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Deaf students triumph over rock-climbing wall


Crystal Norfolk climbed a mountain yesterday afternoon at Burleigh Manor Middle School.

The 13-year-old Maryland School for the Deaf student had an opportunity to scale the Howard County school's rock-climbing wall -- and she loved it.

"She's having a great time," said her physical education teacher, Dean Buck, as Crystal pulled him over to watch her climb along the fake rocks bolted into Burleigh Manor's gymnasium wall.

"I'm pleasantly surprised and really pleased that all of the kids are really enjoying this. I wasn't sure that they were going to be willing to go more than three feet off the ground and climb along the wall, but they did it," Mr. Buck said. "This is very motivating for these kids who have not enjoyed too much success physically, and it really betters their self-esteem."

By the end of the afternoon, Crystal and two dozen other middle school students from the Maryland School for the Deaf in Ellicott City were covered with chalk dust, and most were looking forward to their next chance to scale the indoor rock-climbing wall.

"I really liked it. It was fun going up and down the wall," Benjamin Jones, 12, of Baltimore County, signed through an interpreter. "I want to come back here again."

Benjamin likely will get his chance, as Mr. Buck and Burleigh Manor physical education teacher Neil Sullivan are already discussing future joint projects. Mr. Buck, who initially suggested bringing his students to Burleigh Manor, is looking into building a rTC similar wall at the Maryland School for the Deaf so his students can climb regularly.

Right now, Burleigh Manor is the only middle school in the state with its own indoor rock-climbing wall, Mr. Sullivan said. The only other Maryland school with such a setup is Centennial High School, located next door.

Built two years ago by Mr. Sullivan with about $1,000 worth of materials, the wall features imitation stone toeholds and handholds bolted into the wall.

A 9 1/2 -foot-tall section runs along about a 40-foot-long stretch of wall, permitting students to climb sideways without the need for any protective gear other than the mat below. A portion of the wall extends up 24 feet, and there eighth-graders learn to belay with ropes, harnesses and helmets.

"The kids are gaining a lot of strength to be able to grip the wall and move themselves along . . . and they're also learning how to take sensible risks as they're climbing," Mr. Sullivan said.

Liability -- probably the biggest concern school officials might have before setting up such activities -- is assumed by the county school system because rock climbing is part of Howard County's physical-education curriculum, Mr. Sullivan said.

"The charge of Howard County is to get middle school kids interested in lifetime activities, and rock climbing definitely is one of those activities," Mr. Sullivan said.

Yesterday afternoon's visit by the Maryland School for the Deaf students occurred at the end of Mr. Sullivan's third-quarter rock-climbing course.

Several Burleigh Manor eighth-graders demonstrated their skills in climbing all the way up the 24-foot-high section of the wall, and some also helped their hearing-impaired visitors scale the smaller section.

Even Briana Zolak, a former Burleigh Manor student who designed and painted a colorful mural on the wall, returned to the middle school yesterday to share in the lessons.

Briana, now 15 and a freshman at Centennial, designed the mural last summer and spent more than 50 hours in August and September painting it. The mural depicts larger-than-life images of rock climbers making their way up a mountain.

Yesterday, she spent much of her time helping young Crystal make sideways journeys along the wall, catching her when she slipped a couple of times.

"I love helping other people out. I worked last summer with deaf children at the Cedar Lane School, and it's a lot of fun," Briana said.

Although Briana's sign language skills were a little out of practice -- making communication somewhat difficult -- both she and Crystal clearly had a good time.

After Briana left, Crystal signed to a teacher: "We had fun."

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