Peninsula athlete shares her signing skills

A row of young Forks Elementary School students give their rapt attention to Forks High School junior Alexa Justus as she signs and smiles.

Alexa and her best friend Marin Gaydeski taught American Sign Language classes at the elementary school last week and have classes scheduled this week at Forks Middle School. Alexa’s mom, Shannon Justus, lent a hand, too.

The girls, who are heading into their senior year at Forks High School, are holding the classes as their senior project. The young students are learning how to sign ABCs, numbers, colors and the Pledge of Allegiance.

It’s hard to tell who is having more fun, Alexa and Marin or the young children, as they sit in their elementary school size chairs holding American Sign Language instructional booklets made up by the girls.

The path of Alexa’s life leading up to these classes has been a unique one for a Forks High School student. She proudly says she’ll be the first deaf student she knows of to graduate from Forks High School when she receives her diploma a year from now. She was encouraged by another student, who was considered hard of hearing, who recently graduated from Forks High.

One doesn’t much notice Alexa’s deafness when around the lively high school student, especially when she is shooting a basket on the floor of the Spartan gym or when she’s pitching for the Forks fastpitch team under the direction of her fastpitch coach and father Scott Justus.

Her dad is in the middle of the sports action, too, at Forks High School, despite being in a wheelchair as the aftermath of a logging accident. Scott coaches fastpitch, is always on the edge of the basketball court when his daughter plays at the Spartan gym and is a regular at Spartan football games, a popular figure with the team as he follows them along the sidelines.

Alexa went to preschool in Bremerton to begin her education in signing and to be in a class with other deaf students. Her mom drove her there three days a week for two years.

When she entered the Forks school system in her elementary school years, she and Marin teamed up and have been close friends ever since.

The girls joke about how Marin gets Alexa’s attention by tapping her on the shoulder or by “stomping on the floor” and just laugh when asked if Marin ever got Alexa in trouble at school by mistranslating her words.

Alexa says her best friend Marin is pretty fluent in signing and helps her in school and translates for her when needed. Alexa, who is good at reading lips, communicates intuitively with her mother, signs or reads her lips and just seems to know what her mom is saying and thinking.

“It’s not really hard to learn,” Alexa says of signing, “but for hearing people it’s kind of hard.”

Alexa says she thinks she’s more aware of her surroundings than hearing people. “I see things people don’t pay attention to.”

“I don’t like being deaf, but I don’t see it as a handicap,” she says.

Alexa has proved she can cross hurdles placed before her due to her deafness.

She now drives a car but had to travel to Port Angeles after a Forks driver education teacher passed on training her because of her deafness.

Alexa also has learned how to turn what some would see as a disadvantage into an advantage, especially on the floor of the Spartan gym during varsity basketball season. Her basketball teammates, including her cousin and Lady Spartan star Madison Justus, can silently call out plays in sign language, a skill possessed by few if any of their opponents in the 1A Southwest Washington League and a plus for coach Dave Zellar’s squad.

Alexa and Shannon already are looking beyond her high school years to what lies ahead in college, a time that likely will include sports.

“I’d like to see Alexa go to Gallaudet,” Shannon says, drawing some disagreement from her daughter.

Alexa visited Gallaudet University during a trip to Washington D.C. The school is the premier university for deaf students in the United States. It is named for The Rev. Dr. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a renowned American pioneer in the education of the deaf who studied the sign language of Native Americans and native Hawaiians in New England in the 1810s to devise the beginnings of American sign language.

However, Alexa says she is keen to compete in college athletics and doesn’t want to be limited to playing against teams made up of only deaf students.

For now, Alexa is proving she can teach and motivate her class of elementary school students to look ahead in their own lives — no easy feat.

Daniel Maxfield, a 9-year-old third-grader in the class, enthusiastically communicated with Alexa using his newly-learned signing skills.

“I want to know sign language for later in life,” Daniel says, eager to learn more sign language moves from Alexa and Marin.

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