In the relaxed hum of a classroom in Frederick, five preschoolers with blond hair and wide-eyed stories to tell are learning to speak a language they may never hear.
With their hands outstretched and their fingers moving rapidly, Nicki Hawkins and Will Brach, both 3, excitedly tell the class about their imaginary adventure at a zoo. The children, students at the Maryland School for the Deaf, laugh as Nicki twists his face, shrugging his shoulders like a pantomimist. Will says flawlessly: "See the pigs, children. The pigs are going home now."
Five days a week, the children's hands are guided through the intricacies of the communication that sometimes frustrates them. They are learning to talk.
"They are creative and they take the smallest segment of life and build an adventure around it," says teacher Pat Timms.
Will and Nicki are the first to spot a visitor. They walk over and smile, their fingers moving quickly. When they discover that the visitor does not know sign language, Will puts up three fingers and says, "Hello, I am Will-Will." Nicki hands over a cup of juice. "Juice," he says.
There is a separate class for their families, teaching everything from sign language to coping. The classes are small, with three teachers to a class.
The school, which has been teaching deaf children since 1867, has 45 preschoolers enrolled in the program and 356 children in grades 1 through 12.
"Sometimes, parents of deaf children are unable to get their own feelings out," says Don H. Garner, assistant superintendent for the school, "and when this happens, the love and tenderness between parent and child becomes easily broken. But a deaf child is still a child that loves. To those families who suffer internally, this program is our attempt to fix all that."
Infant hearing losses have been linked to rubella and influenza, both of which invade the developing inner ear of the fetus, and to meningitis, chickenpox and mononucleosis, says Dr. Hiroshi Shimizu, director of the hearing and speech clinic at Johns Hopkins University. Some drugs taken by a mother during pregnacy also can harm the unborn infant's hearing, as can injury to the infant's brain during delivery, he explains.
Hearing as communication occurs as the infant associates sounds with daily events, such as a parent's voice. For children whose hearing is impaired, that process is much more difficult.
A variety of methods are used to teach deaf children to speak. If a teacher wants to say the letter "P" for "potato," the teacher will place the child's hand in front of the teacher's mouth so that the child can feel the gush of air. Or the teacher may place the child's hands on the teacher's nose, so the child can feel the vibrations created by speech.
"It's a slow process. First you start with the child feeling the words on your nose, then your throat, then your mouth," says principal Ken Kritz. "And we repeat it over and over again."
Some teachers use the movement of balloons, candles and feathers to teach words. A device called a "phonator" helps a child sense speech vibrations, and a "speechlight" lets the child know if his voice is too soft or loud.
Many deaf children who are unable to speak are erroneously thought to be stupid, school officials say. But this year, 26 of the school's 29 graduating seniors will attend college, Kritz notes. The school, which is supported by state funds, is free to the parents of its students.
Class for the preschoolers ends at noon, and the children emerge from the building shrieking, running and dodging one another. Nicki points to the clouds: "Look, Will, clouds," he says. Will glances up. "Clouds, clouds," he repeats, and the two boys wave goodbye.