Sitting in on an American Sign Language class at , you won’t hear much.
But even in the silence, a lot is being said.
“I would show them a new sign. They would practice with each other so they can use their receptive skills and become accustomed to various people signing the same things,” Susan Steers, who taught the pilot class this year, signed and translated in writing to Avon Patch. “Then students would come in front of the class and sign to practice their expressive skills. “
The course itself says even more than the signs themselves. It was established in honor of Mellissa Andrew, an Avon High School teenager who died in a car crash in 2010. Mellissa, , signed often with her younger brother, Aidan, now 7, who has Down syndrome.
“I think it provides a wonderful enrichment opportunity for our students to have a class of over 20 students taking the course not for credit is really indicative of the interest in the subject matter, as well as honoring Mellissa’s memory,” Avon High School Principal Jason Beaudin said. “I think the course has really helped our students with the healing process after Mellissa’s passing.”
There are currently 21 in the class, including Mellissa’s sister, Nicole, 17. In the fall, there are 25 enrolled, as well as six more who have signed up for American Sign Language 2, a new course.
, Mellissa’s mom, said that she hopes the school will eventually approve it as a world language course for credit and fund it. Money donated to Smiles for Mellissa, a charity in memory of MacFaddin’s daughter, and will fund the class through next year.
“We’re really continuing her legacy to remember her and that’s what we want to leave to the school,” said Kathie McCarthy, who is on the committee for the second annual memorial golf tournament scheduled for June 3. “We want to leave her legacy behind. Something to benefit students.”
The tournament, which her son, Conor, a friend of Mellissa’s, spearheaded for his senior mastery project las year, will once again benefit Smiles for Mellissa. The fund will likely support at least a third year of the course and provide college scholarships to local students.
Sign language has personal significance for Steers, who became deaf at 18 months and has signed since her childhood.
She signs questions to her students and they sign back with the answers. While there is no sound to translate the signs, she frequently writes on her classroom whiteboard as necessary.
“The most challenging things about teaching is helping them become confident to make ‘silly’ faces which is crucial part of American Sign Language,” she said.
Facial expressions connote tone and can change the meaning of a sign, she said. For example, the phrase “of course” changes from sarcastic to ecstatic when you sign it with a disgruntled look on your face versus beaming with excitement, according to Steers.
One of the most common misconceptions about deaf culture is the assumption that everyone who is hearing impaired can read lips, Steers said.
She has noticed growing awareness of deaf culture and American Sign Language is the fourth most common language. Many parents are now signing with their babies because it is said to reduce temper tantrums since the child can communicate better with its parents, Steers said. MacFaddin said she did so with her daughter, Mackenzie, 11, when she was younger because it also improves verbal skills.
“Learn an unspoken language that you can communicate across the room, through a window, underwater, in the air,” Steers said. “As long as you can see that person, you can communicate in full conversation.”
Steers is happy to be part of a class that goes much further than education
“I was very inspired and touched to learn that a young person has impacted the community and her name will continue to live and inspire others in such a profound way breaking down the walls and creating a unity in the community,” Steers said.
The is scheduled for Sunday from 1:30 to 8:30 p.m. on the .