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Poetry Transcends the Sound of Silence


In the forest Many trees Big and small Old and young They are talking To each other Except One tree Alone Silent Deaf. . . . The poem is "The Squirrel and the Tree." The poet is Roxana Hernandez. She is 13 and she is deaf.

She's never seen a deaf tree, of course, but she wondered, "What would it be like?"

She'd never written a poem, either, until joining a creative writing class taught by deaf actor Bob Hiltermann at Marlton, a public special education school in the Crenshaw District.

Let your imaginations run wild, Hiltermann told his seven teen-age students at the outset of the 14-week class. "Say anything you want to say--about your dreams, your family. . . ."

Some didn't know what poetry was. Several have learning disabilities. Others are immigrants still struggling with their English ABCs.

In terms of language skills, Hiltermann said, "This was the lowest functioning group I'd ever worked with" in five years of teaching writing and drama at Marlton.

Hiltermann and Jo-Ann Dean, a hearing teacher who taught the class with him, used Dr. Seuss books (the first books some students had ever read) to teach the concepts of rhyme and rhythm. They spent weeks writing out easily recognizable rhyming words--bat, cat, hat.

"The first six weeks were a struggle," Hiltermann recalled, "and then the light came through." Last week, he sat proudly in the front row as his seven young poets performed their works in American Sign Language for a school assembly.

Francisco Lopez, a slightly built 13-year-old who has struggled with reading and memorization, stood tall at center stage, signing "Hands." Simultaneously, Dean read aloud his words:

Left hand, right hand Hand says good morning Hand says good night . . . Left hand, right hand One hand, two hands Wave goodby. Bowing deeply, Francisco yielded to the next poet. (Later, he would say that, compared to writing, performing was a piece of cake.)

When Dean introduced the poets, he said: "They're a little nervous, so please cooperate and cheer loudly." But the jitters didn't show.

Karin Guzman, 15, from Guatemala, signed "Selena," her tribute to the slain Mexican American pop star:

. . . People love Selena for her voice. Fans love Selena for her soul. Selena is always remembered. . . . Karin, who hears little, explained why she chose to write about a singer: "I liked Selena a lot. I could hear some of her music."

"Me Sad" was by Veronica Oliva, 18, who had never been to school until coming to Los Angeles from rural El Salvador two years ago. "She had no language, not even sign language," Hiltermann said, "just gestures, baby-talk level. In this poetry, she has bloomed."

"Me Sad" is autobiographical:

You my father You angry You say me stupid You say me weak You say me nothing You go away Far away Me Sad Me Cry Not grammatical in spoken or written English, the poem is a literal translation of American Sign Language, Dean said. "Do you change it, or do you keep the integrity of it?"

Sign language is visual and playful, Hiltermann added, and, like poetry, it is "about breaking rules."

Culminating the poetry project, a slim book called "The Squirrel and the Tree," with the poems in Spanish and English, was printed for families and friends.

Hiltermann wrote in the foreword of the "strange and wonderful and magical, heartbreaking things" that happen through poetry, which is "a glimpse into a young deaf poet's heart and soul, into the way he or she sees the world."

Roxana's imagination created both that deaf tree and a deaf squirrel to climb it.

Angelica Martinez, 19, wrote "My Mother" and "My Father." The first is a loving tribute to a 34-year-old Mexican-born woman struggling to raise 11 children. "My Father" is about a father who's in jail.

Teachers in the audience liked "Why School," an ode to education by Adriana Renteria, 17, who told later of her determination to learn, "to feel good about myself."

Sarom Chea, 14, who came from Thailand three years ago, wrote "Building Cities":

. . . Many buildings look the same Many cities look the same Many buildings look boring Many buildings look beautiful. . . . Joining hands, the poets took a bow. There were flowers for all. "You were wonderful," Hiltermann told them. "I'm so happy and proud."

Dean of students Carol Billone was a bit weepy. "Our students are very special," she said, "and it takes special people to get the best out of them."

Also visibly moved were principal Gloria Lopez and Irene Oppenheim, a volunteer instrumental in getting a $5,000 grant for this program from the L.A.-based Plum Foundation.

Most of Marlton's students are deaf, Lopez said, and some opted out of mainstream schools, where they felt isolated. "Here, communication is not a barrier. Everyone signs--the principal, the nurse, the psychiatrist."

Hiltermann, 42, understands. Born in Germany, he was 6 when his family moved to a town near Calgary, Canada. In school, he was labeled slow. At 10, found to have only 20% hearing, he went to a special school--and to the head of his class.

He is adept at both ASL and lip-reading, and credits his clear speech to therapy and to his determination to lose the German accent that once caused new schoolmates to stone him and call him "Nazi."

To his students, he is Bob, role model, an actor whose credits include the film "Children of a Lesser God." Bob, who made poetry fun while making them believe in themselves.

Roxana has already decided: "I want to be a famous poet."


I miss you Because You are my father Your are handsome You are quiet You are tired I am sad Because You don't loved me And my sisters And my brothers - Excerpt from "My Father" by Angelica Martinez.

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