Life lessons

Nick DeLuca speaks his own language at Hayden Valley Elementary School

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— Actions speak louder than words in the classroom of one Hayden Valley Elementary teacher.

Nancy Schmid's first- grade students speak a second language silently.

Their classmate, Nick DeLuca, cannot hear.

Since preschool, this group of students has surprised the faculty at Hayden Valley Elementary by learning to use sign language to communicate with DeLuca.

What might seem like a language barrier to some has been an opportunity for the first-graders to discover their differences are not hindrances to avoid but challenges to meet.

"Nick has shown these kids that they can overcome things," Schmid said. "It's a lesson that we're not all perfect.

"We all have some things that are hard for us and some things that are easy for us."

Nick DeLuca changed his classmates' perception of what is ordinary by participating in the same classroom experience, despite his hearing impairment.

DeLuca's most extraordinary quality, may, in fact, be his ordinary existence.

The 6-year-old struggles to grasp the same concepts, such as vocabulary and numbers, as his classmates.

But to someone who cannot hear concepts like beginning, middle and end, or more and less, requires creative teaching strategies.

Schmid said she remembers taking off her shoes earlier in the school years to better explain the idea of pairs to DeLuca. She wanted to give him a visual image of a pair of shoes. He met her efforts with feigned disgust at the smell.

DeLuca laughingly waved his hand before his face, but Schmid couldn't have been more pleased. He understood the concept and communicated it back to her, she said.

DeLuca received a cochlear implant in the back of his head at age three to improve his hearing ability.

The cochlear replaces what the ear cannot do anymore by picking up vibrations that allow DeLuca to hear. To what extent he can hear, however, cannot be determined.

Now the challenge lies in teaching him to speak with the aid of the implant as well as using sign language to communicate, his interpreter, Karen Simon, said.

Simon began working with DeLuca last summer and spends so much time with her young charge that he has become somewhat of an adopted son, she said.

"If I'm in front of his face every day, it's important that we get some kind of relationship," she said.

Simon accompanies DeLuca throughout the school day. In the classroom, she sits in a chair next to his desk and signs everything that Schmid says to her students.

During story time in the library, she finds a spot opposite DeLuca and signs the story, while the librarian reads the book and points to the pictures.

Such an exercise can be taxing for the youngster, who must try to follow his interpreter and the librarian at the same time.

Though the little boy vaguely understands the obstacles before him, it does not dampen his spirits, Simon said.

Triumphs, she said, give her reason to admire his mettle every day.

Many of those successes would be taken for granted by most people. But Simon cheers when DeLuca speaks two-word sentences. She smiles when he proudly says "I'm OK."

"There are days you are so excited when he catches on to something," she said.

Deluca communicates primarily with Simon, but he finds a willing audience in the faculty and students of Hayden Valley Elementary School.

"Everyone just rallies around him and accepts him completely," she said.

Children don't contemplate the who, what, when and where of their sentences before speaking, Simon said. DeLuca, on the other hand, must be taught how to include all those elements in his speech.

"It's getting him to understand and say things we don't even think twice about," she said.

DeLuca's knack for humor makes him a joy to teach, Simon said. Although he cannot say what he thinks, his antics and mannerisms betray his lighthearted personality.

When Simon exaggerates her signing to emphasize a concept, DeLuca responds by playfully mimicking his interpreter. It's a slow process, but one that offers instant gratification.

"With every little thing that he accomplishes, inside, you just swell up," Simon said.

Speech therapist Christine Noble works with DeLuca twice a week to reemphasize concepts introduced in the classroom. Through games and constant visual images, Noble teaches him basic words and the concepts of words.

To the casual observer, Nick DeLuca acts like any other student at school. He squirms in his seat while Schmid gives directions. His attention drifts during story time. At recess, he plays in the snow and is not immune to the cuts and scraps that befall little boys on the playground.

Chocolate pudding always disappears first from his tray at lunchtime as he tries to ignore the green beans growing colder by the minute.

His peers, who have been with him since preschool, see the similarities.

"It doesn't make him any different from me," first-grader Vicki Muhme said.

Several parents have asked that their children not be separated from DeLuca in future grades, his kindergarten teacher, Christine Epp, said. They want their children to learn sign language, she added.

Her former students' knack for making another language their own was impressive, she said.

"They were telling me how to sign some days," she said.

Not a day goes by that Schmid's students do not ask how to sign a word or phrase. Like her classmates, Muhme welcomes the chance to learn another language. They want to know how to say more than "hello" to their friend, she said.

DeLuca's classroom may be his biggest cheering section.

First-grader T-Lane Mazzola said he is happy to see his classmate doing so well with his speech.He can understand DeLuca better than he did last year, he said.

"It's no different than talking to anybody else," Mazzola said.

Schmid's students' indifference toward DeLuca's hearing impairment reveals how little they take note of their differences.

First-grader Zane Booco considers DeLuca one of his best buddies and knows how to communicate that to DeLuca. He often stops by his friend's desk to give him a pat on the shoulder, a sign of friendship.

"It means he is my good friend," Booco said.

His biggest fan, however, sees the challenges DeLuca faces outside the classroom walls.

At 10, Samantha DeLuca has plenty of interests, but her brother gets her undivided attention. Her commitment to caring for her brother inspires many people, including her father, Wayne DeLuca, who admires his daughter's selflessness.

After school, Samantha helps Nick with his homework. More importantly, she talks to her brother. A second language presents some challenges, she said, but learning comes easily.

And it brings its share of funny moments, she added.

Their mother once told Nick to go jump in a lake in sign language, when she thought she was telling him it was time for supper. Young Nick obeyed his mother and headed for the door, but his family stopped him before he got too far.

Samantha Deluca doesn't look at the disadvantages that follow her brother's hearing impairment. She sees only potential.

The only drawback, she said, comes when Nick can't say aloud what he is thinking. But the admiring look her brother casts her way proves that to be untrue.

Sometimes, words are not always necessary.

To reach Danie Harrelson call 871-4208

or e-mail dharrelson@steamboatpilot.com.

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