Sign language opens new world for mom and students |

Sign language opens new world for mom and students

Sheila Gardner
Meneley Elementary School kindergartner Veronica Olvera learns how to sign 'The 12 Days of Christmas.' Shannon Litz/Nevada Appeal News Service

GARDNERVILLE – The smiles on the children’s faces speak louder than any words to Carlin Kempton.

The Gardnerville Ranchos mother of three lost her hearing in 1976 to two brain tumors. For almost 30 years, she has faced the challenge, learning sign language and teaching her children and their classmates how to communicate with the hearing-impaired.

Earlier this month, Kempton and sixth-grade students of Meneley Elementary School teacher Danna Barkley entertained their classmates, staff and faculty with a sign-language rendition of “The 12 Days of Christmas.”

Barkley taught Kempton’s 14-year-old son, Jeff, three years ago and that’s when she began volunteering in the classroom every other week to teach sign language.

“Her son’s not even in my class anymore, but out of the kindness of her heart she comes every other week to teach us sign language,” Barkley said. “She’s teaching the students full conversation, the alphabet, numbers, months. They converse about sports, food, weather – pretty much everything.”

Kempton was diagnosed with acoustic neuroma tumors. She lost her hearing, but not her ability to speak.

In a telephone interview, with her mother, Billie Hawks, acting as interpreter, Kempton talked about the challenges of her hearing loss.

“I had tumors on both sides of my head,” she said. “They told me I could have them taken out, or only have six months to live.”

Removal of the golf ball-size tumors cost Kempton her hearing.

She set out to learn sign language anywhere she could. She took classes in Seattle, at University of Nevada, Reno and Western Nevada Community College when she relocated to Northern Nevada in 1996.

She graduated from WNCC with an associate’s degree in general studies in 2000.

Kempton said learning sign language has enabled the students to communicate with a hearing-impaired classmate.

“And they can talk in class and nobody will know what they are saying,” she laughed.

“When the kids see me in the store, they always come up and say ‘hi,'” she said. “They know how to sign my name.”

According to the Acoustic Neuroma Association, the tumors are benign, but can become life-threatening when large tumors cause severe pressure on the brainstem and cerebellum.

Kempton developed neurofibromatosis and passed the condition on to her children. Her son, Jon, 20, developed the tumors and lost his hearing. Her 12-year-old daughter, Kari, had two small tumors removed without hearing loss. The condition seems to have bypassed Jeff.

“They just kind of take it in their stride,” Hawks said. “It’s been hard on her about the children. She didn’t know it would happen and now they have to watch it.”

Hawks took sign language classes with her daughter.

“We laugh a lot around here,” she said.

Barkley said her students have learned a lot from Kempton.

“I think it’s important for them to see her personality. She is so funny and has the best sense of humor. They’ve been able to see a nonhearing person tell jokes, make up stories and laugh with them,” Barkley said.

Contact reporter Sheila Gardner at or 782-5121, ext. 214.