Just over a year after this passionate editorial was published, Eckberg suffered a heart attack in her home and passed away at the age of 54. After her death, her surviving family put her personal possessions up for public auction. Fortunately, a graduate of NSD successfully bid on these items, and today, they are duly preserved in the Nebraska Deaf Heritage Museum and Cultural Center Archives. When I visited the museum recently, I had the privilege of perusing some of Eckberg’s effects. Her photographs, most of which documented her time at NSD, emanated the playful warmth that was so central to her being (see Figures 11a and 11b).
I was also able to set my eyes upon several pieces of art that had been created by Eckberg, including an exquisitely stained vase, a self-styled silhouette, and a realistic landscape picturing a stellar sunset, foregrounded by a rural irrigation system (see Figures 12a–12c). Yet, the piece that struck me most was a deeply expressionistic oil painting that depicted a massive tidal wave on the verge of devouring a lone, relatively small, and shadowy figure (see Figure 12d). I couldn’t help but think—could this destructive force-of-nature be a stand-in for the oppressive hearing world? Is that solitary, spectral shape, in fact, some version of Ann Eckberg? Regrettably, I’ll never know.
But I do know this: Ann Eckberg was and is an incredible human woman who demonstrated a singular dedication to nurturing the minds of countless students of all ages. A large portion of able-bodied America remains convinced that so-called “disabled” citizens are, to some extent, different from them. Eckberg’s story enables us to engage with this puzzling, widespread notion in a fresh way. Was she so different? The answer is complicated. As a result of her impairment, she encountered unique challenges throughout her life. Most of these difficulties did not stem from the actual physical fact of deafness; rather, they were a product of the overwhelmingly biased social institutions that threatened to usurp her control over her own life.
In spite of the limitations imposed upon her life, Eckberg was extraordinarily accomplished, an intellectual powerhouse, and uncommonly optimistic. In truth, she was different from your average citizen. But by no means was she substandard. It is impossible to ascertain if she, in her last days, continued to harbor the same acute level of disappointment with the state of deaf education that she had conveyed in her editorial. I think that she would be happy with certain developments in the domain of deaf education. For instance, in 2006, the Nebraska State Board of Education officially recognized American Sign Language as a legitimate language. On the other hand, though, as deaf residential schools are progressively becoming extinct and special educational programs continue to be amongst the first to undergo scrutiny for budget cuts, I believe that she would contend that there’s still much work to be done. And, in the same breath, she would say that the onus is on us to do it.
Author’s Note: Writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery once declared, “Life always bursts the boundaries of formulas.” In the process of recovering Ann Eckberg’s story, I’ve come to appreciate the accuracy of this assertion. I strove quixotically to contain her to these few pages, but she embodied so much—was bursting with so many ambitions, contradictions, and passions—that, try as I might, I could never fully evoke her person through my formula. Her gravestone is bare, containing no passages—just two roses, her name, and the years of her birth and death (see Figure 13). And, though I’ve had the good fortune to discover more about Eckberg, she remains, by my estimation, rather elusive. But, I think that it’s best that way.