Signs of the Season: Chicago Catholic School Spreads Christmas Cheer Through American Sign Language
A joyful sign is being shared in the form of a concert and schoolwide learning.
Near Christmas, for decades, delighting their parents, impressing their teachers and filling everyone with the spirit of the season, students at St. Damian School near Chicago put on a Christmas show. To embody the meaning of the season, fifth-graders dress up as shepherds, angels, and Mary and Joseph, and sing beloved Christmas songs.
This year the pandemic precluded a large gathering for the annual event. And because the Centers for Disease Control cites singing as a potential cause for spreading the virus, school officials deemed it unwise for the children to sing, per Illinois Department of Public Health and CDC guidelines.
But on the last day before school is dismissed for Christmas, the show at St. Damian’s will go on. Students in each grade, sitting at their desks at least 6 feet apart and wearing masks, as always, will watch a prerecorded Nativity show by the fifth grade. With background music and vocals provided by adult members of the parish’s music ministry, the fifth-graders once again will wear costumes, reenact the Christmas story and perform songs — but with one significant difference. This year’s pageant will be presented through sign language.
Trained in the American Sign Language system, the students will sign Silent Night, O Come, All Ye Faithful and other well-known Christmas carols.
The Christmas pageant at St. Damien’s won’t be the same, but it won’t be a disappointment. “It won’t be a letdown at all. Signing is very expressive and beautiful,” explained Lynn Kingsbury, the school’s music teacher. “This will be some Christmas magic that will brighten hearts.”
The realities of the pandemic actually will work to the students’ advantage in another way for the show — as the performance will incorporate into the production the ubiquitous masks required as part of COVID-related precautions. The angels will wear white masks, signifying their holiness. At the suggestion of a student, the shepherds will wear brown, beard-like masks.
Kingsbury, the school’s longtime music teacher, realizing singing was unsafe, began teaching sign language at the start of the school year. Students learned the alphabet and important words such as “mom,” “dad,” “love” and “God.”
Classes now begin with students signing the Hail Mary prayer. Earlier this year, when the weather was warm, first-graders performed with sign language the hymn Jesus Loves Me during an outdoor concert.
Singing has been a fundamental part of St. Damian’s, and the school did not want to lose that asset during the pandemic. The school choir has 35 members. They sing at weekly Masses, occasionally at Sunday Mass for the parish and at special events such as the May Crowning. “We’re a singing community. Music is really important to us,” said Kingsbury.
Like others at St. Damian’s, Kingsbury’s deep roots at the school also drove her to not accept a Christmas without a Christmas show. Her four children attended the school, and Kingsbury has contributed to the parish as a Eucharistic minister and parish council member.
Nationwide, the pandemic is in some ways an imposition of absence, an enforced silence in which individuals are isolated from one another. As opposed to the vocal power of singing, signing might seem to be part and parcel of that diminishment. But that’s not so at all at St. Damian’s, say teachers and students.
“There is something more when you sign,” said fifth-grader Teagan Hayes. “It’s, like, a more active way to say something.”
It’s not coincidental that Kingsbury quickly pivoted to signing in her weekly 45-minute music class with each grade. She grew up in California with three aunts who were hearing impaired. She’ll never forget when she was 13 and was proudly displaying her piano skills for one of the aunts. Her aunt placed her hand on the piano and smiled broadly as she felt the vibration. Music was not something foreclosed to the deaf, Kingsbury learned.
Kingsbury also learned that those with disabilities can achieve and literally reach new heights. Jean Hauser, the aunt who so enjoyed music, became the first deaf pilot in Wisconsin in the 1960s.
To communicate better with her aunts, Kingsbury later studied American Sign Language. She also learned to be more aware of people who are differently abled. “I understood there were people with disabilities. I wanted to make a difference,” she said.
She has seen her students develop a similar outlook. “The older students have told me if they meet someone in high school or college who is hard of hearing, they will sign. They’re already thinking about making a difference,” she explained.
Using sign language can be challenging. “It’s like learning a second language,” said Kingsbury. “But the students are like sponges. They picked it up quickly.” Added Hayes, “It was not easy. But it was not hard.”
Two St. Damian students who are hard of hearing are “thrilled” their peers have learned sign language, and one of the students is Kingsbury’s self-designated expert “assistant” in instruction.
Signed Up for the Truth
Located in the south suburban community of Oak Forest, St. Damian’s has 304 students. Chicago public schools are learning remotely because of the pandemic, but Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago have opted for face-to-face instruction after implementing safety protocols. (But about 20% of Catholic schools are expected to temporarily switch to remote learning this month because of a surge of infections in the Chicago area.)
Individual students at Catholic schools in the archdiocese can choose to learn remotely. Thirty-nine students at St. Damian’s are doing so. They, too, are learning sign language through their digital connection with the school.
“It has been wonderful,” said Principal Jennifer Miller of her school’s operation during the pandemic. “Parents couldn’t be happier. Our students are learning.”
The school has not had any coronavirus infections connected to school attendance, added Miller.
“We had a lot of sleepless nights early on. What do we have to do to make this work? Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
So as the pandemic upends and cancels many traditions and rituals, St. Damian’s has found a path ahead. It’s the schoolchildren at Christmastime who have forged a way forward. “They have such energy and enthusiasm,” observed Kingsbury. “I think these kids are the heroes.”
Jay Copp writes from La Grange Park, Illinois.