Saturday, April 4, 2015

April 4 - Humanity Beyond the Classroom

As a teacher of students who are deaf and hard of hearing, I serve as a communication bridge between my students and their families. Many of the families of the students with whom I work have limited to no competency in American Sign Language - the language of their children. Therefore, I am sometimes asked to help facilitate dialogue between parent and child, whether heart-breaking or uplifting. 

The loss of a loved one is difficult for all children. Sadly, it is very common for Deaf children to not know when or why someone has died because their family has limited to no ability to effectively convey it to them.  This was true for one of my students whose grandmother passed away.  

One morning during class, Michelle’s mother called me. Because she could not sign, she asked me to share the news with her daughter and to explain how her grandmother died. After hanging up with Michelle’s mother and taking a few seconds to gain my composure, I asked my assistant to take over the lesson and brought Michelle to a quiet location in the school. 

As I shared the devastating news with Michelle, I stopped being her teacher and became her mother.  Teacher preparation programs or professional development do not teach how to have difficult conversations with students.  Not only did I have to share this heartbreaking news with her, I then had to console her as any mother would.  I spent time doing what any mother would do - explaining what happened, hugging her, telling her that her grandmother was in a better place now.  I had to be the one to do this because, even though her mother wished she had the signing skills, she didn't.  That is the most difficult part of my role of serving as a bridge between my students and their family.

Despite only meeting Michelle’s grandmother a few times, I went to the funeral to be there for Michelle.  Her mother saved me a spot in the front pew reserved for immediate family.  Michelle sat between her mother and me.  This was a symbolic gesture that I was part of their family.  

The church had hired two teenage girls who learned to ‘sign’ by reading books on American Sign Language. Because it is virtually impossible to learn American Sign Language by looking at pictures in a book, there were many errors in what they signed, making their message very confusing. A few times during the service I checked in with Michelle to see if she understood what the girls were ’interpreting’; she did not. After no longer being able to tolerate her dismay, I asked her mother if it would be OK if I replaced the girls and properly interpret the remainder of the service. Because Michelle’s mother did not know sign language, she was unaware that the girls were not signing correctly and had no idea that Michelle could not understand any of the service.  I nonchalantly told the girls that Michelle could not understand them, and asked if they would please let me take over.  They gladly stepped aside so that I could interpret. A smile crept onto Michelle’s face as she was finally able to understand the prayers, sermons, and songs of the funeral.

At the end of the service, someone from the church upsettingly approached me asking why I took over interpreting.  After explaining my reasoning, instead of being understanding and supportive, she complained about how difficult it was to find those two girls and that she hoped the pastor would not be furious with her for what I did.  Even though I wanted to give her my speech on the right of equal access to Michelle and tell her how unqualified those girls were, I bit my lip.  Sometimes it is not just worth the energy to advocate to those who have no interest in listening.  I was there to support Michelle and to continue to be that bridge between her and her mother, and that is what I did.

Note: The student's name has been changed.

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