Students sit quietly in a classroom, their eyes fixed on the instructor who is silently gesturing. No other sounds are heard in the room except the creaking of desks, pages turning and the clock on the wall ticking loudly.
John Burke, who is an instructor in sign language classes at Yuba College, fingers letters at times and also uses his arms to indicate different meanings. His facial expressions change continuously, and his body moves forward and back. Suddenly a burst of loud laughter erupts from the students as they grasp a humorous comment by Burke in sign.
Mixing occasional humor with vocabulary building and sentence construction, as well as offering personal insights into the deaf community, Burke has captivated many students, some of whom travel far sometimes to take his classes.
The classes, which are found under the general studies section in the course schedule, have been offered at Yuba since 1995.
Students are taken from the basics of sign language to advance levels where complex sentence structures are covered. They are also required to interact with members of the deaf community through social activities.
Students taking the classes come from varied backgrounds and have very personal reasons why they are taking the classes.
Virgil Vickroy, who comes from the Butte County area, is taking the classes to better assist his daughter who is hearing-impaired. Another student, Ron Sheyer, has just adopted a child who is deaf and wants to communicate better.
Pete Marshall, a Yuba college food service major, signed up for the sign classes because he heard Burke was a wonderful teacher from other students. “I kept hearing how good the sign classes were and I’ve had a deep interest in the subject. After being in Sign Language One, I really feel Mr. Burke is a great teacher, and I’ve learned a lot from him about sign and the deaf community,” said Marshall, who said he hopes to take other sign language classes in the future.
Other students are also taking the sign classes to fulfill the foreign language requirement at state universities. At present, Yuba College’s sign language courses are being evaluated for future inclusion as meeting the foreign language requirement in degree programs.
Burke, who has been hard of hearing most of his life, and since five-years-ago, completely deaf, has lived in two worlds for most of his life until recent years. His total hearing loss has made him reflect, according to Burke on a different reality.
“After becoming fully deaf five-years-ago, I miss the sound of music, birds and background noises. In the future I would like to get a cochlear implant, which will help me understand people’s voices. Also I just miss hearing,” said Burke, who went on to say that deafness has been in his family for five generations.The Yuba College instructor described, with the assistance of a translator, the difficult path the deaf have had being excluded from society. In recent times, however, the situation has gotten better.”There is more acceptance of deaf people today because people have become more educated. Many deaf people have also become professionals and entered the work force,” continued Burke. “Technological advancements have helped make this possible both in the work force and in attaining education.” Burke, who also teaches sign classes at Sierra, Woodland and Mendocino Community Colleges, as well as at Folsom Lake Center, went on to say that he has been teaching for as long as he can remember, and that he was drawn to being an educator for several reasons.
“I’ve always loved teaching and wanted to help students learn. But equally important, I’m a role model for students so they can see that someone deaf can be successful,” said Burke, who added that there is a dire need for more people to become interpreters, translators and teachers.
“Very few programs exist which offer certification,” said Burke. “Yuba College is one of the few local colleges that offer classes in sign languages but no certification.”
Burke and his students indicated that they would like to see an interpreter and translator program more fully developed at Yuba College in the future and that there is an interest and need.
“As the push continues for deaf people to mainstream into society, more and more services are needed,” said the Burke with many of his students nodding and signing in agreement.
“Hearing people often think the deaf can’t do many things. Sometimes, too, they make fun of the deaf. However, with education we can do many things!”
“Deaf people a have a strong cultural identity,” added Burke smiling and leaning forward, his hands moving silently in sweeping gestures.