A big bronze statue of Alice Cogswell and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet sits near the entrance of Gallaudet University in Washington.

Alice’s right thumb rests next to the fingers of her little fist, and she clutches a book to her heart, with the alphabet running across the page. Beside her, Gallaudet has his thumb resting on his closed fist, too.

They are practicing the letter “A” of American Sign Language, one of the ways millions of people who are deaf or hard of hearing “speak” to one another. The “A” is both the beginning of the alphabet and the beginning of Alice’s story.

Every April 15, on the anniversary of the founding of the first permanent school for the deaf in the United States, people remember Alice.

“You could say she changed America,” said Danielle Yearout, a spokeswoman for the the elementary school on the college campus.

The Cogswell and Gallaudet families were neighbors in Connecticut when 27-year-old Thomas noticed Alice standing by quietly as other kids were outside playing. Because she couldn’t hear, Alice had never learned to speak. She couldn’t understand the games they were playing, and they couldn’t understand her.

But her eyes were alive, Gallaudet later said. So, he quietly sat near her and smiled, and put his hat on the ground beside 9-year-old Alice.

Pointing to it, with a stick he wrote the letters H, A, and T in the dirt. He took his hat away, and wrote the letters again, and she pointed to his hat.

Alice understood, and she could learn to communicate, Gallaudet told her father. With the blessing of her father, Thomas became Alice’s first teacher. But he soon realized that writing words and pointing to things wasn’t enough to satisfy Alice’s hunger for knowledge.

With support from her dad and others, Thomas went to study at a famous school for the deaf in Paris and brought back its star teacher, Laurent Clerc. Together on April 15, 1817, they opened in Hartford, Connecticut, the first permanent school for the deaf in America, an idea that soon spread to all the states.

Gallaudet University was chartered in Washington in 1864 — Abraham Lincoln signed the paperwork — and the statue of Alice and Thomas was unveiled in 1889 for the world’s only college for the deaf and hard of hearing.

“We get visitors from all over America and from around the world,” said Yearout. “And they start their campus tour and end their campus tour with Alice.”

— Raymond Lane