As parents we want our children to experience all of the wonderful things we did growing up. Yet, equally, we want our children to do more and know more than we could ever imagine. During this development phase, a child’s language competency is exponentially increasing. Children try new words, make up words, and even try compound words (“yestermorning”). For this reason, my son’s preschool boasts about lessons in Mandarin and Spanish and I’m excited about the world’s he will know that I never did. I marvel as his conversational skills improve daily and his grasp of language makes this word-nerd mama giddy. But I wonder if his hands could talk what would they say? Yes, hands. It’s not a typo.
In April, the Tennessee Legislature passed a bill that allows students to receive the required foreign language credit for American Sign Language (ASL) classes. The bill was signed by our governor on May 4. A similar bill was introduced and passed in the 1990s but unfortunately, the legislature did not see to it’s implementation at that time. I know because it was a battle I fought and lost as a student.
I was home-schooled through the 8th grade and building my own curriculum was a benefit of that education. As an elementary student, I took ASL from a family friend. She let me wear noise-cancelling headphones to simulate severe hearing loss so that I had to rely on the vocabulary I knew. We practiced reading lips and translating music. My sister, who also knows sign language, would converse with me at the dinner table much to the annoyance of our parents. I knew even then that my experience with sign language was unique and that it would open doors for me that were closed to others.
My sign language education ended when I chose to attend a public high school to make the transition into college that much easier (not for me, but to avoid public scrutiny of home schooling). Every student was required to take 2 semesters of a foreign language. My foreign language choices were French, Spanish, Latin, and German. I chose French. My sister and brother had both taken French from the same teacher and I knew it would be an easy A. Unlike my education in sign language, I saw my French classes as mandatory and useless. Understand me, if I had intentions of becoming a chef, foreign ambassador, teacher, or any number of other professions that would require French, I might have felt differently.
Outside of the philosophical raison de’etre, the lyrics to Au Supermarché and reading the occasional French menu item, I did not retain or use the French that I learned. But I did use my sign language. I signed my way through high school in the performance choir translating the songs even in a crowd of hearing people. While fundraising for a trip to Australia, I encountered a deaf man at a Wal-Mart. He waved me off when I asked for a donation and I recognize the slightest familiar hand movement. When I began to sign my understanding and appreciation for his time, his face lit up like a Christmas tree.
When I started my undergraduate degree, my hope renewed when I saw not one but several ASL courses in the academic catalog. My hopes were soon crushed when my adviser said only education degree-seeking students could enroll in those courses and even then, there was a waiting list. Instead, I signed up for Greek. Why? Because I really liked that professor and because my then boyfriend, now husband was also taking Greek. I loved the class! The professor was funny and I felt like Indiana Jones deciphering ancient text. I also learned A TON about English grammar when parsing Greek verbs. But ask me how many times I’ve used my Greek language education since college? Go ahead, ask me. None. Zilch. Nada.
But I even through college, young adulthood, and parenthood, I did not forget (most) of the sign language I learned as an elementary student. A few years ago, I translated for a woman at Knox Area Rescue Ministries who could neither understand nor be understood during their annual Baskets of Hope program. While at work event just last year, a woman and her spouse, both deaf, had questions about the conference programming but their paid translator was not available. I was able to answer her questions with only a little hesitance.
To say that this move by the Tennessee Legislature makes me happy is an understatement but it also comes too late for so many of us. My hope is that there will be just as much support and movement for Tennessee schools to hire teachers to teach the ASL classes that allow students to earn their required credit. After, the Tennessee School for the Deaf is right here in Knoxville!
If you are looking for a way to support the education of students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, consider donating to the Tennessee School for the Deaf. If you are interested in learning ASL for yourself or a family member, TSD offers classes to the community several times a year. For more information, contact Tina Prochaska at 865.579.2429 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finally, if you want to see ASL classes in your kids school, reach out to your local school board member. Remember, there is strength in numbers so engage other parents who are interested and coordinate your efforts.