One summer, when Bonny Hill was younger, she was at a camp that was hosting a deaf camp at the same time, and when the two camps shared meals in the cafeteria, the deaf campers would sign their prayers before they ate.
“I was just fixated on it,” Hill said. “I was desperate to communicate with them because it was the first time for me to ever see [sign language]. I immediately tried to communicate with them, so when I went home that summer, I taught myself sign language, and I had an immediate love for the language.
“From that day forward, I was hooked.”
Hill hoped to pass the love of American Sign Language on to others by hosting virtual and in-person sign-language classes through the Faulkner County Library and the Pope County Library systems. She said she started the in-person classes in 2011 at the library in Conway, and since COVID-19, all of the classes have become virtual.
“I’ve been doing it for quite some time,” she said, “and we are going to continue to do the classes virtually, even once the libraries reopen. We have been meeting through Zoom, and everybody seems to love it and has asked that we continue to do it because it has been so well received.”
She said her Faulkner County classes have had a consistent group of people who always attend, as well as guests who have heard about the classes from others. She said that was true even when the classes were meeting in person.
“The ones who really love the idea of learning sign language will stick around, while the rest, who are too busy with other things, will start to filter out,” Hill said. “Hopefully, it will instill a love for the language, and hopefully, they will come back for more.”
The next virtual class for the Pope County Library will be at 3:45 p.m. Friday. For more information or to register, contact Kristin Pearson, Teen and Adult Services librarian for the Pope County Library, at (479) 968-4368 or email email@example.com. A webcam or an in-device camera is necessary to receive feedback and correction.
“I’m a bit of a hermit, so I love that I don’t have to leave my house,” Hill said. “There are people who prefer in-person classes, and there is value in that, but I love that I don’t have to leave home.
“As long as my internet is good, we can communicate very efficiently this way.”
“I know Bonny has meant a lot to our community,” Pearson said. “We have had a lot of interest from people wanting to learn American Sign Language, so to be able to offer it for free has been a real asset to this community.”
Pearson is taking the class herself and said she has learned so much from Hill. Pearson and her husband are learning sign language to help them communicate with their 5-month-old baby, Oliver, because babies can learn sign language before they can speak.
“I’m surprised how much I can remember,” Pearson said. “I forget some things, but Bonny has really fun and interactive ways to remember different things, so it is easy to pick up for me.
“I just have to keep at it and keep doing it to remember everything.”
Hill said more than 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents, and many of these families do not have access to ASL classes. She said that when her classes don’t fit into their schedule, she refers people to www.lifeprint.com, another free remote resource for learning ASL.
Hill said she has had a wide variety of age groups for each class, including small children who are in attendance with their parents, even infants who were learning along with their parents. She said sometimes it can get kind of chaotic and crazy, but with virtual classes, it is a little less distracting.
“I had a mom on the other day who was taking the class with her daughter while the little ones were running around,” she said. “The mom was able to mute her microphone, and the two of them got to be involved.”
Hill, who is originally from West Virginia, earned her deaf-education degree from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She stressed that while she is not an interpreter, she can teach people how to communicate in sign language. However, she did say that one of her former students is now in the interpreter program at UALR.
Hill was never a professional teacher, but she did home-school both of her children.
“I love teaching, but I never pursued it as a career,” she said. “It was getting to a point where I wasn’t using sign language as much as I liked, and [by hosting these classes], I can at least use it instead of losing it.”
She said her husband was teaching computer classes at the library, and she decided she wanted to do something similar, only for sign language.
“They told me they would do everything for me and would be able to pay me a little bit,” Hill said. “It was a no-brainer to be able to share this knowledge and not have to get people to come in.
“Now, I don’t even have to show up at the library — it’s wonderful.”
Hill said her husband, Calvin, and her two sons have been rather uncooperative in learning how to sign. She said they know just enough sign language to annoy her.
“I lose my voice for like three weeks at a time, but it does no good to know sign language if no one else can speak it,” she said. “For my oldest, I taught him sign language before he could speak, but once he learned to talk, he refused to sign.
“My husband will fingerspell to me, but he is slow at it, so I just get frustrated. They know a little, but they won’t practice with me enough to get good.”
She said her mom, who still lives in West Virginia, is starting to learn sign language and is participating in Hill’s classes. Hill said she started doing a Zoom class just for her mom and her friends.
Hill said she uses the classes as an introduction to ASL, with different vocabulary words each week, for the first year or so. She said that when new people come in, she will always step back and make sure the class is not overwhelming.
“I also don’t want anyone to walk in and say, ‘OK, I’m bored. This isn’t helping me.’ I want them to learn and get out of it what they need.”
She said the whole point of American Sign Language is that it is concept based, and if you understand why it is being signed the way it is — and give it something to link to — it is a lot easier to remember.
“And you are going to make sense of what I’m signing,” Hill said.
“I love to sign stories and capture the attention of the students,” she said. “I love it, and they love it, and with just a few words, they can tell me what they think I said. That way, they can practice as well.
“We practice communicating. We definitely have the vocabulary, but the concepts behind the words are so important.”
Hill said it is an honor to help her students on their journey and help them communicate with others.
“I love it,” she said. “It is wonderful.”
Staff writer Sam Pierce can be reached at (501) 244-4314 or firstname.lastname@example.org.