Inside Track: A love of language
Former ballet dancer turns to sign language interpretation to help deaf students communicate.
Clinton McMurray loved ballet dancing when he was growing up.
McMurray practically could perform any position, whether it was a croisé, pilé, turnout or pirouette. Being the only male dancer in his high school class, McMurray stood out.
McMurray continued to pursue a dancing career when he enrolled at Western Michigan University, but the competition was a lot stiffer. McMurray said there were more male dancers, and the instructors were harsh critics of his performances.
McMurray said there was a pivotal moment during his dancing career he realized dancing may not be the best career choice.
“I remembered one time doing an arabesque, where your leg is up behind you,” McMurray said. “Girls were expected to have their leg (higher than men). Men were expected to have their leg at about 90 degrees. (The instructor) came to me while we were doing it and said, ‘I know you are more flexible than that, you have to lift that leg up higher,’ and I was like, ‘I am struggling, I am trying, I am trying, I am trying.’ He just grabbed my ankle and pulled my leg higher. They were hard on us.”
It was at that time McMurray said he began rethinking his dancing profession and how his chances were slim at having a successful and lucrative career.
“I just really started thinking about my financial future,” McMurray said. “I didn’t want to have to travel all around the world just looking for a job. It would be great to travel all over the world but not because I have to or because that is the only way I can keep working.”
McMurray turned to another passion: his love for language. It wasn’t French or Spanish, however; it was American Sign Language. He later enrolled in Lansing Community College’s sign language interpreter program, where he spent nearly three years learning ASL and then going through the program’s interpreting training.
Following graduation, McMurray has spent 14 years as an interpreter at Northview Public Schools. He is one of 20 interpreters in the district. During his time there, he has worked with students in Northview’s elementary schools, middle school and high school. This year, he is an interpreter for a kindergarten class at West Oakview Elementary School.
Just like an average kindergarten class, the kids have lunch, math, physical education, reading, music and other subjects, but there are four students in a class of 24 kids who are “profoundly deaf.” McMurray serves as a “bridge of communication” between the students. In his class, McMurray said two students have cochlear implants and two students have hearing aids.
Some students start kindergarten knowing some sign language because either their parents are deaf or their parents learn ASL and teach their kids. Unfortunately, McMurray said there are other students who start kindergarten without knowing any form of communication, and that’s when he tries to help.
To continue to assist deaf students, McMurray said the school has an FM system, which is an amplified transmitter. It allows teachers wearing microphones to pass information to the deaf students who have a device already attached to their hearing aids and cochlear implants.
A typical day for McMurray begins with going over the calendar: dates, weather, the days of the week, the months and years. Both the teacher and McMurray sit at the front of the room.
“So, every time the teacher talks to them, my hands go up in the air,” McMurray said. “What she is saying, I have to take her ideas and concepts and change them into a visual form that is understood in American Sign Language. You are taking information and creating a picture in a lot of ways. A lot of people think that sign language interpreting is signing all of the English words in English word order, which (sometimes) it is not. Sometimes, you have to spell out the words for them because there is no sign for them.”
During lunchtime, McMurray said he uses pictures to help the children make their lunch choices.
“We use pictures in the kindergarten class of the food, just because they are still learning to read,” McMurray said. “We put pictures of hot dogs or tacos, but they might not know what it is. So, sometimes they will ask me, and sometimes, I will explain it. There is no sign for every kind of food that exists. So if it is a burrito, I don’t know a sign for burrito, to be honest with you. But I can describe it. Well, it is like a taco, tastes like a taco, it is Mexican food. I can explain what is inside of it.”
The kids also participate in art and P.E., which McMurray said they love. During P.E., he serves as a mediator between the hearing students and the deaf students.
“Sometimes, (the hearing kids) will come up to me and ask, ‘I want to ask him to play this with me,’ McMurray said. “So, I will go and interpret, or if they are fighting or arguing, I have to go and be that communication connection for everybody. Even if someone gets in trouble, the teacher will reprimand them and I will be there to interpret what they are saying or, ‘I heard this happened on the playground, what happened?’ They’ll sign and tell what happened, and I will voice what they are saying and be that bridge of communication.”
There also is a period in the class called literacy center in which students sit at four tables and complete activities. McMurray said after the teacher explains the lesson, he’ll sit at the table with the four students who are deaf and help them with their activities.
“Instead of having the teacher come over, I interpret it just to help them, but it is still good for them to know that she’s still the teacher, and they need to raise their hands when they need help, and they do,” he said. “They’ll sign, and I will voice what they are saying so the teacher can understand what they are asking.”
McMurray said music is the most challenging because they talk about beats, rhythms and notes, which are “foreign to them.” They don’t have a great understanding of sound and music, but he tries to associate the sounds with vibrations.
After math and music, it gets easier because they have rest time, McMurray said.
Although McMurray forfeited his dream of becoming a dancer, he said what he has done over the past 14 years has been a rewarding experience.
“I enjoy my job so much that I am OK with not making a ton of money, that’s not important to me anymore,” McMurray said. “It’s important that I enjoy going to work, that I look forward to going to work. I don't wake up every morning and say, ‘Another day, gosh.’ I wake up and say, ‘Let’s see what will happen today. What are some of the things the kids will do to make me laugh and what kind of impact am I going to have on their lives today?’ It makes it so uplifting, and it makes it so worth it.”