Family gatherings are an integral part of our lives. The connections we have with our families are what make us thrive. They make us who we are. The relationships we build are paramount to every fiber of our being.
Now, imagine attending family functions and not being able to hear your Uncle Bob talking about all the fish he caught the day before or your grandmother telling you how proud she is that you made the academic team. This is the life of many deaf children; they are part of families, but because almost 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents, they are born into silence and isolation. Some parents learn sign language to communicate with their children, but not all do. This can make for lonely family gatherings.
Several years ago, while working at an elementary program that served deaf and hard of hearing students from multiple school districts, the students and I decided to write and perform a Thanksgiving play. We adapted the book A Turkey For Thanksgiving, by Eve Bunting, by adding in Deaf characters and elements of Deaf culture to create A Deaf Turkey For Thanksgiving.
To add to the excitement of performing a play in front of the school and the children's families, we decided to host a Deaf Thanksgiving feast. I secretly wanted my students to experience a language filled Thanksgiving family experience. Each child's family volunteered to bring a dish, and the teachers provided the turkey and ham. The amazing cafeteria workers graciously cooked the meats for us in between serving lunch to hundreds of children. The preschool class created placemats with photos of the students and cute hand printed Thanksgiving decorations. These would become souvenirs for everyone who attended. My class made the mashed potatoes from scratch. I'm not sure how germ free the final product was, but the students loved contributing to the meal.
My classroom was transformed into a mini restaurant. Table and chairs occupied the entire floor space in my room as we received over 50 hungry guests. The preschool classroom held the buffet line full of hand cut meats and mouthwatering side dishes. A separate table was covered corner to corner in traditional holiday pies and cakes. We could have never anticipated the graciousness of all the families. Every child had at least three people attend with them. Central Office administration had come to show their support, including the superintendent and a School Board member. Even my husband was there along with my daughter. Sounds of laughter filled the air of families young and old. Parents and children chatted away as teachers and interpreters served as communication bridges when needed. My classroom was no longer just a place for learning; it was a place for families making lasting memories together.
The Deaf Thanksgiving play and feast became a tradition for those in the regional program, and we saw an increase in attendance each of the next eight years. We quickly outgrew my cramped classroom and had to take over a corner of the gymnasium to accommodate the 75 plus that attended each year. Not only were parents coming, but they were bringing siblings, aunts, uncles, and grandparents! Even more administrators from Central Office were coming to see what we were doing.
This tradition quickly transformed into a Deaf family reunion. Parents of Deaf children who moved on to middle school and high school checked them out of school early to come to our feast. Even families that had moved across the state came back to reunite with their Deaf family.
At some point new district policies no longer allowed for home cooked dishes to be brought into schools. This didn’t stop us; instead we collected money to order the side dishes from a local restaurant while the teachers and I still provided the turkey and ham.
Four years ago, I left the regional program for another position in the district. My departure also meant the end of the Deaf Thanksgiving tradition. It took a while, but eventually the Deaf children and their families stopped asking when the next feast would be. However, the bonds that were made as a result of the Deaf Thanksgiving reunion still remain. Once a family is formed, especially one of respect and joy, those bonds can never truly be broken. I still talk to many of the parents of former students, and they still connect with each other. Part of my heart will forever belong to my second family. I am a better teacher because of them.