NANCY SHAW stands with a piece of chalk tucked between two of the three fingers on her left hand.
Enunciating carefully, she reads the sentence on the blackboard, pausing to let the children supply answers for the blanks. "Melissa played in the ----." (snow).Flesh-colored hearing aids are barely visible behind the children's ears. Their slightly nasal speech is the only other clue that this class is different. The students behave like any others waiting for the recess bell - with one exception. They will not hear it.
To the hearing impaired students of Delta North Elementary, their petite young woman is more than just a teacher; she's also a remarkable role model. Nancy was born with malformed arms and hands. Early in life she endured many painful surgeries to accomplish limited mobility in the few fingers on each hand.
But Nancy says she's been handicapped in other ways that are more difficult to understand. "Some people acted like my brain was disabled as well as my hands. From the time I first decided I wanted to teach the hearing impaired, there's been one person or another telling me it would be impossible. Even my rehabilitation counselor - and he should have known better."
After high school graduation, Nancy left Chickashey, Okla., to attend Ricks College, where she received her associate degree in child development in 1974. Two years later, at Brigham Young University, she completed a bachelor's degree in child development and family relations. After testing the job market in Utah, Nancy returned to Oklahoma hoping to find a job. Instead, she met with sharp disappointments.
"I knew there were jobs available, but they were closed to me. You can sense when you're being turned down because of your disability; they won't look you in the eye or they seem incredulous that you would ask. At one place the job was posted right on the door. `Oh, we need to take that sign down,' the woman said, `We just haven't gotten around to it.' I found out later the job was still open, but I never went back."
Eventually, through the help of the Oklahoma Governor's Committee to Hire the Handicapped, Nancy became a teacher's aide. Her determination and caring attitude soon won the respect of her co-workers at the Jane Brooks School for the Deaf. With their encouragement, Nancy became interested in teaching the hearing impaired through the oral method. (Students are taught to read lips and to speak rather than signing with their hands.)
At her local university she inquired about getting her teaching certificate in deaf education. The head of that department offered only discouragement. He said other teachers who had full use of their hands would always be preferred in this particular vocation. Nancy says, "I really felt like I'd been knocked down. It was one of the lowest periods of my life."
But she would not give up. Nancy obtained a grant to attend Texas Women's University where she completed a semester of post-graduate work. Her books and classes were covered under the grant, but the expense and difficulty of living out of state soon became a hardship.
Once again, Nancy approached the head of the department at her hometown university. She told him she intended to get a second bachelor of science degree in deaf education and wanted to attend his classes. He surprised Nancy with an apology for trying to discourage her the first time. Perhaps he realized this plucky little blonde could make it through sheer determination. He cautioned once again, "It'll be tough finding a job in this field with your disability - even in an oral school."
"It'll be tough for me to find a job in any field, so let's just get started!"
Nancy remembers the day she received her second bachelor of science degree - 10 years after her first. "I think it was the proud-est day of my life. It meant more to me than any other accomplishment. I knew that no matter how discouraged I got, nobody could really stop me but myself." She attributes this stubbornness and tenacity to her dad. "He always pushed me and wouldn't let me quit. He also encouraged me to be totally independent. It would've been easy for my parents to do everything for me, but they didn't. I appreciate them for that."
This past summer, after receiving several offers throughout the country, she chose the Utah School for the Deaf and Blind, which employs specialized teachers within the regular school systems.
Currently, Nancy works with six hearing impaired students, ages 5 through 8, at Delta Elementary school in Millard county. She expressed her appreciation for the staff at the school. "I've found them to be very helpful and supportive. I also appreciate the fact that the Utah School for the Deaf never questioned my abilities with regard to my handicap. They considered me for my experience and my education _ as they should with any teacher."
Scott Bassett, principal of the school comments on Nancy's abilities: "She's an excellent teacher and has a special rapport with the kids. Nancy's a bit more understanding because of her own disability - at the same time, more demanding. She knows they can't let their handicap stand in the way of their progress."
Nancy says, "It's a tough world out there, and they have to learn how to survive in it. Sometimes they'll be hurt by the ignorance of others, but they can't afford to feel sorry for themselves for very long."
Nancy's had a few painful experiences herself. She recalls an incident from her college days. "We didn't have an electric can opener in our apartment. My roommates were out, so I went next door to ask a girl if she'd open a can for me. During our conversation, she said I'd probably never find a husband; I'd need so many things done for me and most men wouldn't want to do that. I went home and cried for hours." Nancy laughs, "Maybe she was right - I'm still single. But the nerve of that girl!"
People have proven to be Nancy's greatest trial - and her strength, depending on their compassion and willingness to help. "You don't ever overcome a disability. It's always there to remind you of your limitations _ and your strength to rise above them again. People see me doing things well and sometimes take for granted the things I can do. They don't see the struggle behind the task. I can do almost anything, but it sometimes takes me five minutes to button one button. If everybody, in every facet of life, could just be more patient _ more understanding of the needs of the handicapped, just think how much less handicapped we'd be."
- Marti Wiser is a free-lance writer living in Delta.