As a first-year teacher, Rita Santi Grivich's first students knew more about the subject matter than she did.
The former University of Memphis English major filled a critical void as a teacher of hearing-impaired students at a Memphis high school in 1970.
"My first day [to communicate with them], I wrote on paper to the kids," Grivich says.
She told them that she was going to be their teacher that year.
"I got more of an education from the students," she says. "They taught me sign language."
Grivich (BS '68) enrolled in deaf education classes during the next three summers to gain the skills needed to communicate effectively with her students.
After sharing her name sign with other educators of the deaf, Grivich realized she had a group of comedians on her hands. The motions Grivich's students taught her for her sign name were for the word "rat," her colleagues informed her.
She wasn't hurt or disappointed. She laughed and a light bulb went off. Grivich thought of a way she could combine her students' humor with her own background in drama to create a unique learning opportunity — a drama club for deaf students. Founded in 1973, the Deaf Drama Club at White Station High School is the nation's oldest club of its kind for public high school students. Grivich points out that the club is for hearing-impaired students as well as hearing students, something she calls "reversed mainstreaming," in that hearing students join a club made up of predominately hearing-impaired students.
"The hearing join our club and learn our language," she says.
The students use signs, pantomime, dance, acrobatics and music to produce an annual variety show or original play, as well as special performances in the community. With input from her students and colleagues, Grivich writes the scripts and directs the shows.
Grivich believes deaf or hearing-impaired students who have difficulty experiencing classroom success can find it in the theatrical arena. Often this, in turn, will have a positive impact on their schoolwork.
"I noticed it was good for the kids to be recognized for their strengths, not their weaknesses," she says.
The club is based at a school with extensive resources for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. For parents wishing that their secondary-level deaf or hearing-impaired students be served by a department staff, White Station is their only option in West Tennessee. About 50 deaf or hard-of-hearing students attend the school, which provides courses taught by teachers using sign and voice and interpreters for students who are mainstreamed with the school's traditional students. Having a club specifically for hearing-impaired students is empowering and eye-opening for the hearing members.
Everyday classroom experiences and her students' challenges are inspiration for the club, Grivich says.
"I'll see something spark with a kid, and I'll write it down in my blue notebook for next spring," she says.
Grivich was so moved by one student who was embarrassed to wear his hearing aid that she cast him as the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. Grivich, whose motto is, "Sincere praise, and lots of it, can move mountains," isn't afraid to push her students out of their comfort zones. Her scarecrow became one of the most popular guys in school after he gained confidence through acting.
Grivich said her deaf students blossom on the stage. The students who dream of being in the spotlight finally have the chance. She creates or selects plays and skits that educate the audience about deaf culture and highlight her students' talents.
For instance, Deaf Side Story educated the audience and school community about the tension that often exists between deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. Grivich says the main reason for the play was to sensitize the school's administration and others about problems within the deaf culture.
"The principal, at that time, didn't quite understand deaf culture," Grivich notes.
Grivich collaborated with White Station's drama department to produce The Miracle Worker, the story of Helen Keller's life. To approach authenticity, Grivich had the student who played Helen perform without her hearing aids, which forced the other actors to remember how important visual cues are for deaf actors.
And as much as Grivich's directing is aimed at providing new and creative ways for her students to shine, an underlying goal is bridging the gap between hearing students and deaf students.
"They learn respect for one another. They learn that there is more that brings them together than separates them," Grivich says.
Former student Sheri Weiner says Grivich changed the course of her life.
"She's actually the reason I do what I do," says Weiner, who is an audiologist in Nashville.
In 1971 as a sophomore, Weiner was invited to Grivich's classroom by a friend who tutored hearing-impaired students. Now Weiner owns Hearing Services of Tennessee and serves on the advisory board of American Hearing Aid Associates.
"It just gets in your blood," Weiner says. "It's in her blood."
For this enthusiasm, Grivich has been recognized as among the best teachers in Memphis. In 1999 she received the Rotary Award for Teacher Excellence.
And when she's not teaching or directing, Grivich is thinking about it. She keeps her acting abilities in tune and hones her directing skills by appearing in local productions. She's been influential in the Memphis community by serving as an interpreter at cultural events. Grivich has been the volunteer interpreter at Holy Rosary Catholic Church for 20 years.
Working with the deaf has become a love affair for Grivich.
"I am always in awe of how beautiful the language of sign is," she notes.
Grivich says her students constantly amaze her.
"The deaf don't understand that we are in awe of how they can do so much," she says. "How do you miss what you've never had?"
But Grivich's awe is nothing compared to the great respect her former students have for the teacher who opened doors for them.
Jarmaine Butler, a former student, wrote in a letter that Grivich taught him "not only how to act, but how to act uniquely," and how to "value myself as a person, regardless of my hearing loss."
Butler often returns to White Station to help Grivich with performances. Grivich says it's good for her students to see and work with adults who are thriving despite their hearing loss. But for Butler, it's about making a difference the same way Grivich does every day.
"I want to feel the joy she feels when she sees a student become all that he can be and love himself for it," Butler says.
Every year, Grivich thinks the performance will be her last. But each fall, new students beg her, and she always gives in.
"The new blood keeps the old blood going," says Grivich.
After a 25-year career, Grivich says her retirement hinges on one thing — it's her dream to have a huge reunion for all the students who have come through White Station's program. She wants them to take part in a performance that celebrates the Deaf Drama Club's best acts, the finale of which would be the club's signature performance, a black-and-white glove interpretation of lyrics and music put to signs.
The reunion would also allow Grivich an opportunity to establish what she says is a "much-needed" alumni club of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. She envisions the club offering scholarships, with help from areas businesses
Grivich is crossing her fingers that the alumni club — a first for the Mid-South — will happen by next June.
Her former students feel this won't end Grivich's work.
"We became part of her world, whether we were hearing-impaired or not," Weiner says. "It's just her life."
So much so that any forthcoming retirement may not end her work: Grivich is contemplating organizing adult deaf theatre as her next big project.