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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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A Good Sign Sign Language Class Is One Of A Kind For Eastern Washington

Terry Vaughan looks out over his reading glasses, a bit owlish, completely intent. With his fingers, hands, his arms and face, too, Vaughan paints a picture.

A grudging glance around, perhaps at the cruddy weather. One fist thrust out, stationary and vertical. The other hand grasps the air above and slides up.

What? Ahh, umbrella.

This is American Sign Language I, taught at East Valley High School. Although 22 high schools in Western Washington offer classes in sign language, East Valley is apparently the only high school in the eastern half of the state that teaches ASL as a foreign language. That means Vaughan’s students can satisfy a college requirement for foreign language through the signing classes.

Vaughan, 54, started teaching first-year ASL a year ago, after several years away from a regular classroom. He started a second-year ASL class this year. The students came in droves. More than 60 kids tried to get into his first-year class this fall, attracted by the word in the hallway that Vaughan is an excellent teacher.

“Mind you, teaching sign language has nothing to do with my job as a hearing specialist,” Vaughan says.

Translation: The district doesn’t pay Vaughan for his teaching. That comes on top of his full-time job, working with deaf and hearing-impaired students in the East Valley schools. Vaughan is quick to say that he’s not complaining. His boss, special services director Larry Busse, puts it this way: “It’s kind of a bonus thing. He wanted to teach sign to the kids.”

A bonus for whom?

If the truth be known, the bonus is probably equally shared by Vaughan and the teenagers he teaches.

They say they enjoy the extra effort he takes to make his classes fun.

“Mr. Vaughan comes up with all these games and things. I don’t know where he gets the free time to do all that stuff,” said Tami Brining, a junior who helped lobby the administration for the second-year class.

His colleagues like the self-professed loner, too. His birthday was this week. What Vaughan thought was a serious meeting with Busse on Thursday turned out to be a surprise party.

To understand the sweetness of Vaughan’s return to the classroom, it helps to know how and why he left teaching years ago.

Vaughan had normal hearing when he graduated from Central Valley High School in 1962. In college, he turned toward teaching and coaching, because teachers had made a difference in his life. He graduated from Eastern Washington University and went to Australia for a teaching job. “That was a fantastic job.”

He began to lose some hearing soon after he got out of high school, but through college and his early working years Vaughan got by. Back in the states, he was teaching in Oregon when he realized his hearing loss had become too great to ignore. That was in 1978.

“My hearing got worse. And it was too much pressure, trying to teach and trying to pretend I could hear. No administrator had noticed, but I figured it was only a matter of time.”

After he quit, Vaughan had no paycheck, no support system - he didn’t even have any reason to expect deafness. Doctors said it was genetic, but he knew of no family history of deafness.

“I’d never met a deaf person. I had no idea about deaf education.”

Back to school he went. “I hate to admit this but just learning sign language was not a snap,” he said. Most of the students and his professor at Lewis and Clark College in Portland were hearing. The classes were gauged to hearing students. Vaughan basically had to learn lip reading and signing simultaneously. There was no way to go back - no jobs in education for a deaf person who couldn’t communicate with a hearing world. So forward he went, toward a master’s degree in deaf education.

“There was no way I could work while I was in graduate school, or I wouldn’t have passed my courses,” Vaughan said. When he did work, the only jobs he could get were in grocery stores. “I hated every minute of it. Just dealing with people whom I couldn’t communicate with. They’d get impatient with me.”

The bitterness of those days still stings. And the life that Vaughan lost?

“Sometimes I think about how much seniority I’d have had as a math teacher, how much more money I’d be making. I might be living in a big house. Maybe I would have had a wife and a couple of kids by now.”

Instead, Vaughan, who has never married, loves the kids he teaches. Kids like Nate Paul, a straight-A junior who has two different sets of hearing aids that he wears, depending on the needs of the day - and who will one day lose so much hearing that he will be dependent on signing himself. Being a role model to students like Nate is an important part of Vaughan’s job.

Nate admires Vaughan’s dedication and his character. “He doesn’t let the little things bother him,” Paul said. “I can look at him and see how I can be productive using my knowledge in the future.”

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Vaughan wants the Nate Pauls of today to have things a little easier than they were for him.

“It was probably Nate more than anyone else who is responsible for the signing classes,” Vaughan says Vaughan also teaches signing to developmentally disabled students, both those who have little control over their limbs and those who are non-verbal.

“It’s very emotional for me to have them respond to me…. And the two or three teachers who work with them tell me that they are communicating more.”

It’s tiring for him, he said, working with so many hearing people during each day, always trying to decipher.

Vaughan works with an aide, either Mary Hirst, who’s a trained interpreter, or Eileen White, who’s just learning to sign. He had a cochlear implant a year ago, and gained enough hearing to hear a telephone ring or other pronounced sounds.

But if students whisper behind their hands, or slyly trade answers during a practice test, he can’t hear them. His first-year class learned recently that he won’t tolerate that kind of nonsense. He handed out a couple of zeroes on last week’s test, and without mentioning names, let the rest of the class know why.

Vaughan lives by himself, surrounded by one of his loves: books. He has, he figures, more than 3,000 titles. He’s not one to borrow a book from the library and blythely take it back. This is a man who enjoys the possession of his books, their feel, the design of their jackets.

But Vaughan pours much of his own time, evenings and weekends, into his lesson plans. He worked all summer developing his curriculum. Still, there aren’t enough hours.

“His second-year class has gobbled up everything he’s got, and they want more,” Busse said. “We ask him if he wants any help and he just smiles and says he’s happy to feel he’s of use.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 Color)

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