Rita Grivich ‘signing off’ after 47 years teaching the deaf

Posted: Yesterday 1:23 p.m. 3

She teaches deaf students and she’s Italian.

“When you put the two together,” Rita Santi Grivich says, her hands and her voice communicating effortlessly in sync, “well, I can’t sit on my hands.”

Grivich is completing her 47th and final year as an English teacher in Shelby County Schools. Nearly all of those years have been spent teaching at the district’s hearing-impaired program at White Station High School.

Grivich has literally said — and waved — hello and goodbye to more local students than anyone else.

“Anything I sign or fingerspell is always audible,” Grivich says.

“Whenever a student who has intelligible speech communicates with me one-on-one, I encourage the student to use good articulation and volume, and not to sign to me in that particular instance.”

Good teachers challenge and encourage. Great teachers also inspire.

Spend a little time with Grivich and you get the feeling she could inspire a rock to find a way to communicate.

“Ms. Grivich has this extraordinary gift of igniting the fire in us, which we didn’t know lives inside of us,” Vickie Edwards Gipple, one of Grivich’s first students, wrote in an email interview.

Gipple and her husband, Rev. Bill Gipple, are co-pastors of Orange County Deaf Church in California.

“Our silence, our deaf world, never is meant for us to isolate ourselves from the hearing world,” Gipple wrote. “Ms. Grivich taught us to ignite the fire on our own with confidence and courage. Without her, we probably will end up with nothing but the silence of no hope.”

Grivich didn’t set out to work with the deaf. She started teaching in a regular classroom at Humes in the spring of 1968.

“It was a difficult time for everyone in Memphis, including a baby teacher,” she said.

She took a leave of absence to catch her breath and have a child. She returned as a substitute at White Station and noticed the teacher next door using sign language.

“I’d never met a deaf person. I was fascinated,” she said. “They were in the same school but a different world.”

She applied for an opening in the hearing-impaired program and got it. She spent the next three years earning a master’s degree in special education, with an emphasis on deaf children. Meanwhile, she kept teaching.

Her first students taught her to fingerspell her name. She didn’t realize what she was actually spelling until she went to her first training class.

“They taught me to spell r-a-t, not r-i-t-a,” she said as she laughed. “I love that. They’re teenagers. What did I expect?”

What she has come to expect of her students is everything.

She wants them to know they are just the same and just as special as any other kid.

She brings a newspaper to class every day and talks about current events. She wants them to know they can and should engage in the world around them.

“They see things in ways we don’t,” she said.

She also teaches them to be proud of their own unique world, which has its own culture, history and language.

“They say things in ways we don’t,” she said. “Sign language is such a beautiful language and it teaches you that there are so many ways you can communicate and express yourself.”

In 1975, Grivich founded White Station High’s Deaf Drama Club. She calls it reverse mainstreaming. The hearing have the privilege of joining the hearing-impaired onstage.

“I wanted them to know how many ways they can express themselves,” she said.

Last month, students took turns expressing themselves in a tribute to Grivich. They called it “Signing Off.”

They sang and danced. They delivered essays and comedy sketches. They performed with her and for her. They made her laugh and cry.

“I’m going to miss these kids so much I can’t stand it,” she said afterward. “But it’s time. Teaching has been whipping my butt lately, I’m so far behind. The important thing is the kids got to do their show. They felt good about who they are.”

They have for decades.

Gipple, the drama club’s first president, spoke to Grivich and the audience from California via Skype.

“I can’t speak for everyone,” Gipple said as she signed. “I can speak for myself because it is where I am today. She turned my silence into the sweetest sound.”

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About David Waters

David Waters is a local news columnist for The Commercial Appeal. He writes about people, places and issues that have an impact on the community.

Rita Grivich ‘signing off’ after 47 years teaching the deaf

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