Essay of the Week: “The Communicator’s True Challenge”

By Sophia Nicholls

I become a game show host once a week, creating questions about international relations to entice members of the Global Awareness Club. I transform into a rapper in AP History to present a portrait of American life following the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment. I am known as a creative communicator, delivering formal speeches to raise money for music classes for non-for-profit organizations at banks, or jumping out of my chair in AP US History, shoving my sunglasses over my eyes, and flicking my baseball hat backwards: “You know me…. DJ Nicholls!”

However when I approached classroom IA, the blank walls covered with green and yellow corkboards did not provide the usual sense of nostalgia but rather caused my heart to palpitate from nervousness. Although the first graders were only the height of my waist, this moment intimidated me like never before.

“What are you doing here?” demanded a little girl with dark brown hair and inquisitive eyes.

Her authoritative but meek voice made me chuckle. “Today, I will be teaching you about sign language.”

She responded with a brilliant grin, displaying her missing front teeth. Her enthusiasm helped straighten my posture. Yet the nervousness, a foreign feeling for me when public speaking, didn’t go away. It wasn’t the first graders. The thought of teaching sign language triggered a series of fears and emotions, challenging my skill as a communicator. It all goes back to Harrison.

Aren’t all babies perfect?  My young cousin Harrison was no exception. He had the same big blue eyes that I shared with my uncle: spotted with flecks of grey and a dash of green, swimming in a pool of light and dark blue. I was thirteen when he was born and, so excited to see him for the first time. When he turned two, I was saddened to learn I would be unable to talk with him. Harrison was born with a neurological disorder called Hemiplegia. He can predominantly understand what others are saying, but is unable to respond, so when he reached the monumental age of two, he began to learn sign language. I decided to do the same two years ago.

I struggled learning and memorizing each sign, but came every week determined to improve. My fingers often clumsily formed sentences that I had to repeat for the teacher to understand. To get my teacher’s attention, I often stomped my feet, waved my hands, and signed my question, but I could not get him to turn around. Sweat began to form above my brow and my breathing became shorter. It was a humbling experience for the girl who received the highest grade in the class for her rap rendition and whose communication skills have turned Global Awareness into the school’s largest club.

At the end of junior year, I decided to lead sessions on the basics of sign language for first graders. It was more difficult than speaking to executives, but the class was well received. My mission now extends past spreading awareness about the Deaf community. I want to combine my love of music and science to research ways that music can help improve communication possibilities for Harrison and others with neurological disorders. Through research, I have learned that the auditory cortex within Deaf people’s brains is stimulated even more than hearing people due to the vibrations felt from various instruments.

The interconnection between music and neurology has solidified my interest in science. Last summer working at a Neurogenetics and Sensory science lab, I spent weeks assisting a scientist on a narrow sub-component of research involving mosquitoes and the study of how sensory stimuli are processed. This launched my plan to help people with Hemiplegia. Being a creative communicator now goes beyond rapping, formal speeches, and hosting game competitions. Rather, I hope to broaden the community with which I communicate.

Sophia Nicholls, a graduate of the Marymount School of New York, is a freshman at the University of Michigan.