The kids have been rehearsing their play for a half-hour now, yet none of them has spoken a word.
It's a spring morning, and a couple dozen students are gathered in the gym at the Detroit Day School for the Deaf, on the southbound Lodge service drive at Forest, practicing their parts in the school production of Roots. There's no dialogue because almost none of the actors can speak or hear.
But the students were determined to put on a play, and ways were found to adapt. So the kids speak instead through actions, as when they pretend to weave baskets and spear fish in their African village, through dramatic gestures of grief when slave traders take them away, by jubilant celebrations when they're finally granted their freedom. They've even managed to incorporate dance routines; by performing barefoot, they can feel the beat of the music in the vibrations coming through the floor.
This is the first year they've done this play. The school added art and drama to its traditional K-8 curriculum last year, and it didn't take much convincing to get the students involved, since the students who had attended regular schools before usually couldn't take part in these kinds of activities. "The kids have just taken off with it," says Principal Diane Shepherd. "They love it."
A lot of effort is going into this run-through today. This isn't just one of the final rehearsals before their upcoming big performance. It's also one of the last times these kids will get to do something like this together. The emergency manager for the city's public schools has announced that this school, which has survived for more than a century, will close at the end of the school year, and its students will be scattered throughout the rest of the district.
Shepherd dreads the disbanding of the program, but more than that worries about the separation of the kids from each other. "If anything, move us as a group," she says. "Please don't split them up."
The Detroit Day School for the Deaf was founded in 1893. Its name signified that kids didn't have to live here to attend, back when it was standard to ship deaf children off to boarding schools somewhere.
But enrollment here has dropped over the years as it has fallen in the rest of the district. This year, it's down to about three-dozen students, in a building with more than 50 classrooms. Too few kids in too much space, a problem many schools in Detroit face as parents abandon Detroit Public Schools.
The administration plans to "mainstream the kids by putting them into the regular school population, along with the district's 102 other deaf students. It's not an easy task; to make that work, some students need an interpreter to follow them from class to class, conveying in sign language what's being said by each teacher.
But some parents enrolled their kids here in the first place because they were being teased or picked on in regular schools. "They will be bullied because they're different," says Danielle Clark, 33, whose 13-year-old daughter Charisma is a sixth-grader at DDSD. "My kid will be 'that deaf kid.'"
And some just want them immersed with kids like them. At the Day School, parents and teachers say, they can learn sign language, develop some confidence, grow up with others who know what it's like to be deaf.
"They can be themselves here and they learn about themselves," says Shepherd, 64. "We have deaf people coming in that are speakers, and they can help mentor the students. If they're mainstreamed, they're not going to see their language. All they're going to see is mouths moving. They'd be isolated and segregated in a mainstream school."
Steven Wasko, chief communications officer for the district, says the program is closing because the building's too big for it, because it's got too few kids, because the provisions made for the district's deaf at other schools are Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant, and because most parents of deaf kids in the district prefer that their children get used to living in a world of the hearing early on.
"The students will continue to have access to the same supports and services that they have had, only the location will be different," he says.
But some parents worry about splitting them off from their friends and from the protective world in which they've grown up.
"This school is these kids' life," says Clark, who drives her 9-year-old daughter 40 minutes each way to this institution every school day. "This is where they belong. They belong together, not apart. I mean, they have all boys' schools, all girls' schools. They can't have just one school for the deaf?"
The first time the kids tried to perform their play, their audience didn't even show up.
They were the handful of deaf students at Jerry L. White Center, a Detroit high school for children with disabilities. But the bus scheduled to pick them up at their school never arrived, and the actors performed to a nearly empty room. So they rescheduled.
When Tia'Von Moore-Patton, the principal at White, watched that second performance, saw these kids tell a 40-minute story without saying a thing, she was so impressed she asked if they'd do this one more time, so she could bring her entire school — all its students and staff, not just the hard-of-hearing.
"Because it shows students that have disabilities can still do things," says Moore-Patton, 42. "They can see that children who are different can do the same things as quote-unquote normal children."
So those wordless rehearsals began again.
The crowd streams into a west side auditorium on an April morning, and the sight of them has got the butterflies going in the actors' stomachs.
"They're nervous," Shepherd whispers of the kids about to perform, who are fidgeting backstage, signing to each other. "They're not saying that, but you can tell."
The room darkens but for the lights bathing the stage, and the actors step out. Just like in all those rehearsals, they pretend to be in a village, they break into dances, they rejoice in freedom. At the end, 11-year-old Davine Lowe steps to the middle and begins a solo dance. She sweeps in arcs, she jumps like a ballerina, she tumbles over in graceful somersaults.
But her song has no beat for her to feel through her bare feet. It's a sweeping orchestral piece, carried only by melody, and yet she's somehow moving in time with the music. She practiced so much, focused so hard on memorizing her timing precisely, that her dance is miraculously perfect.
"She doesn't hear the music!" Shepherd marvels from the front row. The girl's performance draws gasps from a few kids in the seats.
Before the play had begun, Shepherd grabbed the microphone and spoke softly to the hundred or so kids in the auditorium. "If any mistakes are made, take all our mistakes for love," she implored the audience. It was a protective gesture. There are always some kids out there who make fun of disabled students.
But there were no wisecracks today, no snickers, no mockery from this audience. Some of them sit in wheelchairs, some have braces on their legs, most have disabilities not so easy to see. Each of these kids in the room has been made fun of at some point, or stared at, or laughed at for being different. And each of them instinctively gives the kids on stage the same kindness and courtesy they've craved themselves.
At the end of the play, they break into genuine, unprompted applause for what they'd seen — dances set to music the actors can't hear, a story told by kids who can't speak, a public performance by children whose deafness left many of them shy and withdrawn before this. To be up on this stage means something not only for the actors, but for the kids in the audience too, who understand what they overcame to accomplish this.
That mutual kindness, the shared knowledge of what life is like with a disability, is why a program like this is important, Shepherd says. She wishes these kids could somehow be kept together for those reasons, and worries what will happen to them next year.
"We have parents that are hard-of-hearing," she notes. "And they say, 'I want my child to be here, not in a hearing school, because I grew up in a hearing school, and I was so lonely.'"