By Kunal Parikh, 17, Sonora HS
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Kunal's students were amazing and helped him get over his nervousess.

Last summer, I started searching frantically for a fulfilling way to complete my community service hours. I could have been a candy striper at a hospital or an assistant librarian, but I wanted to help people more directly.

At the time, I was learning sign language so I could communicate with people who can’t hear. I loved my signing class at the Willow Campus Adult School in Pomona. My classmates were people from all ages, and I was truly inspired by my professor, who was hard of hearing. He was a great instructor, and, despite his disability, a great communicator. So when I heard Willow was looking for teachers, I leapt at the chance, hoping I could make the same impact on others that my teacher had.

But as my first day of teaching drew near, I got nervous. What had I gotten myself into? I had only been studying sign language for two weeks, and barely knew how to sign the alphabet. How was I going to teach basic math and English skills to recently arrived, hard-of-hearing foreigners?

I shouldn’t have worried. As soon as I walked into the small sunny classroom, I was met by the friendliest faces I can remember since my 10th birthday party. My misgivings melted away in the warmth of my new students’ welcoming attitudes and encouraging smiles.

My students helped me out

Nonetheless, the process of teaching was painfully slow. I spent most of that first day flipping through my signing dictionary, trying to figure out how to say things. I was embarrassed and frustrated to be such a beginner. Luckily, one of the students, Larry, who was only partially deaf, helped me out. He introduced me to people and made my transition into the hearing-impaired world much easier. The first thing he taught me to sign was, "Hi everybody, nice to see you!" Soon I was playing basketball with Larry and his friends during lunch breaks. They play extremely rough, and they never did get around to teaching me the sign for "Foul!"

It was strange to be in a place that was so silent, yet so alive. It made me a lot more conscious of sounds I had never really thought about before. Suddenly I noticed when the air conditioner shut off. I noticed how often we don’t really listen to other people. When the hearing impaired engage you in a conversation, they are completely committed. They look straight at you and shut everything else out, and they really care what you have to say. How refreshing compared to the countless semi-conversations we all go through as a fact of life!

I also noticed that the students at Willow Campus were eager to study and learn as much as they could. What a contrast to many high school students whose attitude is "Why do I have to be here?" My students were pleased by my suggestions and open to my corrections—even though some of them were quite a bit older than I was. I taught daily vocabulary, where I would sign words or phrases and the students would write the words down in English. I quizzed students on multiplication tables and we spent an hour each day playing board games.

All the students whom I helped were in the second level of a five-level program, and all of them had their hearts set on getting through all five levels and attending college. Some would attend the hearing-impaired program at Mt. San Antonio College. Impressed by their ambition, I became more and more committed to doing my part to make their dreams come true. I routinely stayed past the allotted class time, making sure my student understood my lessons. I worked overtime on my signing skills so that I could help them more. Never before had I put so much effort into accomplishing something that had no tangible, practical results for me.

I like to think I made some difference in their lives, but I’m sure it could not compare to the effect they had on mine. Now I understand the paradox of teaching as the best way to learn. Having spent three months in the world of the hearing impaired, I have a new appreciation for being able to speak and hear. My signing improved as if by magic, far faster than if I had been studying it by myself. But the best thing was that I was helping good people get where they wanted to go. That filled me with a sublime joy.

Being able to sign opens up a host of rewarding jobs for which there is always demand, from teacher to translator. Practical benefits aside, though, I strongly recommend that any teenager try working with the "differently abled." I guarantee you’ll get back more than you could ever hope to give.

How to say "Hello, how are you today?" in sign language:

Illustration by Alia Aidyralieva and Kunal Parikh


The fingertips of the right hand are placed at the top of the mouth. The hand moves away from the mouth to a palm-up position in front of the body.

… how are you …
The open hands are placed on the chest, then form sign language for "S," palms facing the body, as the hands move up and away from the chest

… today?

The left arm is held horizontal, palm down, representing the horizon. The right elbow rests on the back of the left hand, with the right arm in a perpendicular postion. The right hand, forming a sign language "D," palm facing left, moves in an arc to the left until it is just above the left elbow.