Every Tuesday afternoon at the Thurgood Marshall Branch of the Chicago Public Library, retiree Jerry Bowen signs “hello” to the sign language class he’s taught remotely for three years.
“I still feel like I’m at basic level, but I know enough to teach somebody who’s at zero,” Bowen said. “I try to let the students help, you know, I don’t just talk to them. I try to get them to participate, help each other, make it interesting.”
Bowen says he first became fascinated with sign language by seeing it on TV, but he didn’t expect to ever learn it. That changed when he saw a flyer for a class at the library taught by Bernice McAfee. He recalled joining his first class with Mrs. McAfee.
“I walk in the door. I don't know if I’m in the right place. I’m nervous. I’m starting something new. Can I do this and all this stuff going through my head? And here’s this little old lady, 90 years old, standing up there talking, had her little wig on and it’s kind of twisted, so I walked in and she just told some kind of little funny joke and she starts laughing, and her teeth almost fell out at that,” he said. “And when she got through laughing, she sat back and patted her stomach and put her teeth back in, said ahh, that’s good for my health.”
Bowen says he attended Miss McAfee’s class for years, and they became friends – and then she handed him the torch in 2020.
“She says, I’m not going to be coming much longer and you're going to have to start doing the class. She drafted me,” Bowen said. “She passed away about two months after that and here I am, still here.”
Bowen says anyone who’s interested in a basic course is welcome to join him.
“Some come one time, some come for a few months and just keep coming. Sometimes they bring their kids, so I get to be a little silly, a little funny,” Bowen said. “I've had a couple of people come in, they knew way more than I did. I guess that’s why they didn’t come back!”
Bowen said he would love to have more experienced signers join his class as well. The class is free but requires registration – visit the Chicago Public Library website for details.