Teens at Maryville Junior High School might not understand what it feels like to be deaf and blind like Helen Keller, but ask whether they ever feel like they don’t fit in, and they nod their heads.

As an administrator at the Tennessee School for the Deaf for nearly 40 years, Don Thompson worked with students like Keller and gave eighth graders reading the play “The Miracle Worker” a brief lesson with some sign language Monday, Dec. 16.

Keller was discouraged, he noted, and sometimes so was her teacher, Annie Sullivan.

Thompson demonstrated that the sign for “discouraged” is a combination of the signs for “think” and “fail.”

“When you’re feeling discouraged, you’re thinking fail,” he said. “Or you could think success, and your life would be different, wouldn’t it?”

“One of the things I love about sign language is it really clears things up,” he said.

Thompson was a guest speaker in the eighth grade classes of teacher Jenna Hunt, whose grandmother he has known for years. These days he’s the volunteer executive director of Friends of Tennessee’s Babies with Special Needs, www.fotbabies.org.

Gun-barrel vision

Thompson explained that many people who are deaf and blind today have a genetic disorder called retinitis pigmentosa, or Usher syndrome, and how their field of vision narrows until it is like looking through a straw. Previously, he said, it was known as “gun-barrel vision.”

He worked with several kids with that condition and showed the junior high students two ways people communicate in those cases. One is finger spelling into the person’s hand, and the other is for the person to hold the forearms of the one who signs, feeling the movement.

“There are people who will be in your environment as you grow up who will have needs like that,” Thompson said.

He also told them of a woman he met who previously was part of a high school club that organized to encourage and support a new student who used a wheelchair and was deaf. Five of the members later became special education teachers.

“Sometimes you’re going to be the one who has needs, and other times you’ll see somebody else and think, ‘You know, I can see in their face something’s not going well. How can I be an encourager? How can I be an Annie Sullivan?’” he told the students.

Signing a “pity me” message, he said, “I might need a strong Annie Sullivan who’s going to say, ‘You’re capable of more than that. I’m not going to let you get by with that. I’m going to stand my ground with you.’”

“You guys can be encouragers to each other,” he said.

Then he showed them how to sign “I love you,” urging the students to share the message with someone.

Thompson went on to tell the story of the Christmas truce 105 years ago during World War I, when singing “Silent Night” brought together soldiers from warring armies.

“My hope and dream for all of you this year is that you will celebrate Christmas in a great way and you will have a good time with your family and friends, and when you find people in your pathway who need an encourager that you will do that. Who knows, you may be the next Annie Sullivan,” he said.

Thompson already had showed them how to sign the words to “Silver Bells” and planned to teach them the sign language for “Silent Night.” Instead he ended by singing Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me,” for which the only sign the students needed was to clap along.