It was love at first sight for Avery Miller when she saw American Sign Language for the first time, and this week she spread the language to guests in the first ASL class at The Bookstore in Kilgore and the Coffee Cherry.
Miller was introduced to sign language in high school when she wanted to take it instead of Spanish as her foreign language.
“After doing it, I realized that’s what I want to do with the rest of my life,” she said. “I want to sign and I want to be able to help people and give them the gift of sign language.”
Miller is pursuing a degree in deaf education, completing a certificate program at Tyler Junior College before transferring to a four-year university. Lifelong friends Paige and Stephen Woodfin suggested she bring her knowledge of sign language to Kilgore in a class at their bookstore and coffee shop before returning to school later this month.
Zoe Halupa, Miller’s friend who is studying to be an ASL interpreter at TJC, applauded Miller’s first class, giving her a taste of a career teaching sign language.
“Being able to watch the people’s faces light up was amazing,” Halupa said. “When you’re stressed during school, you kind of forget that feeling of just learning that new thing again and just getting to watch their faces light up with excitement… I’m really happy this happened for her.”
At first, Miller wanted to be an interpreter, but she did not think she had the conjugative abilities required, so she changed her path to teaching deaf education.
“I can teach a class of what I love and I can also help people out with it,” she said.
Ultimately, Miller’s goal is to simply help people communicate with each other, whether they can hear or not.
Dawn Maldonado and her daughter Amanda Sullivan attended the class and both described it as fun.
Although they have been studying sign language for a little while, Maldonado said, there learned a few new signs.
“I hope she does it again,” she said. It also gave her the opportunity to meet other people in the area who are interested in sign language. “I’d really like to get together so we could practice and stuff. That would be so nice because we don’t have anyone to practice with. You see it on the internet and you try to do it, but you have to have somebody right there with you to practice it.”
“It brings people together,” Sullivan said.
Barbara McClain said she would like to learn more, but her arthritis might prevent her from pursuing it much further.
“But I got a lot out of it, and I thoroughly enjoyed it,” she said.
“I think ASL’s a beautiful language, and it’s one of the most easy ones to just fall in love with,” Halupa said. People may say Spanish or French is the language of love but, she counters, “Have you ever watched somebody sign a song and just how graceful it is. It just looks amazing. I just think it’s really beautiful.”
Ultimately, Miller and Halupa’s long-term goal is to open a school in the Kilgore area that would directly help deaf students and their families. Miller noted in the class of about 20 people that some parents of deaf and hard of hearing children do not learn sign language and have a hard time communicating with their kids.
“I want to be a teacher that helps people just with learning sign language, not teaching a class like math or English. I want to be able just to teach them sign language and also have hearing kids come in because I want them to learn how to sign just like I did,” Miller said. Her idea is to have a school catering to deaf students, but one where they are mixed with hearing students who are learning sign language also.
Halupa noted the only two high schools that cater to deaf students are Robert E. Lee and John Tyler, both of which are in Tyler.
“With us living in East Texas, there are not a lot of options for deaf kids… I went to Tatum and had a hard of hearing kid at my school, so why can’t we have a school that’s in the middle of everything that’s for those people?… You don’t have to sacrifice. You can stay where you are and still go to a good school that you know will provide for your kids,” she said. “There’s plenty of good hearing schools out there. They’re everywhere, but for deaf kids, you have to uproot your family and move to Tyler or move to Austin or move to a bigger town.
“If you lived in a town your entire life, you don’t want to uproot everything just because something changed. You’ll do whatever you want for your kid and whatever best interest for them, but wouldn’t it be nice to be able to stay in that town and have a school that’s close.”
Right now, though, both Miller and Halupa are working to finish their degrees, moving them closer to opening the school. Miller has two more classes to complete her ASL certificate, and after graduating this fall, she plans to continue her education, possibly at Texas Women’s University in Denton.