Signing With Love: Quilters from the Deaf Community

“People are beginning to realize that American sign language is a value added.”

                   -T. Alan Hurwitz,Past President of Galludet College

It all started in the hallway.

My fourth grade students lined up in the cavernous entry to the school. Our classroom door opened on the opposite side of the walls from the entrance to the room where pupils with hearing impairments gathered. For several weeks, the two lines shyly eyed one another with shaded lids.

Then the more adventurous of my kiddos grinned across the tiles, hoping for a smile back. They waved their fingers while holding books or backpacks. Nothing that they tried elicited a response from the reserved line huddled on the other side.

An Offer That We Couldn’t Refuse

One morning, Mrs. Gross, one of the teachers for the hearing impaired, stopped me in the lounge. “So, your kids want to get to know mine, huh?” I watched in fascination as her fingers moved in sync with her lips.

“How did you know?” I bit into a cream filled donut.

“They are waving and smiling a lot. But our students are fairly skeptical of the hearing world. They’ve been taken advantage of by friendly folks before.” Mrs. Gross’ hands danced with more subconscious signing.

Chewing, I considered this. “What can we do to break down the barriers?”

“Would you be able to carve out some time for me to teach your students sign language? Then they could communicate in a thoughtful manner.”

Gulping, I responded affirmatively. My regular education fourth grade was embarking on a challenge to become bilingual.  English and sign language.

It took several days, but, before I knew the signs, my tenacious ten-year-olds were flashing messages to the wide-eyed group leaning on the tiled wall. All it took was one deaf child to respond, and the welcoming words zipped back and forth like Morris Code on a hot wire.

By the end of the first quarter that fall, Barron was mainstreamed into our room for math, social studies and science. An interpreter stood beside him to translate. I learned how to write more on the board, bring in more visuals, and talk slower. And every day, Mrs. Gross came in to teach several new signs to my class.  For example, how to show number concepts. We learned a lot about place value from her explanations.

I liked the lessons in sign language because it taught the etymology of words. Why a specific word is a really a concept. How it is shown visually. For example, the word “boy” is like a visor on a cap. The sign for a girl incorporates the idea of a bonnet. Every day brought more insights into the subtleties of language as presented to twenty-six ten year olds. What an enhanced education sign language gave.

Until the year I retired, my class housed a mainstreamed deaf student. The elementary age children picked up the bilingual concepts easily, but I spoke with a heavy accent. As Flora Lewis says, “Learning another language is not only learning different words for the same things, but learning another way to think about things.” Becoming literate in sign language brought a richness to the fourth grade experience and to me.

Communicating with Fabric

Fast forward to the present time. My granddaughter entered into college life far away, leaving my daughter and me longing to connect with her. What better gift than a t-shirt quilt, using all the memorable shirts that she left at home?

But who creates quilts for others?

That is when we discovered Keepsake Theme Quilts, a business which turns a pile of t-shirts into a memory quilt for numerous occasions. Their  motto is: “You make the memories-We make the quilt.” Perfect.

The quilters who helped us design my granddaughter’s comforter work for Deaf Initiatives, a non-profit organization. They create employment for deaf individuals who now experience success, financial independence and a feeling of self-esteem.  This is a business that is hands-on, visual, and allows the workers to create a project from beginning to end.

With large open rooms and assistive technology, the work place is communicatively friendly. Everyone knows sign language in this shop, and most orders are taken on line. Handcrafting quilts with an eye for creativity and excellence is a joy for these deaf textile artists. They can hone their skills in both design and color.

When the completed quilt was mailed back to us, we were so surprised. It was enclosed in a box with a beautiful bow wrapped around it. The craftsmanship and attention to detail in the quilt has made it so special for my granddaughter. At the lower right hand corner of the comforter is the signature of the quilters. A hand displaying  the sign for “love”.

From the vision and fingers of those who stitch in silence is a masterpiece of memories that will become a treasured keepsake.

I remember standing in the hall at school and wondering what would happen to my students when they grew up. And then my heart went out to the pupils across the hall who finally spoke to us with their hands. May the future be bright for all of them. May we all know the sign for love.

“One of the most effective ways to learn about oneself is by taking seriously the cultures of others. It forces you to pay attention to those details of life which differentiate them from you.”  -Edward T. Hall, The Silent Language

“ I may be deaf to the sounds of the world, but you have shown me how I can hear by seeing the color in your smile and feeling the touch of your hand in mine.”  –Anthony T. Hincks

Main photo credit:

One Comment:

  1. Wow… I am speechless! This is wonderful… both the school experience and then the introduction to another quilting group!
    Creative teaching and creative quilting.

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