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Signs of an Intelligent Life: Deaf Cartoon School Student Reaches Out to Her New Community

  • Carlisle Robinson holds up a felt tip pen for students to describe using American Sign Language, or ASL, during the weekly ASL class she teaches at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White RIver Junction, Vt., on November 18, 2013. Robinson is the first full-time student at the Center for Cartoon Studies who communicates via ASL.  <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Carlisle Robinson holds up a felt tip pen for students to describe using American Sign Language, or ASL, during the weekly ASL class she teaches at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White RIver Junction, Vt., on November 18, 2013. Robinson is the first full-time student at the Center for Cartoon Studies who communicates via ASL.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Sara Greenfield, at center, along with other students and staff at the Center for Cartoon Studies practice American Sign Language or ASL in Carlisle Robinson's ASL Class at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt., in Hanover, N.H., on November 18, 2013. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Sara Greenfield, at center, along with other students and staff at the Center for Cartoon Studies practice American Sign Language or ASL in Carlisle Robinson's ASL Class at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt., in Hanover, N.H., on November 18, 2013.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Carlisle Robinson laughs with her American Sign Language Class while she shows how to describe hair at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt., on November 18, 2013. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Carlisle Robinson laughs with her American Sign Language Class while she shows how to describe hair at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt., on November 18, 2013.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Carlisle Robinson pays attention to American Sign Language Interpreter Lianne Moccia of Lebanon as she interprets for Professor Steve Bissette during a class at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt., on November 20, 2013. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Carlisle Robinson pays attention to American Sign Language Interpreter Lianne Moccia of Lebanon as she interprets for Professor Steve Bissette during a class at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt., on November 20, 2013.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Carlisle Robinson holds up a felt tip pen for students to describe using American Sign Language, or ASL, during the weekly ASL class she teaches at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White RIver Junction, Vt., on November 18, 2013. Robinson is the first full-time student at the Center for Cartoon Studies who communicates via ASL.  <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • Sara Greenfield, at center, along with other students and staff at the Center for Cartoon Studies practice American Sign Language or ASL in Carlisle Robinson's ASL Class at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt., in Hanover, N.H., on November 18, 2013. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • Carlisle Robinson laughs with her American Sign Language Class while she shows how to describe hair at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt., on November 18, 2013. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • Carlisle Robinson pays attention to American Sign Language Interpreter Lianne Moccia of Lebanon as she interprets for Professor Steve Bissette during a class at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt., on November 20, 2013. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

White River Junction — Sign language, Carlisle Robinson says, is a lot like cartooning.

Both are expressive. Both rely on imagery and symbolism. And as a deaf girl growing up in Indiana, Robinson was drawn to comics, she said, in part because the combination of images and words helped her learn to read and write.

“(American Sign Language) is my first language and English is my second language — and English is really weird, so it’s a bit challenging to learn,” she said. “... With ASL, unlike English or other spoken languages, we can bring images, pictures to life, and help people to imagine stuff better.”

Robinson, 23, a first-semester student at the Center for Cartoon Studies, is working to bridge the communication gap between the hearing world and the deaf world, especially in White River Junction. Shortly after arriving on campus in September, she launched a weekly ASL course, and has taught the hour-long classes free of charge to about 10 people from the school community ever since.

After a recent class in the school’s Post Office Building last week, a reporter typed questions about Robinson’s efforts on an open laptop and she typed responses.

She conceived the idea for the class, she said, to “break ice early on so we can all be comfy and get all these big questions out of the way.

“People here — classmates and teachers — are awesome and (a) very open bunch of fun people,” she said. “They show a lot of enthusiasm to learn about deaf culture, ASL, etc. I feel very welcomed here. And, I’m always open for questions — the more people understand deaf people, the closer we can bridge between deaf and hearing communities/world.”

Others at the cartoon school said the friendly and charismatic Robinson has been easy to relate to. Her presence — from her work, to her contributions during critiques, to her effort to share deaf culture — has enhanced the school of 31 students, they said.

“The few times I’ve been in the classroom with her as a teacher, I’m thoroughly impressed by her work, enthusiasm and level of engagement with the class,” said James Sturm, a co-founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies. “Her feedback in (critiques) is excellent, and she is never afraid to be heard in the visiting artist class. ”

The village has been welcoming as well, Robinson said. She carries a pen and note pad to communicate in writing when necessary, but oftentimes, the tools aren’t needed. Employees at Tuckerbox and C & S Pizza, for example, have already memorized her favorite orders.

“I love pizza too much,” she joked.

But for Robinson, connecting with the people in the hearing world has not always felt so comfortable.

Indeed, she said, far from seeking engagement, she used to avoid it.

Born in New Hampshire, she attended Austine School for the Deaf in Brattleboro, Vt., before moving to Indiana, where she transferred into a public mainstream middle school.

She didn’t want to stand out, she said, so with few exceptions, she didn’t take the time to educate her peers about American Sign Language or deaf culture. That continued into high school.

Looking back, she regrets not engaging more.

“(That would) have broken the ice and people would be more open, not too shy or too worried they’d say something wrong and insult me,” she said.

After high school, Robinson attended Gallaudet University, a private school for deaf and hard of hearing students in Washington, D.C., that she described as a “deaf mecca.”

