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Millcreek Journal

From Thailand to the Basketball Court, Jean Massieu School of the Deaf Student Has All the Signs of a Champion

Mar 02, 2020 10:55AM ● By Katy Whittingham

Sophmore, Eh Ta Kpaw Say, sits down for a conversation in the library of Jean Massieu School of the Deaf campus in Millcreek. (Photo by Susan Thomas/USDB)

By Katy Whittingham | [email protected] cityjournals.com

Eh Ta Kpaw Say is a 10th grader who attends Jean Massieu School of the Deaf in Millcreek. Like many other 10th grade boys, Eh Ta enjoys spending time with his friends, staying active, and especially loves basketball. On the day of our interview he was headed out with his team on a four-hour drive to play a game against a school for the deaf in Idaho, only to turn around and return that evening near midnight or later. “I will be tired,” he admitted, but it’s clear the sport ranks high among his many passions. “I love to learn,” he said several times, and “I want to do everything!” 

Now 15, Eh Ta moved to the United States from Thailand when he was 8 years old. He first attended a public school, but then transferred to JMU. He has elected to stay at JMU simply because he “loves it” and enjoys learning from and chatting with teachers, in particular his favorite teacher, Frances Sorrentino, an ASL specialist. “I want to be just like her,” he said, because of her teaching style, his love for her ASL, and she is nice, supportive and entertaining.

One of seven children, with two brothers and four sisters, one of whom sadly passed at 6 years old, Eh Ta speaks three languages: his native Karen /kəˈrɛn/, English and American Sign Language (ASL). He does have some hearing but doesn’t always hear all sounds and misses some of what is spoken to him even at home. For example, he explained that a T sometimes sounds like a D to him. 

For our interview, he chose to communicate with me using ASL through an interpreter, and then spoke a few times for clarification, especially when he was excited. He noted also that facial expressions are important to ASL, and that it is a very expressive language overall.  

He speaks primarily English at home, except with his mother with whom he speaks mostly Karen, and with the exception of a few extended family members, he does not use ASL because they have little to no fluency with it. At school, however, Eh Ta only uses ASL so as not to exclude anyone there, explaining it would be both disrespectful and rude to speak around others who could not understand. 

Respect seems to be a part of Eh Ta’s foundation and very important to him. In his early years in Thailand, he preferred talking and interacting with adults, and he wasn’t as interested in making friends with children his age. Moving here, he realized the cultural expectations, and he has become very social and interactive with his peers.  

He admits it was difficult when he first came to the United States to make friends, but he took it one step at a time. Aside from socializing through basketball, Eh Ta also loves physical education class for the opportunity to play sports with others and keep his body moving, and even math, which he calls “fun and something to share with friends.” 

Eh Ta plans to attend a four-year university after graduation and try out for the basketball team, and if he doesn’t make the team, stay involved with athletics in some way and keep learning. A quest for knowledge is certainly something this sophomore thrives on.     

In parting, I asked Eh Ta to share a few ASL signs he thinks everyone should know. Without hesitation, he signed “I love you” followed by “awesome,” “Nice to meet you,” and “champ” or “champion,” which they often use when playing basketball.  

Since 1994, Utah has recognized ASL and accorded it equal status with other linguistic systems in public and higher education institutions. For resources and to learn more about ASL, visit the National Association for the Deaf website at nad.org. 

Jean Massieu School of the Deaf just celebrated its 20th anniversary last year and remains committed to fostering a fully accessible bilingual — ASL and English — education for students. Founded in 1999 and merging with Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind several years later, they share the mission of best supporting the needs of deaf/hard of hearing students throughout Utah. For more history and information, visit usdb.org.