Eight people form a tight-knit circle in the center of room 507 after school. Eight smiles glow on each person’s face as they look around at the others. Eight hands point to the center, each shaped to form the sign meaning “I love you.” No words are needed to understand the meaning behind that shape of their hands. The fingers say it all.
These eight people are none other than the members of the sign language club, a club new to East this year. Seniors Alexa Schnieders and Rachel Gangwere started the club last year after the sign language class had been stopped because of budget cuts. The classes were taught by Susi Hogestt-Duncan, an East interpreter, and Traci Jardes, the current deaf-and-hard-of-hearing teacher. Hogsett-Duncan worried about the effects of the class being cut on a large scale as well. She had five students in five years go on to an interpreting profession.
“It’s just such a shame [that the sign language class got cut],” English teacher Jeannette Bonjour said. “Where does the next generation of sign interpreters come from?”
Schnieders and Gangwere had convinced many of their friends to sign up for the class as well and were just as upset as the teachers when they heard news that the class would be cut. They knew something had to be done to continue the deaf culture at East.
Together, they decided a club should be formed. They began by going to the bookkeeper and filling out the form to approve their club. After getting signatures from Hogsett-Duncan, Bonjour, and potential club members, they turned it in and waited for the official consent to begin. Now that the club has been approved and details are figured out, the sign language club is officially underway. Led by Hogsett-Duncan, the club meets every Thursday after school in Bonjour’s room.
The club includes members from various grades and different signing abilities. Some students are still learning the basic alphabet, while others can hold full sign conversations. This club allows them to practice signing and improve from whatever level they are currently at.
During meetings, the group spends 30 minutes dedicated to improving each persons’ signing ability. Members discuss the different forms of the language and how to improve their skills. They create signs to represent their name, play games for candy, form friendships and all the while learn a new language.
Hogsett-Duncan said her approach to the club is practical. One of the first things they learn is that you can’t be embarrassed by mistakes, because they are common when you are first starting out in the deaf culture. She says you have to be comfortable with yourself and understand that you won’t get it right every time.
“It’s okay to make mistakes,” Gangwere said. “Deaf people really appreciate any effort to try to communicate with them.”
Facial expressions are key. According to Hogsett-Duncan, it’s useless to tell someone you are sad when you have a tacky smile glued to your face. Facial grammar is vital in the process of learning how to sign.
Another one of Hogsett-Duncan’s main goals is to have the kids learn conversational signs along with the basic vocabulary.
“If they see someone in the grocery store needing assistance, I want them to know enough to be someone that can help,” Hogsett-Duncan said.
Each student at the club has their own reason for coming back each week. For some, they purely enjoy the opportunity to learn about the deaf culture. For others, they learn with the hopes of incorporating sign language into their daily routines for years to come. For Schnieders, it is the only way for her to communicate with her deaf aunt and uncle who live in Hong Kong.
“I learned sign language so I could break at least one of the language barriers between us,” Schnieders said.
No one in her family is fluent in signing so it was a big deal to her uncle for her to take the time to learn it. Schnieders even taught her uncle how to sign the song “Sunday Best” by Augustana so they could “sing” it together.
Sign language plays a huge role in her life by opening communication between her family members and she hopes others can come to learn the language and fall in love with it just as she has. That was a main part of why this club was formed. Even though the class may be gone, all students at East can still have the opportunity to increase their awareness of sign language in our world today.
“Many people know [sign language] exists, but there is ignorance about sign language and deaf culture and what it is,” Schnieders said.
Club members have learned that it’s all about having fun and enjoying the chance to make yourself aware to a whole other language that is often skipped by.
“It’s more than just a hobby,” Gangwere said. “I really do use it to describe me. It’s such a fun language and I can’t stress that enough.”