Woodland Park Elementary students welcomed Ricky Smith into the gymnasium with shouts, claps and cheers, but they quickly realized something was different.
Smith — with pale makeup smeared around his eyes and in all black and white — was silent. Instead of taking the microphone to present in the assembly, he was gesturing to students without saying a word.
The students were able to interact with Smith, a deaf mime, on Friday to recognize Deaf Awareness Week. Smith has been traveling to schools for more than 40 years to teach students about nonverbal communication through a mime technique — complete with using body language, facial expressions and imagination.
Smith played ball, made music and jumped rope with the crowd of students, all just by using gestures. It’s something he’s been passionate about all his life — the event that sparked his desire to become a mime was when he went to the World Fair with his parents. He kept running into people of different nationalities he couldn’t communicate with, even by using American Sign Language.
“(I thought), well, could they understand me with my body language?” he said. “I realized we can combine sign language and gestures and all these different ways to communicate to connect with people.”
Smith has traveled around Nebraska and 38 states, visiting schools to show students the importance of communication. Tonya Carriker, a teacher for the deaf and hard of hearing at Norfolk Public Schools, was able to host Smith at Woodland Park after she received a grant from the NPS Foundation.
Carriker is just one of two teachers in the district who work with deaf and hard of hearing students around various NPS schools, said Jill Hoffart, coordinator of Northeast Regional Program for the Deaf/Hard of Hearing.
The program has a base in Woodland Park Elementary but serves 35 students around the district. It also serves about 210 students within 20 counties in Northeast Nebraska.
“All kids, no matter of what their needs are, get served here,” Hoffart said. “We have kids with slight hearing difference and profound hearing difference, and everything in between. Not everyone signs, not everyone wears cochlear implants — we have a little of everything.”
Smith was hosted to celebrate Deaf Awareness Month, which is recognized during the last week of September. The purpose is to raise awareness about the language, culture and diversity of the deaf community in the U.S., according to the American Society for Deaf Children.
Smith said it’s important to bring awareness into public schools, so students can learn about their peers who might be deaf or hard of hearing.
“People think all these different groups of people need to be separate, but we need to be together,” he said. “Some say, ‘I cannot communicate with that person, so I won’t even try.’ It’s important to try.”