deaf parents also exposed him to the vibrant culture of the deaf community.
“There actually is a very strong deaf culture – there are deaf movies, deaf plays, a travelling theater troupe, deaf poems,” Kraft says. “There is so much that you can do with sign language and the deaf culture, which I have started to see as a gift.
“You might think they (deaf people) have lost something, but in a lot of ways, they also have gained a different perspective on the world.”
Kraft admits growing up with two deaf parents did lead to some uncomfortable and awkward situations. Nevertheless, he now looks back with a laugh at these experiences.
“The toughest part was that for each new person I met, I had to explain my situation to them,” Kraft says. “For each new friend I brought home, I had to tell them at the front door, `OK, I don’t want you to be freaked out if my mom starts signing. She’s deaf.’
“My parents aren’t conscious of noises, so sometimes in a restaurant they’ll set their cups down really loud. They just won’t realize it. Sometimes they’ll call across a crowded room, and others will wonder who made that noise. There’s definitely awkward situations at times, but I think most kids with deaf parents always find ways to see the humor.”
Because his parents could not hear, Kraft often had to assume more responsibilities than other children his age. He frequently served as an “interpreter,” a role that often frustrated both his parents and him.
“My parents are great and I have so much to thank them for, but there were times where I had to step in for them,” Kraft says. “Many times I have been the interpreter. I know they didn’t really like it, but it rose out of necessity.
“If we are ordering food, some people struggle to cross the communication barrier, and I need to step in and say, `My dad will have a burger and fries.’ If we are at a bank, where you can only communicate verbally, I need to step in and speak for them. They don’t love it, but it is something that I have had to do.”
Kraft also had to keep an eye on his siblings, even when the last thing he wanted to do was play “traffic cop.”
Whether he wanted to be or not, Kraft often was thrust into a parental role growing up. He can recall several instances throughout his childhood in which he had to intervene between his younger siblings.
“Since I’m the oldest, many times growing up, I was thrust into a parental role and ended up being more bossy than I should be. If one of my sisters is screaming at the top of her lungs, my parents have no idea what is going on and I’ve had to be the one to step in and tell them to stop.
“My siblings and I are very close and I don’t think too much has changed because our parents are deaf. It is just something additionally that links us together.”
As Calvin can attest, the Kraft family has rallied around and embraced the deaf culture. Kraft believes that his parents have given him many gifts, the most important being a perspective on life.
“I have the best of both worlds because I get to be a part of the deaf culture and then also appreciate the benefits of hearing,” Kraft says. “I’ve never seen my parents use their disabilities as a negative thing. I think if you asked me what `disability’ meant before I knew the word, I would not have understood you.
“I definitely have started to see that a disability isn’t something a person has lost. It’s something that sets him or her apart, but it also makes that person special. Yes, my parents can’t hear, but look at all this other things they can do; I still have that mindset. It’s something they’ve taught me. Your lot in life is something you should never be ashamed of, and anything you get, you need to make the most of it.”
In addition to the deaf culture, the Kraft family has also adopted the culture of running as a part of its daily routine.
“I started running for fun, but after a while, it became an outlet,” Kraft says. “We’ve kind of turned running into a family thing. They’ve embraced that I have turned into this person who wakes up early to go out for a long run. They thought I was crazy for doing it, but at the same time, they’ve done it, too.
“My dad started running at the same time I did, and my mom goes out sometimes. My younger siblings have joined in, too. It has started with my dad and me running a few races when I was a kid. It’s just another lifestyle we have embraced.”
Kraft ran in his first collegiate race at the Crusader Open Sept. 5. He finished 10th overall and fifth for the Irish in 11:21.5 in a race that was shortened to four kilometers due to inclement weather. Just last weekend at the National Catholic Championships, he posted a 19th-place finish overall among the 89 Division I runners as he crossed the finish line in 25:41.07 in the five-mile race. Despite his strong performances, Kraft feels he has a lot more to give and is looking forward to turning some heads this season.
“I want to meet and exceed the expectations of my coaches,” Kraft says. “I think I’ve been doing really well in workouts and have been consistently up in the front of the pack. I want to be among the top two or three from our freshman class. That would be an accomplishment in and of itself.”
Kraft has set high expectations for himself not only as a runner, but also as a student in the classroom. The Alumni Hall resident plans to major in neuroscience and has already taken advantage of several opportunities to immerse himself in the Notre Dame community. Kraft has a passion for singing and recently joined Halftime, a co-ed cappella group on campus.
“I’ve been trying to do as much as I can,” Kraft says. “People always say that I shouldn’t try to overload my schedule, but I don’t think I’m doing too much just yet. I know I’m a runner who is going to have a pretty strict academic schedule.
“I’m just trying to add in some other things, like Spanish club and Halftime. I want to be a well-rounded person at Notre Dame. I really appreciate all that the school has to offer.”
Kraft is making his parents proud in more ways than one. He is excited to discover what his future at Notre Dame holds and is grateful to have his parents along with him every step of the way.