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Visit to a deaf classroom (day program)

By Mary Elizabeth Dickerson
April 12, 2001

This semester I spent Wednesday of every week as a "volunteer" at T.H. Rogers Elementary School in Houston. I was assigned to Mrs. Mary Van Mannen's class, 1st and 2nd grade. To my nervous delight, Mrs. Van Mannen is deaf. All of the children were deaf, and had received little oral training. This was an experience.

My bachelor's degree is in communication disorders. I have a very strong medical audilogical and speech background. I had never before spent that much time around deaf children who are not expected to talk. I was immersed in a signing world, and it taught me a lot. The children use a child's combination of ASL and signed English. Most of the students also used mime to communicate, since communication was relatively new to them. I was astounded at how well they could communicate with each other, but how little they could read. I would often watch them at lunch and recess time, their hands going a hundred miles an hour, but only about 1/3 of the signs were "true". It was like this group of seven had made up their own ways of "talking". For the most part, I understood what they were saying. My meager three classes of sign language given me enough vocabulary. I learned some new signs, "date", "car", "truck", "pencil", etc., and the students loved to teach me a new sign. They absolutely loved telling me wild stories, and I absolutely loved pretending I believed they had parachuted out of a burning airplane.

I often noticed the students' hearing aids. The earmolds now come in really cool colors. They may "stick out like a sore thumb" to the average hearing kid, but they were a great source of pride for the deaf children. I think my kids enjoyed hearing the environmental sounds from the hearing aids, but used them very little. They were always pleasantly delighted to hear a giant airplane roaring overhead during recess. I'm not sure if they heard anything, but the ground actually shook, so there you have it. They usually remembered to wear them to the cafeteria and recess, but often took them out in the classroom.

Mrs. Van Mannen is a very patient teacher. She worked with me on fingerspelling, correcting mine and making sure I understood hers. She understood my background was definitely not signed English and often translated signs for me. She communicated with me in signed English. I'm not sure if I prefer that or not. Since my first language is English, the order was fine; but I have been brainwashed into thinking signed English is evil and should be banished. When working with the kids, she often used signs like "I", "is", etc., but in running conversation would use ASL. I'm not sure if she realized she was doing it. She had the neatest "gadgets". She had this thing that allowed her to get text email messages. It was only the size of a soap dish and was wireless. She was constantly checking her messages. I guess if she were hearing, I wouldn't have thought anything about her using the telephone. It was really cool.

During my "experience" in Mrs. Van Mannen's room, I had my first experience translating. I know some of my professors would need oxygen administered right about now, but it wasn't too bad. I was the only person in the room who could hear besides our visitor, a bank executive participating in Junior Achievement, and I really had no choice. Mrs. Van Mannen was very patient, I went very slow. She made it clear whether she understood me or not. It was an amazing confidence builder, knowing I was understood. Mr. Flagg (or visitor) was also appreciative of my voice interpreting for Mrs. Van Mannen. That was no problem. The only conscious thought I could remember was, "What exactly is the role of an interpreter?". Surprisingly, my anxiety level remained low during the 30 minutes I was "under the gun", but I could not sleep for days. I have decided to keep this pretty low key, since everyone who found out just about flipped out. (Feel the love?)

I feel I gained so much from my experience at T.H. Rogers. I not only gained the experience of working with deaf children, but also a deaf adult. I feel my signing has come a long way in terms of fluency and technique. (Although I still "invent" some real gems.) I find myself not caring so much about vocabulary as wanting communication and interaction to "practice". Being understood in an "interpreting" situation made a world of difference for me. I am now very comfortable picking up new vocabulary and I am excited about the possibility of real communication.


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