Although Christmas is still three days away, I recently received the most incredible gift. It is a gift I didn’t expect but one I will remember for a very long time.

It all started back in May. Pam Honeycutt, a teacher in our school’s self-contained unit, approached me as we were leaving a meeting.

“I may need your help next school year,” she told me. I asked what she meant, and she began to explain. Their unit was anticipating a group of new students, several of whom are non-verbal.

“I’m thinking maybe you can teach us some sign language,” she said. I assured her I would be happy to help in any way I could.

The year started, and things were hectic, as they always are. Toward the end of the first six weeks, I sent Pam an email to ask if she still felt her unit could use our assistance. She quickly responded. Yes, they could.

I thought this would be a perfect project for my ASL II students. I explained the idea to them and had them watch a related documentary. They then went in small groups to observe the class so they had an idea of what would be involved. Then one day about six weeks ago, we entered Pam’s and Kris Fernandez’s classes for the first time.

My students decided to begin by giving each student and each adult in the classroom a name sign. Deaf people have name signs, made by taking the first letter of their first name (and sometimes the first letter of their last name, as well) and pointing out a physical characteristic, a hobby or even a nickname with that letter. For example, if my student’s name is Jessica and she has big brown eyes everyone notices, her name sign could be the ASL letter “j” drawn near her eyes. My students thought providing everyone in the class with a name sign would allow both verbal and non-verbal members of the classroom to identify each other.

Over the next few weeks, my students planned lessons and went to visit their “new friends” or their “special friends,” as they now refer to them. They have taught them signs like “water,” “thank you,” “bathroom” and “good,” the colors, and several other signs.

Three weeks ago, we decided to have a little holiday gathering. It was exciting to see my students and Pam’s and Kris’ students signing to each other. Though their students’ sign vocabulary is still relatively small, the two groups are actually communicating with each other.

A week later, my students were in my classroom. We were reviewing for their final exam when we heard someone at the door. We looked up and saw Pam, Kris and our new friends coming in the door carrying a beautiful poster they had made and a container with small gifts they made for each of my students. My eyes filled with tears, and I could see that my students were deeply moved, as well. One of my students, Hannah, has been working particularly hard with one of Pam’s students. That student, not prone to giving hugs, walked up and gave Hannah a warm, heartfelt hug. Pam’s tear-filled eyes suddenly matched mine.

As our new friends walked out of my room, I couldn’t help but think that this was the greatest gift I could possibly receive this Christmas. The gift of my students opening their hearts to Pam’s students, and her students opening their hearts to mine. The gift of my students learning ASL as their foreign language and then teaching it to students who are now developing a way to communicate with each other. It is one of the greatest gifts of love I have ever received.

Chris Ardis is in her 27th year of teaching, 26 of those with McAllen ISD. Visit her website at www.chrisardis.com for education news and to read articles by McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez, Shelley Bryant, Edna Posada, Dr. Ben Aguilar and Lorena Castillo.