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November 26, 2003

Conveying the soul of sounds: Woman overcomes deafness to teach music to children

From: The Columbian, WA - Nov 26, 2003

By GREGG SHERRARD BLESCH, Columbian staff writer

Mary Williams, a music teacher, was losing her hearing.

For a while she used a hearing aid. After sound faded away completely, a cochlear implant restored her hearing. But the device fizzled in February, leaving the Hearthwood Elementary teacher unable to hear any music except in memory and imagination.

But with the support and innovation of friends, family and colleagues, Williams continues to share music with children and her church.

"I feel like, for the first time in two years, I can keep this job," said Williams, 41, sitting in the classroom where she has taught for 10 of her 17 years as a music teacher.

Her assistant, Janet Gallagher, interprets for her in sign language, and Williams still speaks with near-perfect articulation, often forming the words with her hands, too, as she practices the new language and passes it along to her students. She calls the children her heroes.

In 1999, Williams noticed a degeneration in her hearing from a condition her doctor described as "fragile ear syndrome." As Williams' condition worsened, her school changed principals twice. "Oh my God! The first person they're going to get rid of is the deaf music teacher," she recalled thinking.

She wasn't sure she could keep going anyway. "There were a lot of times I would get to school and the grief over what I was losing was so big, the tears would come and I would have to go home."

But no one was ready to give up. "She's very, very good at teaching kids," Principal Dave Dyment said. "But she has had to adapt her teaching style to a deaf mode."

Changing ways

Colleague Dawn Harris worked with Evergreen School District administrators to find classroom accommodations for Williams. Her first classroom assistants didn't know how to sign and would type students' questions into a computer, displaying the words on a wall-mounted television. Colleague Traci Haddad typed captions for Williams during staff meetings, and the school's speech pathologist, Mich Baker, volunteered to visit Williams' home for weekly sign-language lessons.

"I don't think anyone could ever feel what she's going through," said Harris, who is now an assistant principal at Pioneer and Orchards elementaries. "I just know what I see, when my kids come back to my class still loving music, and they're coming back knowing sign language."

Feel the music

Loren Schuh, an industrial engineer who runs the sound system at Christ Community Church, committed himself to finding a way Williams could continue to play. He recalled a scene from the film "Mr. Holland's Opus," when the title character, a music teacher, sits his deaf son on a speaker to help him experience music.

Schuh found a device called a tactile monitor, developed for military simulators and now commonly used by rock drummers to connect with bandmates without punishing their eardrums.

He bolted the 8-inch disc under Williams' keyboard bench at the church, allowing her to feel the beat of the bass and drums, the rhythm of the melody and the texture of the music, whether it's thin or full and when it swells or lulls.

"It's fun to watch her play," Schuh said. "I think that's the best part -- to be able to stand behind the soundboard and see her up there with a big smile on her face."

Following that success, school administrators bought one of the devices for her classroom. Her father, Tyrone Williams, mounted that one inside a wooden box with wheels and a handle. Williams can use it as a bench while playing piano or keyboard, or she can lay it flat and use it as a podium while conducting, with the music flowing through her feet.

In the groove

This year Williams has been able to reconnect with the children and the Hearthwood staff as everyone settles into the new ways of communicating and conducting class.

Gallagher joined Williams this fall as an interpreter and assistant. She has 20 years of experience as an sign-language interpreter and is a former assistant director of the Southwest Washington Center of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

Williams can see when the children are singing sustaining notes by watching mouths and throats, and Gallagher tells her whether the children are singing the right melody and if they're striking the notes sharp or flat.

During a morning class last week, fifth-graders gathered around Williams and enthusiastically shared new signs they had learned from visiting high school students. Gallagher helped them remember how to bend and move their hands and fingers.

"When you can do sign language, it's fun because you can talk to her," Breanna Morris said as she practiced on the keyboard. "I'm pretty used to it now. It was kind of a shock to me having a deaf music teacher."

John Askew said, "It's kind of almost like she can hear sometimes."

During Hearthwood's Veterans Day assembly, Williams led her honor choir in a rendition of "You're a Grand Old Flag," sitting on her monitor and conducting the quick pulse with a huge smile on her face. Later, Williams stood on her monitor, mouthing and signing the words to another song as all 500 children sang and joined in with the signs during the chorus.

Her friend Haddad, the school's librarian, will travel with Williams to California as she applies for a canine companion. If the organization approves a dog for Williams, Haddad will help train the dog to identify sounds in Williams' life, such as her doorbell and phone.

"I still have moments when I grieve it, and it feels as intense and acute as it used to," Williams said. Those moments, though, are shorter and come less often. She's planning to try a new cochlear implant soon.

But if it fails again?

"Before, my answer would have been, 'Well, my life is over,'" she said. "Now, if the implant doesn't work, I'll carry on like I'm doing now, because it's working."

opyright © 2003 by The Columbian Publishing Co.