By Matt Kurnick

(February 4, 2008) Culture is something rarely learned in a classroom. However, when generations collaborate, anything, even recreating the North Pole, is possible. Such was the case when George Meisenbach, the Deaf Redbirds Association (DRA), local parents, and teachers came together to create a unique opportunity for the hard-of-hearing students at Metcalf School.

Meisenbach, a hard-of-hearing graduate of Thomas Metcalf and University High Schools, rented a Santa suit and accompanied the DRA to teach a Christmas language lesson to the deaf preschool students at Metcalf. The preschoolers learned the sign for Santa Claus, but the DRA members learned much more. “It’s important because many of [the DRA members] probably didn’t realize you may teach things you never thought,” DRA advisor and Illinois State University professor Maribeth Lartz said. “A lot of time they don’t realize they’re going to be teaching cultural things, everyday vocabulary.”

The preschoolers sat on Santa’s lap and told him whether or not they had been a good boy or girl this past year. For some it was the first time they’d had the opportunity to communicate to Santa, face-to-face, their Christmas wishes. The experience left both the preschoolers and some DRA members in awe. “I think [the preschoolers] felt in awe because it was a real experience that was happening in the classroom,” DRA Co-President Melissa Wiersig said. “I was inspired that they could experience this and share the joy of Santa and celebrate the Christmas spirit realistically.”

Another lesson learned by the DRA members, and introduced to the Metcalf students, was the importance of giving back to a community that has helped produce deaf education teachers and support deaf students. After graduating from the University Laboratory Schools, Meisenbach worked in the University’s printing services for over 20 years. During that time, and since he’s retired, he has regularly taught sign language to DRA members, and will join DRA members to sign the National Anthem at the Illinois State men’s basketball game against Bradley on February 9.

The strength of Illinois State’s deaf education program comes from the community that has embraced it. Like Meisenbach spreading the Christmas spirit, Lartz has tried to instill in her students the spirit of giving back to the community. “I think anytime you’re going to have a special education program you need to involve the community,” Lartz said. “I think it’s important for people to see that deaf people graduate from school; they get jobs; they work until retirement, and then they can choose, like normal people, to give back. Meisenbach had the idea to rent the suit, and he wanted to come and pay back.”