LORAIN — High school teacher Meredith Mattey-Percival stands on a chair at the front of her classroom, signing the word for “french fry.” Close to 40 students mimic her at their seats, before going on to other food items.
Students at Lorain High School have the chance to learn something other than Spanish or French as a foreign language, and American Sign Language I typically has a wait list for the 70 spots available each year.
Teacher Meredith Mattey-Percival said this is the third year for the popular course — this year alone more than 160 students in ninth through 12th grades wanted to take the course — which was restarted after a hiatus during the combining of the district’s high schools into the current building.
“Some people automatically assume because it’s English words it’s English word order, and it’s not. It has its unique grammar. (For example) instead of ‘I’m going to go to the blue house,’ it’s ‘house blue I go.’ It’s unique,” she explained.
Students learn a lot of vocabulary, she said, the Pledge of Allegiance, national anthem, interpreting from sign language to English, deaf culture and deaf phrasing. The class culminates with students translating “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” into sign language.
She said she also tries to incorporate cross-curriculum in her classes — since her room is in a mainly social studies hallway, she was prompted to include the Bill of Rights in her lessons. Now, students create mini booklets to help them sign the Amendments and their meanings.
“Interpreting is about meaning. It’s not word for word, it’s meaning,” she said.
Mattey-Percival — known to her students as just Mattey — said she started the ASL course to open doors for her deaf students. As the largest district in the county, Lorain services deaf students from throughout the county.
“The reason I decided to teach the class is because it opens the avenues and gives my deaf students more people with whom they can communicate,” she said. “It’s been wonderful in that sense.”
One example, she said, is a pair of students who have become fast friends through the class.
Senior Yarianne Ayala, 18, is deaf, and met junior Franceska Panio, 17, when Panio took Mattey-Percival’s class last semester.
“I remember the first time when the sign language class started,” Ayala said to Panio, with Mattey-Percival translating. “I was watching you, and you were a really good signer, you had a lot of skill and then I tried to help you with some of your papers and I helped you with some of the vocab and when we first started talking it was really good. It was really nice to hang out and have a friend.”
She said the pair started texting one another, going out to eat and sleeping over at each other’s houses.
Panio agreed, “I started aiding for Miss Mattey and then we would sit together every day and so we just started talking and becoming closer friends and we started hanging out. We’d text everyday, like all day.”
Mattey-Percival noted Panio has started to understand how to change English phrases into sign language for Ayala. Panio said she plans to continue studying sign language and would like to teach or work with deaf children in the future.
Another student, junior Reynaldo Velazquez, 16, plans to earn a bilingual seal in ASL on his diploma.
“Rey was so — like he, his whole life wanted to do sign language,” Mattey-Percival explained. “I don’t know how you got it freshman year, Rey, you got lucky. He’s a junior now, I consider him fluent.”
Velazquez said he was introduced to sign language when he found a book his mother had when he was 11 years old. None of his family were deaf or knew sign language, but he started to teach himself. Up until his freshman year, all he really knew was the alphabet, he said, but listed Mattey-Percival’s class as his first choice for language options.
“I took the class really seriously. … I also communicated with some of her (deaf) students, that helped a lot,” he said.
He is one of a handful of students who has taken ASL II with Mattey-Percival via independent study. To keep from getting rusty when not in her class, he translates some of his favorite Ariana Grande songs into ASL.
Many of Mattey-Percival’s other students were influenced by popular culture to take the course, after watching the ABC Family show “Switched at Birth.”
“I was watching them sign and stuff, and I’ve always wanted to learn since freshman year but didn’t get into the class until my junior year,” 16-year-old Aliyah Thomas said. She added later that now she is able to Facetime with her friend Maggie, who is deaf, when their conversations were relegated to texting.
Another junior, Imani Thomas, 16, agreed.
“When I was younger I lived on 29th Street and I knew Yarianne and I knew she was deaf but I was too young to understand how to communicate with her,” she said. “I wanted to know how, but I didn’t understand how. But when I got older I also watched ‘Switched at Birth’ and I understood that sign language was something you could actually learn, so I took the class.”
Others grew up with deaf family.
“When I was younger, my cousin was deaf, so I was never able to communicate with him, so I just really wanted to take the class so I could communicate with him,” junior Leaja Barnett, 17, said.
She later said, “It’s an interesting language and I’m just interested in learning new languages and learning how it is to translate from like English to sign language because it’s different.”
And while the students may sometimes struggle to memorize every vocab word, or translate an English phrase into its ASL counterpart, they all noted they wouldn’t be able to do any of it without Mattey-Percival.
“Miss Mattey, she’s just a great teacher, she’s a great explainer,” Aliyah Thomas said. “Her classes are usually really packed because a lot of people want her class, so her class consists of like 40 kids and it’s really hard to keep everyone quiet and stuff and teach everyone so she has a really good patience and even after the class I still come talk to her. She has a really good relationship with her students and she’s just all around a great person.”