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April 18, 2005

Deaf teen's school learns her language

From: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, MO - Apr 18, 2005

By Matt Franck
Post-Dispatch Jefferson City Bureau

PALMYRA, Mo. - Jessie Buckwalter has her pick of classmates to talk to in the cafeteria of a tiny high school that offers a class not taught in even the state's wealthiest public schools.

Jessie, 16, is the only deaf teenager among the 3,448 residents of Palmyra, Mo., just north of Hannibal. Hers are the only ears at Palmyra High that cannot tune in to the hallway chatter over prom dates, Saturday's game and who just broke up with whom.

Yet when Jessie walks from class to class, she's surrounded by those that speak her language, or at least part of it. And for her, it's enough to know that others are at least trying to understand.

Thanks to an effort that dates back to when Jessie was just a young girl, dozens of students at Palmyra High are learning, and fumbling over, American Sign Language.

As a result, the high school and its 365 students can proudly proclaim that it's teaching a subject offered in only five other districts in Missouri.

It's also the kind of school lawmakers look to as they consider a bill aimed at elevating the status of American Sign Language. The legislation, which won first-round approval Monday in the Missouri House, would allow high school and college students to earn foreign language credit by studying sign language.

Supporters believe the bill could prompt dozens of schools to include American Sign Language as part of their college-track curriculum. In the process, they hope students will consider careers as interpreters, which are in short supply nationwide.

In Palmyra, several students are now talking about becoming interpreters. But the class hasn't been about career ambitions. Supporting Jessie has been cause enough.

Jessie would like to see the state follow her school's lead.

"I think other schools should teach sign language so others like me won't be left out," she said.

Oddly, Palmyra High might not have ever taught sign language if it weren't for the Great Flood of 1993.

At the time, Jessie was attending a school with other deaf students across the Mississippi River in Quincy, Ill. When the waters rose and a bridge washed out, she was cut off from her school.

A solution emerged amid the small-town instinct to make due. Before long, the school district was hooked up with Judy Custar, a licensed interpreter in Hannibal.

She's been interpreting for Jessie in Palmyra ever since. From the beginning, she's worked to teach Jessie's classmates to sign, first with an after-school club and now with a high school class.

Today, Jessie is a self-proclaimed tomboy with a perpetual smile. Her long athletic build and tricked-out Nikes reveal her love for softball and track.

When interpreters aren't around, she often relies on her twin brother and cousin to speak for her. On the softball field, Jessie plays first base, knowing she can count on the help of her cousin on the pitching mound.

But the sign language class has broadened her social possibilities.

"Some that were never my friends are now my friends," she said of the class. "A few have become really good friends and they sign really fast."

Terrie Buckwalter marvels at how the school has rallied around her daughter. But Jessie has returned the favor, she said.

"Jessie has enriched the lives of the community as much as they have done for her," she said.

Sign language classes boom

Nationwide, the number of students studying sign language as a foreign language has mushroomed, particularly at the college level. According to the Modern Language Association, 60,781 college students studied sign language in 2002, up from 11,420 in 1998.

"It's growing by leaps and bounds every single year," said Sherman Wilcox, a linguist at the University of New Mexico.

Much of that growth is owed to activism by the deaf community, which has pushed foreign language departments to rethink the way they look at American Sign Language.

Experts have long tried to overcome the notion that the language is "English of the hands." Wilcox and others say it has its own grammar, syntax and culture that's shared by the estimated 500,000 people who use it nationwide.

"It's a simple statement, but when linguists say it they mean it: It's a language," Wilcox said.

Wilcox tracks universities that offer American Sign Language as a foreign language. Among the 140 schools are William Woods University in Fulton and Illinois State University in Normal.

But some universities - including elite schools like Harvard University - have been hesitant to add the language since it isn't technically a foreign tongue. Others have concerns over lax standards.

Carolyn Ball, who directs the interpreter program at William Woods University, said she welcomes efforts to promote sign language. She said interpreters are in such short supply that her school can't train people fast enough.

But she's worried courses will spring up with uncertified teachers, and she said the Missouri legislation fails to guarantee high standards.

Currently, schools in Missouri are entitled to count sign language as a foreign language class, under standards adopted by the state school board. According to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, six school districts teach sign language to a total of about 200 students. The Illinois Board of Education has similar rules for teaching sign language as a foreign language, but the state does not track the number of schools teaching the subject.

The legislation under debate in Missouri would go further by requiring both high schools and colleges to give the classes foreign language status.

The bills also would change university admissions policies, allowing sign language to satisfy foreign language requirements. Supporters say that change would act as a catalyst to encourage high schools to offer sign language courses.

Amy Fagg, principal of Northwest High School in Pettis County, said budget cuts led her school to recently drop a sign language course. She says restoring the class would be easier if parents knew it counted toward college.

Others say deaf students would benefit most from a change in college admission requirements.

Roy Miller, head of the Missouri Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, told senators in a recent hearing that it's "almost impossible to learn a spoken foreign language when you can't hear the language spoken."

Jessie's mom has the same worry as they look over college requirements. "How am I going to send my daughter to Spanish class?" she asks.

But other parents said they'd be happy if the legislation merely gave their kids a chance to socialize.

Karin Sack, who is deaf, told a Senate committee that she longs for the day that her son can speak sign language with others at school.

"Many times he feels very isolated," said Sack, who lives in Neosho.

Sign language for teens

In Palmyra, many students in Custar's sign language class say they'd be eager to skip Spanish or German classes in favor of sign language. It's currently taught at Palmyra as an elective. And Custar doesn't oversell the sophistication of her homemade curriculum.

She has been willing to set aside some of the formal structure of American Sign Language if it means giving the students a rudimentary ability to speak to Jessie.

She's asked Jessie to fill the role of teacher's assistant. During a recent lecture, Jessie helped the class master teen-handy words like "prom." Later, the class erupted in laughter when she recalled how her dad once said that a girl was "easy" when he meant to offer the sign for "nice."

Custar already has some ideas for improving her course if it became a foreign language class. She'd add a second section to more aggressively tackle theory.

But for now, the value of the class is counted with intangible currency.

On a school day last week it seemed like enough that Jessie could set her lunch tray at a table where three girls didn't need an interpreter to talk to her.

With a flourish of gestures and signals, they burned the lunch break talking about whatever occurs to four teenage girls to talk about.

One of the girls is a close friend; another had taken the sign language class. But the third girl, the swift-handed one, wasn't a close confidante, or even a teammate.

Jessie didn't even know her name.

The bills are SB 454 and HB 530.

Reporter Matthew Franck
Phone: 573-635-6178

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