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April 25, 2005

Griego: Girls use hands, hearts in history contest

From: Rocky Mountain News - Denver,CO,USA - Apr 25, 2005

Tina Griego

North High School freshmen Adriana Cruz and Brittany Maes have been friends since they were in sixth grade. I had pegged 14-year-old Adriana as the quiet one and 15-year-old Brittany as the social butterfly, but Adriana tells me no, this is not quite right, "We're both pretty loud."

The two girls and their partner, Sarina Vialpando, recently qualified for the Colorado History Day competition, an annual contest among high school teams sponsored by the University of Colorado's history department. It was held Saturday on the Boulder campus.

A day before the competition, Sarina came down with strep throat, so a three-person performance had to be reassembled into a two-person job. Adriana and Brittany spent Friday dividing and cramming Sarina's lines.

"The thing is," Brittany consoles herself, "if we, like, forget anything, we could just go on and, thank God, the judges won't know."

This year's theme was Communication and History: The Key to Understanding, and the girls had decided to focus on a bitter debate between Alexander Graham Bell and Edward Miner Gallaudet over how deaf children should be taught. Bell opposed the use of sign language. Gallaudet supported it. (This is a gross oversimplification of a fascinating 19th century argument that still echoes today.)

"What is it like to hear a hand?" the girls say and sign in unison at the conclusion of their performance. "You have to be deaf to understand."

Adriana's parents, Adrian and Eva Cruz, are both deaf. Adrian Cruz can hear slightly with the help of a hearing aid. He speaks and signs. Eva Cruz is more comfortable signing. Adriana does a very funny impression of a solicitor calling for her father.

"He's deaf," she says, pretending to hold a phone to her ear.

"Well, can I speak to him?"

"He's deaf," she repeats.

When Adrian was a boy, his mother forbade him to sign and taught him to speak and read lips. But, when teachers at his first school struck his hands with rulers for trying to sign, his mother picketed the school and Adrian eventually learned sign language.

"Once we started reading about the arguments, we just got really into it," Brittany says. "It was just, like, learning new things and it was really interesting. I don't like to read - I hate to read - but I read a big ol' chapter book about this in an hour!"

Their social studies teacher, Carmen Sanjurjo, took the lead in helping them with their project. She has her doctorate in history and has been a teacher and a librarian for 15 years. Sanjurjo is new to North this year, but has shepherded several middle school teams to both state and national history competitions. She used her own money to rent the girls three-piece suits and hats. They love her.

"She respects us," Adriana says.

On Saturday, I find the girls in a dimly lit university building hallway filled with the murmurs of students rehearsing lines. Brittany, who is playing Bell, is pacing and practicing her sign language.

Adriana, in the role of Gallaudet, is fidgeting with her hat, which keeps sliding down her forehead. Both of the girls' families are here.

"I am so proud of her," Adrian Cruz says, thumping his heart with his fist. "I once asked Adriana if she was ashamed to be with us because we are deaf and when we talk people stare at us. She's not, though. She's brave. She's strong."

Brittany's mom and dad, Jonathan and Laura Maes, and her older brother, Florencio Reyes, stay close to her. Florencio, who will graduate from North in May, has been helping the girls with their lines. Jonathan is a truck driver. Laura is a full-time mom who is nearly finished with her studies as a medical assistant and X-ray technician.

"We're trying to become more involved," Jonathan says. "We're trying to become a closer family."

"We lost our son in December," Laura adds.

Jonathan Jr. was 11 years old and he caught whatever cold bug was going around at the time. An autopsy would later show that unknown to his parents, he had Addison's disease, a rare and progressive autoimmune disorder. His body could not fight off the virus.

"We want to be here for our kids," Jonathan says. "Brittany is changing from day to day. It's tough to go from middle school to high school and we want to be here to help her."

A few days before the competition, I talked to North English teacher Erin Stutelberg. She graduated from Grinnell College in May 2003 and is a rising star at North.

What spells the difference, I asked Stutelberg that day, between the students who succeed in school and those who don't?

"It's a lot of things," she answered. "It's a combination that's working right for that kid. 'That I don't have to move around all the time. That I go home and there is someone who cares about me. That I have teachers who care. That I have a sense of optimism. That I have seen kids like me who have made it.' "

A motivated student. A parent supporting that child. A teacher who cares. Just one of those elements can make a difference. And all three together? Well, that can create magic.

"OK, girls," Sanjurjo says, "it's time."

Laura and Jonathan Maes hug Brittany. Adrian and Eva Cruz are both crying.

"You are my first and only daughter and I am so proud of you," Adrian signs to a teary Adriana who translates for me.

The girls would advance to the finals, but fall short of making it to nationals.

"It's OK," Adriana tells me later. "We know we did good." or 303-892-2699

Copyright 2005, Rocky Mountain News. All Rights Reserved.