Hearing-impaired teen acts in school playImagine being back in middle school, the most awkward of life’s stages for some people. Remember how much courage it took just to talk to a member of the opposite sex? Now, imagine being in middle school and being deaf.
By: By Sam Benshoof, Forum Communications Co., The Jamestown Sun
MOORHEAD, Minn. — Imagine being back in middle school, the most awkward of life’s stages for some people.
Remember how much courage it took just to talk to a member of the opposite sex? Now, imagine being in middle school and being deaf.
Finally, imagine being deaf in middle school and getting up on stage to sing and act and dance in front of complete strangers.
For some, it’s the kind of thought that might convince them to be home-schooled for the rest of their school years.
But not for Keith Larson.
Larson, a bespectacled, red-headed eighth-grade is part of the cast in the Horizon Middle School’s production of “Happy Days,” running this weekend.
He has been deaf all of his life.
Hearing aids, though, have since helped Larson gain some of the ability back.
In quiet situations, he can talk softly and hear pretty well, but in crowded settings Larson relies more on his interpreter, who signs to him what’s being said.
Despite all that, Larson doesn’t let the handicap hold him back.
Around sixth grade, when he was already playing the violin, Larson decided that he wanted to try out for “Gepetto and Sons,” which was being staged by the Moorhead school theatre program.
Kelly DuBois-Gerchak, who has directed all the plays that Larson has been a part of, says she had immediate doubts about Larson being part of the cast.
“I didn’t think we’d be able to do it,” she says, pointing to the difficulties of having an interpreter on or near the stage during performances.
But, the directors wanted to give him an opportunity anyway.
“We decided to take a chance, that maybe we could do something for him,” DuBois-Gerchak says.
Adapting rehearsals for Larson took a little planning and preparation, but DuBois-Gerchak says things came together without too much difficulty.
Most importantly, the directors had to make sure that Larson always had sightlines from wherever he was on stage so he could see his interpreter, who signs the verbal directions given out during rehearsal.
Then, it was important that Larson was always paired with a buddy to help him out when everyone else was relying on audio cues during performances.
Despite the modifications made for him, the rehearsals still don’t come without challenges. Larson says he still has difficulty understanding instructions as they’re given out to the cast.
When he’s completely unsure of what’s happening, he tries to find a friend and just copy what they’re doing, he says.
In that way, DuBois-Gerchak says, the help of fellow cast members has allowed Larson to get more comfortable during rehearsals.
“The other cast members were so good to him,” she says. “They helped him every step of the way.”
Now in his fourth production, the adjustments seem to be working. In “Happy Days,” Larson is a featured dancer during the play’s dance contest and the staff involved with the play rave about his growth and maturity.
“It’s a testament to Keith’s ability to hang with it,” DuBois-Gerchak says. “We look at him as a cast member, not as a cast member with a disability. He is an important part of this cast.”
Pam O’Leary, one of Larson’s four rotating interpreters, says when the kid first started with the theatre, he was clearly unsure of himself.
Now, “you can just see his self-confidence,” she says.
That self-confidence is pretty obvious now, even to the casual observer. During a recent break in rehearsal, Larson goofed off with his friends around him, laughing and smiling, and checking every so often to make sure he wasn’t missing any directions from O’Leary.
Larson wasn’t always so sure that he’d be here, though. He admits that after his role in “Gepetto and Sons” he felt out of place, and wasn’t sure if he’d continue with the program.
“You don’t see people like me doing stuff like this very often,” he says.
So despite all his hesitations, Larson decided to give it another try. He enjoys the theatre experience too much — especially acting and “pretending I’m something I’m not,” he says.
So he stuck with it that year. And he has continued to stick with it right up through the end of middle school, much to his own amazement.
“If I had told myself right before I started that I’d still be doing this,” Larson says, “I probably would’ve told myself, ‘You’re crazy.’”
Sam Benshoof is a reporter
at The Forum of Fargo-
Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.