Monday, June 11, 2007

my first article for the Star Tribune

Deaf alumni share memories at weekend reunion
Editor's note: Star-Tribune community news desk clerk Meghan Watt attended Wyoming School for the Deaf from 1991 to 1998, and says if it weren't for this school, she wouldn't be who she is today. She attended the school's reunion this weekend in Casper and wrote this report.

It has been 50 years since the Wyoming School for the Deaf started, and former students and staff decided to celebrate the 50th anniversary by having a reunion. The reunion started on Friday in the gym at the Wyoming School for the Deaf building, with everyone socializing for the majority of the day. More than 50 participants arrived, and stories and memories were shared of the days spent at the school.

The reunion continued on Saturday with even more socializing. There was also a “Guess Who” photo contest, where everyone would look at old photographs and guess who was who. Money was given as prizes to those who guessed the most correctly. In the evening, a banquet was held in the School for the Deaf gym, in which speeches were made and a deaf mime Billy Carwile did skits in between presenters. Some of the presenters included Kathleen Holmes, the coordinator for the reunion, Thelma Holmes, a mother of two deaf kids and Mary Mayes, a retired teacher of the deaf. Everyone who attended were anxious to see former principal of many years, Norm Anderson. He was unable to make it, but did write a speech, and a former student was able to make the speech for Mr. Anderson. At the end, old films of the days at the School were shown.

Sunday was such a warm and beautiful day that a picnic was held outside at Huber Park. AEveryone enjoyed burgers and hot-dogs for lunch. Group photos were taken, and addresses and numbers were exchanged with promises of staying in contact with one another. In a way, everyone who attended the School for the Deaf throughout the 50 years is part of the “family." It didn't matter how old one was or when someone graduated, he or she is part of the family anyway.

The last reunion was held 25 years ago. This year, the reunion committee decided that a reunion should be held every five years. With the participants' opinions and votes, the next Wyoming School for the Deaf reunion will be held in July of 2012 in Cody. The committee will stay in contact with one another via emails and video phone as they plan for the next reunion.

Before the school started, former students said, many parents wanted to keep their deaf children close to home instead of sending them to an out-of-state school for the deaf. These parents banded together and decided they would do what they could so that their deaf children received the education they needed. A program for the deaf started in the fall of 1957 with two pilot classes, one in Sheridan, and one in Casper. The next year, the Sheridan class joined the Casper class, with another class added on at the new East Junior High School. By the third year, a group of Casper businessmen purchased a house across from Pineview Elementary and rented it to the state. Classes were held in this house for three years. In 1961, the legislature appropriated $250,000 so that a new school building could be built adjacent to Pineview school so that the deaf students could be integrated with hearing students whenever possible. On January 3, 1963, the staff and students moved into the new Wyoming School for the Deaf building and deaf education continued.

The Wyoming School for the Deaf was an oral school at first, school historians said. Deaf students were taught how to speak and to lip-read. Sign language wasn't accepted in those days, and many thought the students would be better off learning how to speak. Since these students were constantly being taught how to speak, one teacher, Rod Laird, did everything he could to keep students motivated.

Since speech training was so constant, tiring and boring, Mr. Laird made his classes fun and interactive by taking students on field trips and doing various experiments and activities. This kept the students motivated and taught them that learning can be fun.

By the late 1980s, total communication was adopted by the school, in which students would continue speech training and also learn and use sign language at the same time. Signing Exact English (SEE) was the sign language that was used. SEE is strictly based on the English language, and ASL is not.

The Wyoming School for the Deaf remained open until 2000. By 2000, there were very few deaf students left at the school, and the State of Wyoming felt like the School for the Deaf was no longer necessary. Currently, part of the School for the Deaf building is used as a library and resource center. Many of the former students and staff expressed disappointment over the building not being used as a school for deaf children. Most feel like deaf children would do better if they could attend the local School for the Deaf.

This reunion was a pretty special weekend for the participants. A great time was had by all, and they all left with wonderful memories. Most hadn't seen one another for many years and were really glad to come and see everyone.

Mary Mayes enjoyed teaching these former students, and she mentioned that being at the reunion made her teaching career worthwhile after seeing how well many of the students had turned out.

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