A class where no word is spoken but many are learned

  • Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Dad, Chris Lunnon, signs while Rayleigh Deaton, in pink, watches.


The light flickers a few times and there is absolute silence in the classroom. Fourteen adults and five young people sit quietly. One little boy plays a game on a cell phone.

The instructor, Terri Gross, moves her hands and everyone in the room responds.

The class begins and continues in silence. This is an ASL class - American Sign Language - and it is a volunteer effort on the part of Gross.

Deaf elementary school children in Dorchester District Two all attend Spann Elementary School, where they are taught in both contained and mainstream classrooms. Currently, there are seven deaf children attending Spann. Gross works for DD2 as an interpreter. “Reading and writing are taught in a contained classroom,” she explains, “and the children are mainstreamed for math, science, social studies, fine arts and PE.”

“For deaf children,” she says, “English is a second language.”

Their first language is ASL.

But this class is not for the deaf, it is for the hearing.

It is for anyone working for the district, at Spann or with these students to help them better communicate.

In the class are teachers, staff members, the school nurse Christi Harley, a staff member - Naysha Lucarelli - who has brought her neighbor Janelle Bellomo - who is progressively losing her hearing, Lucarelli and Bellomo’s daughters and two bus drivers - Sonya Bailey and Soleita Tyson - who drive the deaf children to Spann. They are all here of their own accord.

Chris Lunnon, an injured veteran, is here for his son, Chris, 9, who is deaf.

“We have our own language,” he says, “but I want to learn how to communicate so when he has friends over, I can talk to them.”

Chris’s grandmother, Rosalind Heyward, is learning too.

The silence in the classroom is broken only by the tap, tap, tap of a marker on the white board as Gross writes categories and words.

There is a sign to indicate “understand” and one for “not understanding.”

Gross begins with the concepts of morning, afternoon, and evening. Everyone signs that they understand. Those are relatively simple signs that portray what they are referring to.

Gross continues with “what’s wrong?” “Shut the door.” “How are you?” - “fine” or “not good.”

A few sign they don’t understand and Gross repeats the instruction.

She then continues with “look at me,” “watch me,” “look at that.”

These are instructions that would happen in a classroom.

Much of sign language makes sense to the uninitiated. Some seem to have no relationship to what is being said.

For example, “fish” is a hand motion of swimming over waves. “Corn” is the movement of eating an ear of corn. “Carrot” is similar to a cartoon Bugs Bunny eating a carrot and “ice cream” is an obvious licking of a cone.

The sign for eat plus the sign for morning, means breakfast. The same idea for lunch and dinner.

One of the more important signs of the lesson is the one for “try…you can…try.”

Participants get up and practice in a silent pantomime, each communicating with the other until they have it mastered.

Even young Chris takes part, although somewhat shy.

Suddenly the class is over. An hour has passed without a word being spoken. People are still quiet as they leave, signing goodbye to Gross.

She washes off the white board and speaks her first words.

“I volunteered to do this class,” she says, “so Gale Ryan - the teaching assistant for hearing impaired - and I put it together.”

The class is not open to the public but she might, she says, consider doing a public class.

Now, though, she is hurrying home to her husband and children.

We wave goodbye.

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