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October 28, 2003

Fifth-Grader is 1st deaf student elected to post

From: Atlanta Journal Constitution, GA - Oct 28, 2003

By MARY MacDONALD The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Her speech finished, her nervousness faded, Gwendoline Gerardino scanned the crowd of fifth-graders and saw victory in their applause.

When told they could cheer the candidates for student council, almost half of the kids used sign-language, a rapid quaking of hands to signify the sound of clapping. Gwendoline, who is profoundly deaf, knew then she might win.

"I thought they were all going to vote for me," she said later, through her sign language interpreter.

But Gwendoline, 11, collected the most votes of four candidates for class secretary, a milestone for her and for Minor Elementary School. The final tally is unknown. Elementary school elections are not so cut-throat that the votes are made public.

For 18 years, the Lilburn school has offered sheltered classes for children in Gwinnett County who have impaired hearing. Most of the students eventually transition into traditional classes. But Gwendoline is the first profoundly deaf child who has been elected by her contemporaries to a leadership post, said DeeDee Moore, coordinator of the school system's deaf and hard-of-hearing program.

Gwendoline sought and accepted that status with characteristic self-confidence.

She needed her sign language interpreter, Vicki Finch, to tell the 150 fifth-graders what she would do as their class secretary. But otherwise, she didn't make a platform of her deafness. She concentrated on something near and dear to 11-year-olds: adding picnic tables for outdoor lunches.

"Yes, it is true I am deaf," she said in sign language, midway through her one-minute speech. "But as my friends and teachers have learned, I can do anything that hearing people do."

Her teachers, who have watched Gwendoline move from sheltered classes to traditional classes over the past two years, describe a child who has supportive parents and the confidence to try difficult things.

"She wanted it," said Patty Bickell, Gwendoline's teacher.

"She was going to go after it."

Her parents, Esperanza and Moices Gerardino, learned their only child was profoundly deaf when Gwendoline was 18 months old. They moved to Gwinnett County to take advantage of the special education services here. And they have enrolled their daughter in activities that include both the deaf and hearing communities.

By the time Gwendoline was 5, she was taking ballet and karate. She tried softball, too. Now, she's dabbling in junior politics at a school where she moves easily among hearing and hearing-impaired students.

As for the electorate, the teachers think the fifth-graders voted for Gwendoline because of her promises and her personality, not because she is deaf.

At this age, the sympathy factor isn't a factor.

"No, not fifth-graders," Bickell said. "Not at all."

© 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution