Sign language students share silent stories

Monday, November 28, 2005

UNIVERSITY CITY, Mo. -- John T. Adams had never taught a sign language class. The challenge, he quickly learned, was that each student had a different and important reason for learning this language for the deaf. He wanted to reach each of them.

And he only had 2 1/2 hours every Monday night for eight weeks to do it. He wanted them to able to sign more than just words. A deaf person either already knows or doesn't care if you can sign, "My car is red." Adams wanted his students to be able to tell stories.

Adams, 35, has worked as a professional interpreter for the deaf for seven years. He knows how deaf people struggle to communicate. It was exciting for him to be on the other end, teaching people who can ease those struggles.

Seven of the 14 students registered in the St. Louis Community College continuing education class showed up for the semester's last session in a small classroom at University City High School. Their assignment: Tell a story to their classmates with their newly learned language.

"Are you ready with your stories?" Adams asked with words and signs.

Here are a few:

Bob and Kay Yoder, a couple from Rock Hill, took the class together. For their homework, Bob slowly made his way through a story about his year-old granddaughter, Jasmine, visiting the Zoo. She liked the monkeys, elephants and lions. Kay shared with the class how she learned that she had colon cancer two years ago. She went through chemotherapy for six months. Her husband helped her. The cancer is gone. She's happy.

The Yoders, both 52, are learning sign language so they can communicate with their son-in-law's brother, Vafa Salmon, who has been deaf since he was 3. At family visits, they want to be able to talk with him about his beloved New England Patriots. His job. His marriage.

When Salmon visited St. Louis a few months ago, they said, it was frustrating when their son-in-law wasn't around to translate for Salmon. They communicated by writing things down, but that was awkward.

"I didn't want to avoid him because I couldn't talk to him," Kay said.

The only sound during Renee Morrow's story about how she hates to drive on the highway at night was the clinging of her silver bracelets. She recently drove home from work on Interstate 270 in the dark, she explained. Her friends were proud of her. She was proud of herself.

Morrow, 48, of north St. Louis County, was still wearing her bright blue uniform and name tag, having just come from work at Delhaven Manor nursing home. About eight months ago, a deaf man moved into the center. He can read lips, but the other residents still avoid him, Morrow said. She guesses it's because he's hard to understand when he talks. He seemed so lonely.

So she decided to learn sign language and provide him with her company. Morrow signed to him: "I'm taking this class, and you will help me."

"We've gotten closer," she said. "He's nice. He's my buddy." He anxiously waits to see what she's learned in class, and then they practice her new words together. She's learned about his family, and how he'd like to help out somehow around the nursing home.

Morrow can translate his needs to other employees. And they are picking up on some of the signs as well.

"I think he enjoys being there now," Morrow said. "Now that he has someone to converse with."

Dennis Brewer, 55, an inspector at a machine shop, rubbed his tummy and his head while telling the class how he got sick again and had to returned to the hospital for six days with kidney problems. The nurse had a hard time getting an IV started. He showed the bruises on his arms. Now he's healthy.

It's more urgent for Brewer than the others to learn sign language. His world is growing more silent by the day. He got two hearing aids about four years ago. They're turned up as loud as they can go. His voice already sounding muted, sign language may soon be his only way to communicate.

He attributes the loss to the "XY factor." Both is mother and father lost their hearing as they aged.

Brewer's motivation is evident. Every chance he gets, he practices. This is only his second class, but he rarely says a word without signing it as well. He reads tutorials and checks himself in front of a mirror. He converses with a deaf co-worker.

"I'm a little nervous," he says, about the thought of losing his hearing completely. "Learning sign language makes me feel better."

Brewer knows he doesn't want to do slip away like his father. His father never admitted he was going deaf. Everyone else was mumbling.

"The secret to survival is adaptation," Brewer said.

As the clock neared 9 p.m., members of the class shook their palms in the air for Adams. That's the sign for applause.

Bob Yoder stuck his arm in the air to get everyone's attention. "I just want to say that everybody in this class has been very supportive," he said, "and I appreciate that."

The students nodded in agreement. They showered Adams with thanks for helping them in their quests.

The teacher had praise for his students as well: "Thank you everyone for being patient with me, and letting me have fun, and tell stories, and laugh ... and oh ... and teach."

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