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November 28, 2003

Scholar 'eats up' learning

WFAA (subscription), TX - Nov 28, 2003

Shy and humble, deaf teen is poised to be Samuell High's valedictorian

08:57 PM CST on Friday, November 28, 2003

By SCOTT PARKS / The Dallas Morning News

Princess Bempong.

The name conjures royalty. Colorful robes. Exotic African ceremonies in palatial surroundings. Gaiety and feasts.

Not exactly. Let's start again.

Princess Bempong.

Her parents emigrated from the West African nation of Ghana in the early 1980s. They settled in an Irving apartment complex, found modest hospital jobs and started a family. They've been deaf since birth. Princess, 17, came first. She and three younger siblings were all born deaf, too.

Princess, hurled into a life less than perfect, set out to strive for academic perfection. If her grades hold up – and there's no reason to believe they won't – she will be valedictorian of the 2004 senior class at Samuell High School in Pleasant Grove.

"She's endowed from God," says Michelle Hamm, Princess' interpreter and bus driver. "She's also a perfectionist. She eats up knowledge like Pac-Man eats up those dots."

This semester, Princess is taking advanced classes in calculus, physics, English, Spanish and U.S. government. She also takes advertising and computer networking.

Nothing below an "A" has ever appeared on her high school report cards. Her cumulative average is 95.12, which makes her No. 1 in a senior class of 300.

Someone asks her, "Are the classes hard or easy for you?"

"I work hard but not that hard," she says, using sign language. She breaks into a smile that reveals straight white teeth. She resembles a young Whoopi Goldberg with tight braids instead of dreadlocks.

Princess hasn't missed a day of high school because of illness.

"I suppose I would stay home if I was throwing up," she said, mimicking someone getting sick.

As an interpreter, Ms. Hamm is the link between Princess and the hearing world. They focus on each other with laserlike intensity. Someone speaks to Princess, and Ms. Hamm relays the information to her in American Sign Language. Princess speaks in sign language, and Ms. Hamm voices her words to a teacher or other hearing person.

"People say we complement each other," says Ms. Hamm, who is in awe of Princess' academic skills. "She's so sensitive. Her ability to visually process things is incredible."

An early start

On school days, Princess gets out of bed at 4:45 a.m. She wakes up her younger brother and two sisters and gets ready for school. Her parents work different shifts at Children's Medical Center – her mother in food service and her father in housekeeping.

Ms. Hamm picks up Princess at the Bempong family's Irving apartment building at 6:10, and off they go in a school bus. By the time Ms. Hamm picks up other deaf students and drives through traffic to Samuell High, the trip has taken 90 minutes. Princess sleeps through much of it.

Counting the trip home after school, Princess and Ms. Hamm spend three hours a day on the bus and cover 120 miles.

Most deaf teenagers who attend public high school in Dallas County end up at Samuell High. The school district can efficiently provide them the services they need when gathered in one location.

Princess epitomizes that success.

"My parents said to me, 'Just get a good education.' Beyond that, I've motivated myself to do that," she said. "If I have a good education, I have a good future. My family and my education have been the priorities."

Princess says she wants to attend the University of Texas in Austin and pursue a career that combines biochemistry and computer science. Her goal, she says, is to earn a master's degree. Then get married. Then have children.

Young people slide too easily into chaos, she says. She's seen too many girls get pregnant and quit school. And that's why she doesn't have a boyfriend.

"If he broke my heart, it would mess me up in my head, and my grades would go down," she said.

And her parents won't allow her to date until she's 18.

Just a regular girl

Princess is shy. She worries that a newspaper story may not accurately reflect the facts of her life. After all, she says, look what happened to U.S. Army Pvt. Jessica Lynch, observing that the Pentagon and the media got her war story all wrong.

Princess says she doesn't want to be identified as the first deaf valedictorian of a public high school in Dallas or in Texas or in the United States. No one knows for sure if that's true, anyway.

She's just a regular girl who's proud of her parents for the sacrifices they made to come to America for a better life. She's a girl who has never flown in an airplane but who longs to visit Ghana, her family's homeland. Family, she says, is her fortress.

She teaches her friends sign language to help them talk to her. She gets upset when mean or jealous youths make fun of her deafness or her almost-perfect grades. She works crossword puzzles, watches the WB television network and plays video games when she isn't studying or doing chores.

"I want people to know that deaf people have the ability to do things and the potential to be successful," she says. "I want them to know that I'm a humble, intelligent, friendly and fun-loving deaf person."

Princess says she hasn't thought of what she will say in her valedictory speech next spring. Whatever the message, she won't need a microphone to amplify her words. She'll need Ms. Hamm, who says she'll cry for days when Princess leaves for college.

"Princess teaches me lessons in life. Principles are first and foremost with her. I like being glued to her for 40 hours a week, and I'm gonna miss her terribly."

©2003 Belo Interactive