Her experiences at Gallaudet helped her develop an “identity as a deaf person” and an appreciation for the importance of educating hearing people.

“So many people are still very, very unaware about deaf people, about ASL, etc.,” she said. “Deaf people are ‘invisible’ disability — if you walk past us and we’re not signing, you won’t know we’re deaf, so people just are less aware of deaf people.”

Robinson spent a summer during college teaching ASL on the island of Saipan, an American territory in the western Pacific Ocean, and worked after graduation as a teacher’s aide at The Learning Center for the Deaf, a school in Framingham, Mass.

While working at The Learning Center, the teacher she was assisting had lots of comic books for her students, and Robinson ended up “falling in love with comics again.”

“(I) realized I want to be a graphic novelist, telling the stories of deaf people, history, culture, to educate others,” she said. One of her ideas is to make a graphic novel about the Deaf President Now movement at Gallaudet in the 1980s, when students protested the school’s history of hiring hearing presidents.

As part of her two-year fine arts master’s degree program, she’s also exploring accessibility in comics, sometimes including a script so that a blind person could enjoy them with the help of a reader.

She’s also working on a series of web comics called “Doodles by Caro,” which she describes on the project’s Facebook page as “poking fun at daily lives of deaf people and the disability community in general, at issues that we often face every day.”

One strip, based on Robinson’s own experiences and drawn in the style of Calvin and Hobbes for a class assignment, shows her as a fifth-grader on the school bus, excited to be old enough to sit at the back of the bus.

But the bus driver tells her she has to move because he says deaf students can’t sit next to the emergency exit.

The last frame shows the young Robinson sitting disgruntled in another seat with a thought bubble over her head: “I wish I was as brave as Rosa Parks,” it reads.

Sarah Launderville, executive director at the Vermont Center for Independent Living, an advocacy group for people with disabilities, called Robinson’s approach “wonderful.”

“She’s deciding what’s best for her,” she said. “From our perspective, the barrier for folks in getting into school and finding jobs ... is the communication barrier, and the only way that that barrier’s going to be broken down is if people learn ASL,” she said. “I think a lot of times people who are deaf lose opportunity because others don’t know ASL and they might not provide accommodation.”

Another laudable aspect, she said, is that members of the school community are “taking initiative” and choosing to participate in the class. Sometimes hearing people mistake the deaf person to be the barrier, she said; the real barrier is communication.

In the Post Office Building last week, Robinson’s ASL class was quiet, as she asks students to refrain from speaking. The few noises — squeaky chairs, the beeping of text messages, voices sometimes emanating from the lobby — echoed around the brightly lit classroom’s tall ceilings. At one point, a train whistle reverberated from the tracks outside.

The most consistent sound, though, is laughter. Long past her middle school days of shying away from hearing peers, Robinson relies on written asides and self-effacing humor to entertain her students and put them at ease. She signs questions and encourages students to sign their responses, and writes words onto a notepad projected onto the wall behind her, then shows students the translation into ASL.

“Sorry, I have doctor’s handwriting,” she wrote at one point, followed by a long scribble.

“I like to joke around,” Robinson said in the interview. “It’s part of my personality, (and) part of it is done on purpose to lighten up the class.”

Reilly Hadden, 30, a classmate of Robinson’s who’s also in his first semester, agreed that humor helps make people feel at ease in the ASL class. He decided to sign up for it with his wife after Robinson approached him about, he said.

Although he’s had a tough time picking up ASL, the class has helped to build the bridge between deaf and hearing worlds, he said, just as Robinson hoped. People feel more comfortable initiating communication with her, whether it be with pen and paper, or trying to sign in the class.

“I just think it’s really cool that she’s doing it on her own and taking the initiative,” he said.

Center for Cartoon Studies Operations Manager Valerie Fleisher, who has worked closely with Robinson to schedule interpreters for her cartoon classes, said attending the ASL class has helped her get to know Robinson more quickly.

“It’s certainly helped (so) the two of us can say ‘hello’ and ‘how are you’ in the hall. We still have to carry our notepad around, but I feel less (of), ‘oh, I need to write all of this down and have this formal communication,’ ” she said. “Carlisle is hilarious, so (it’s helpful) just getting to know her more as a person and feeling more comfortable joking around even in notes.”

Several times during a recent class, Robinson demonstrated the connection between signing and cartooning. As she taught signs for animals, she wrote the word “chameleon,” then pinched her fingers together like the ‘OK’ symbol above her forehead and rotated them around in the way a chameleon moves its eyes.

The eight people sitting in a tight circle in front of her mimicked that motion, and Robinson showed that they were doing well, underscoring the movements by drawing a little chameleon with protruding eyeballs.

Everybody smiled and laughed. Not many years ago, this would be hard to picture. But, Robinson said, that was then.

“Being a teenager (means being) insecure and so pressured about what others think of you,” she said. “Now, I’m more chilled out and don’t really care what others think of me. As long as I focus on being a good person and do good stuff, I know I’ll be fine.”

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.

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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Carlisle Robinson, the student featured on the front page of the Sunday Valley News yesterday for her efforts to teach American Sign Language to her classmates, is not the first student at the Center for Cartoon Studies from the deaf and hard of hearing community: The school taught a deaf student who communicates through ASL for summer courses, and alumni …