“Can I go to the bathroom?”
Tanner Bekke had not spoken out of turn, but his teacher, Maria Nolan, still said no.
Bekke put his thumb between his first and middle fingers, raised his right arm and turned his wrist back and forth — the sign for “toilet” in American Sign Language.
Nolan said no again.
Bekke pointed at his chest and raised his eyebrows — “I” — and repeated the wrist-turning sign — “toilet.”
“You are not a toilet,” Nolan said, signing what she was saying. “Use a complete sentence, please.”
Bekke pointed at his chest again, then pointed both hands and moved them away from his body and finally repeated the sign for toilet.
“OK, you can go,” Nolan said.
Nolan isn’t too tough on her beginning American Sign Language class at Kelly Walsh High School, but she expects students to try signing whenever they can.
Kelly Walsh offered one ASL class in fall 2010 to expand options for students to meet the foreign language requirements for a Hathaway Scholarship. Interest grew and an intermediate/advanced course was added in fall 2011. This semester, Nolan teaches two beginner classes and one advanced class.
Students learn sign vocabulary and grammar, which follows different patterns than American English and uses facial expressions.
Students also attend four deaf community events each semester to meet deaf speakers and learn first-hand about deaf culture. Casper’s deaf community isn’t large, Nolan said, but it’s close-knit and active, meeting several times a month at Starbucks, Dairy Queen or El Mark-O bowling alley.
“I was a little intimidated when I went the first time, but they’re excited to see people learning ASL,” said Sally Murray, a junior and ASL student. “They’re very friendly.”
Students also have opportunities to learn deaf culture from the small population of deaf students at Kelly Walsh — some of whom take Nolan’s classes.
Students can join the ASL club for more signing opportunities. The club completes several service projects, such as teaching signs to the Casper Fire Department and the cafeteria employees at Kelly Walsh. ASL students who earn a 3.2 GPA or higher can join the newly formed Kelly Walsh chapter of the ASL Honor Society.
Reasons to learn
Many students take the course to satisfy requirements of Wyoming’s Hathaway Scholarships, but others signed up because of a personal connection to ASL or deaf culture.
Junior Jordan Roush said he enrolled because he learned some ASL signs as a kid. Roush said he lost hearing from an ear infection, so he started learning sign language to communicate with family. His hearing returned, but he still has trouble hearing out of his right ear.
“I forgot the signs, but I wanted to learn more,” Roush said. He had no idea deaf people shared culture in addition to a language.
Murray said learning ASL brought her closer to her deaf classmates.
“They just want someone to talk to,” Murray said, explaining that her basic ASL skills go far. “With ASL, it’s not like there’s a sign for every word. If you have enough knowledge, you can express yourself.”