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February 19, 2004


From: Jackson Sun - Jackson,TN,USA - Feb 19, 2004


Unstoppable: JCM senior cheers others on to succeed

Cupping both of her hands like the letter C, she makes a brushing motion towards her cheeks to demonstrate how to sign "Cougars."

Markesha Houston, the only hearing impaired cheerleader at Jackson Central-Merry High School, taught her squad the sign language for the school's mascot. She was diagnosed with profound deafness as a toddler after a series of ear infections.

"She doesn't hear at all without her hearing aids," said Markesha's mother, Debra Witherspoon.

The 18-year-old has cheered for Northeast Middle School, North Side High School, the Jackson Recreation and Parks Department and now JCM.

Markesha, who wears hearing aids on both ears, reads lips very well and is more accustomed to speaking with her voice than using her hands to sign. She loves scary movies, and Chinese food is her favorite.

She also is a big L.A. Lakers fan and enjoys listening to 50 Cent and Missy Elliott. "My favorite singer was Aliyah," said Markesha, who has been in the mainstream school system since age 12. And this cheerleader doesn't miss a beat.

Markesha, who stands 5 feet tall, is the oldest sibling and also the shortest sibling in her household. She lives with her mother and two brothers. And her two younger brothers, who tower over their older sister, say they still have many reasons to look up to her.

"She's just fun to be around," said her 14-year-old brother, Brandon Pearman.

"She's nice and intelligent," said Joshua Pearman, her 13-year-old brother.

Markesha's family is constantly cheering her on. Tony and LaTonya Houston are Markesha's father and stepmother. They live in Jackson, have three children and are getting ready to welcome another one to the family. All together, Markesha said, "I have four brothers and one sister and one on the way."

Essence Bush, 18, has cheered with Markesha this past season at JCM, but has known her and her family most of her life.

"She's like a sister to me," Markesha said of Essence, who lives down the street from her.

"I've even learned sign language," Essence said, from being around Markesha so much.

Markesha has a good sense of humor and is "a great person," Essence said. "People need to get to know her for who she really is instead of just looking at her disability."

Markesha said she is thankful to all the coaches and girls who have worked with her on former and current squads.

At every school Markesha has attended, she has been a standout on the cheerleading squad because of her skills, not because of her hearing impairment, Witherspoon said.

"She got an award at Northeast Middle School for having the highest toe touches," Witherspoon said.

Markesha's smile lights up when she talks about cheerleading. "I have always wanted to be a cheerleader since I was a little girl," Markesha said.

An affinity for cheering seems to run in the family. Markesha's mother was a cheerleader at Jackson Middle School and JCM. Later, she worked as a cheerleading coach for the Jackson Recreation and Parks Department. There, mother and daughter choreographed dance routines together.

Since Markesha has been at JCM, "the girls on the squad have accepted her," said Tammy Enfinger, Markesha's sign language interpreter for the past year. Enfinger goes from class to class with Markesha and interprets what is being said. Markesha is the only student that Enfinger works with.

During her junior year at North Side High School, Markesha had to go an entire year without an interpreter because of the shortage of interpreters available. But she managed.

There are 29 hearing impaired students in the school system. And 12 of those students attend the West Tennessee School for the Deaf.

Markesha is the only student in the school system right now who needs an interpreter. The remaining 16 students are provided with a variety of services to fit their individual needs, because the range of hearig impairment varies for each student.

Those services include speech therapy, audio aids and hearing equipment in the classroom that allows them to be successful in their learning environment without the aid of an interpreter.

Because there is one student who needs an interpreter, right now Enfinger is the only hired interpreter in the Jackson-Madison County School system, said Paula Butler, special education supervisor and testing coordinator for Jackson-Madison County Schools.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census Bureau, there were 780,373 hard of hearing or deaf residents age 18 and older in the state of Tennessee.

Currently, Jackson Center for Independent Living Deaf Services has two certified interpreters, said Michelle Bishop, administrative assistant.

A lot of interpreters are "moving on to other cities where the pay is higher," said Enfinger, who formerly worked as an interpreter in Kansas before moving to Tennessee. In Kansas, she said, each student would be assigned an interpreter and notetaker.

According to a 2003 Gallaudet Research Institute study, "80 percent of students who are deaf or hard of hearing spend a portion of their day in the general education classroom; approximately 23 percent of these students utilize interpreters."

Also in Kansas, Enfinger said, sign language was offered as a foreign language for credit for all students.

In Tennessee, a lot of hearing impaired students are sent to the Tennessee School for the Deaf in Knoxville for high school, Enfinger said.

"I didn't want Markesha to go to Knoxville," Markesha's mother said. "That was like sending a 12-year-old child to college."

Markesha attended the West Tennessee School for the Deaf from the age of 4 to 12 before being mainstreamed. Markesha's mother had no doubt that her daughter could succeed in a mainstream environment.

"Kesha can do anything that she wants to do," her mother said. And looking at Markesha's track record, it's easy to see why. Markesha, whose favorite school subject is math, also was in ROTC for three years at North Side.

Markesha encourages other hearing impaired students to try out for whatever they want to be involved in, whether it is football or cheerleading.

"It would be better for them to try," she said.

After she graduates, Markesha has an interest in becoming a cosmetologist. But she's also interested in going to school to become an interpreter for other hearing impaired children.

- Wendy Isom, 425-9782

On the Web

For more information about interpreter services for the deaf and hard of hearing, visit the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf at

Copyright 2004 The Jackson Sun