Correction appended: July 16, 2012.
After a night game at the Bryce Jordan Center, Barbara Wolfe rises from her seat, points her left and right index and middle fingers outward, and gestures them up and down rapidly.
Marisa Wolfe, a forward on the Penn State women’s basketball team, can see her mother doing this as she trots into the locker room. The action is moot: Barbara has done it so many times that Marisa surely gets the message by now.
Nonetheless, Marisa is one of the only people in the arena who knows what it means.
Barbara accuses her daughter of taking too long in the locker room — a habit that’s supposedly plagued her since high school. It wasn’t as big a deal then, since her high school was only a few minutes from the house.
But Penn State is more than two hours away from Marisa’s home in Ford City, Pa., and Barbara makes the trip to nearly every home game. She wants to see Marissa afterward, even if it isn’t until 10 p.m.
The two often talk about Marisa’s career path. She is pursuing a degree in speech therapy from Penn State with intention to enter graduate school after this year. For someone who had no idea what she wanted to do a few years ago, she’s walking a very specific career path.
“Some kids grow up and know exactly what they want to do,” Marisa said. “I never really knew what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to work with kids.”
Marisa initially thought about teaching elementary school in the traditional sense, maybe as a Kindergarten teacher. But Barbara advised against it, insisting the field’s job market wouldn’t be favorable.
Instead, she suggested speech therapy. Barbara works at a high school with special needs children, and one of her colleagues is a speech therapist.
“It’s very interesting,” Barbara said. “Those kids are just really great.”
It was nothing more than a nudge in a different direction at the time, but Marisa liked where she was going.
She spent some time at a hospital with a speech therapist, but she worked mostly with adults. She also shadowed at a school, which fit her a little better.
When she was registering for spring classes last fall, an unconventional class caught her eye -— one that she knew would fit perfectly with her unconventional major.
Welcome to American Sign Language 001, Marisa. Now you can expand your speech therapy horizons even to the speechless.
“It was just one of those things that I really wanted to try,” Marisa said. “It’s really fascinating and interesting to me. I got into the class, and I’m really glad that I did. It’s a lot of fun and it’s very interesting just to see a different way of doing things.”
It was an introductory course, but most Penn State students can attest that introductory doesn’t necessarily mean easy.
Most days, it was a ton of vocabulary, but not standard history or biology vocabulary. The words were actually the most native part, but signing them was entirely foreign.
“I took Spanish in high school, and [sign language] is nothing like learning a foreign language,” Marisa said. “It’s a completely different language within itself.”
Marisa would practice in class while taking notes. To limit the inconvenience of having to draw diagrams, the professor had a supplemental ANGEL page so the students could continue to practice at home.
After four months, Marisa is by no means fluent, nor does she have any set plans of becoming fluent. But her current level of sign language still puts her in a position to work with individuals who may be deaf or mute.
“It gives me like a base, so I’m able to communicate with someone even though I won’t have as much experience and knowledge as other people,” she said.
For Marisa, her strong desire to learn only matches her desire to teach — a trait which led to her captaincy of the Lady Lions last season as well as her basic proficiency in sign language. She’s the type of person who sits on a question for several seconds as she tries to formulate the perfect answer.
“She’s really patient,” Barbara said. “She pays attention to what people are saying to her.”
Now, it’s not only what they’re saying to her, but how they’re saying it. She recently learned the intricacies of producing a simple consonant sound — something most people take for granted, but not Marisa. When she has a job, a consonant sound is going to make her day.
“Especially for kids who may be self-conscious because they talk differently than other kids, to see the look on their face when they produce an R sound the right way...” Marisa said. “It’s going to be a great feeling to know I’m helping them to do everyday things.
“You have to speak everyday.”
A headline on an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated information about Marisa Wolfe's work in speech therapy. Wolfe is studying speech therapy. The Daily Collegian apologizes for this error.