When Opal Fleming died in 2003, author and illustrator Janie Lancaster, one of her close friends, promised to tell her story of strength and resilience.
"I said, 'Opal, I'm gonna tell your story to the world,'" Lancaster said. "'I'm gonna get it in classrooms, so that kids can read about — and other people can read about — you and your life.' Because I think she had so much courage, and resilience, and she was such a special person."
As a child, Opal was left at the Oklahoma School for the Deaf by her father, who cared for her but had no way to communicate with her. As she watched the other students in the school, Fleming realized that they communicated using a secret code, which she later learned was American Sign Language.
"If Opal never went to the deaf school, she would have been a totally different person," Lancaster said. "And it was such a rare thing in the 1930s for her to actually go to the deaf school, because … they didn't educate deaf children back then."
Lancaster said her story focuses on how Fleming "fell in love with a language in the deaf world."
Fleming, who became a teaching assistant and storyteller, was known for her ability to absorb stories and recreate them in ASL.
A new educational series will bring Opal's story to Post Bulletin readers. Beginning today, the Post Bulletin will run "Opal and the Secret Code" in nine installments.
Newspaper subscribers can read the story of Opal Fleming in print. Local schools can also access lesson plans, historical information about the American School for the Deaf and sign language graphics.
The final installment of the story series, "Moonlit Nights," is a print version of a story Opal told to ASL classes.
"She could tell things in sign language and just make pictures in your head," Lancaster said. "And just make it so real that you felt like you were there."
Lancaster, a nationally certified teacher of ASL, said part of her goal was to share a story that touched on the differences between deaf and hearing culture.
"The stories are told about deaf people, but not the deaf community," she said. "Everything that is marketed to children about deaf people are about cochlear implants, hard-of-hearing kids, learning to speak. And it's not really about the deaf world and the deaf community."
For those who connect to Opal's story of courage and resilience, the learning need not stop with the NIE story series.
MN Resource Libraries Director Kristy Hegberg has recommended more stories about deaf historical figures, heroes and culture for grade-school and middle-school readers.
• " She Touched the World: Laura Bridgman, Deaf-Blind Pioneer" tells the story of a deaf-blind woman who learned to communicate and lectured in the 1800s, nearly 50 years before Helen Keller's time.
• " My Heart Glow: Alice Cogswell, Thomas Gallaudet, and the Birth of American Sign Language." is about Alice Cogswell, the girl behind the creation of the first American School for the Deaf.
• " I Am Deaf" from the Live and Learn series provides a 10-year-old's experience navigating the hearing world, especially relevant for students struggling to understand deaf perspectives.
• " The Deaf Musicians" tells the story of a group of former instrumentalists who learn how to perform the songs they loved with the help of sign language.
• " The William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game" and " Silent Star: The Story of Deaf Major Leaguer William Hoy" are about a deaf major leaguer.
• " Wonderstruck," is a mix of print and graphic novel panels and tells the stories of two deaf children who run away to New York in parallel storylines.
• " Deaf Child Crossing" is written by Academy award-winning actress Marlee Matlin and explores some of the difficulties in friendships between deaf and hearing kids — and shows how to overcome them.
• In " Shay & Ivy: Beyond the Kingdom," "two friends explore imaginary roles outside of playing princess and attending made-up balls in a book with deaf representation.
Middle Grade to YA:
• " El Deafo" is a graphic novel memoir by hearing-impaired author CeCe Bell. Hegberg called it "super popular with students."
" The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin," is a coming-of-age-story meets whodunnit with a deaf protagonist.
• " Through Deaf Eyes," is a PBS documentary for parents and children who want to learn about deaf schools and culture together.
Finding more stories:
Those struggling to find books about deafness in their local libraries may be able to access them through Minnesota Resource Libraries, which are open to the public. Hegberg said that although most of the users are parents of deaf or deaf-blind children, anyone can ask for an interlibrary loan.
The monthly Minnesota State Academy Literacy Night features deaf readers and storytelling in ASL. Anyone curious about deaf storytelling can attend, learn a bit of ASL, and do crafts.
Tonight's Literacy Night will feature Myron Uhlberg, the child of two deaf adults. Uhlberg will read from his new book, "The Sound of All Things," and attendees will watch the ASL movie, "A Handmade Treasury of Deaf Folktales." For more information, see the academy's website.