Decades ago, C.J. Jones walked into a St. Louis, Mo., public school and was told he was not allowed to sign. The Temecula Valley High School students that the deaf entertainer performed for Tuesday live in an entirely new and accepting world.
“It’s amazing to see the change,” Jones said through an interpreter. “It makes it a lot easier for deaf kids to feel like, ‘Oh, I’m not alone. I’m not strange. I’m not different because I’m deaf and everybody’s hearing.’
“If they see hearing people sign, they feel confident and empowered.”
For more than 30 years, Jones has been spreading that word through one-man shows like the one he delivered Tuesday for more than 200 American Sign Language students in Temecula Valley’s newly minted performing arts center.
Afterward, the school’s ASL club participated in a workshop — a series of non-verbal acting, gesturing and miming exercises — aimed at giving many of the students their first real opportunity to learn the nuances of sign language from a deaf person who’s learned to live in a hearing world.
“He’s inspirational for anybody — whether you know sign language or not,” ASL teacher Darcy Calas said. “A lot of these kids have never had exposure to a deaf person. To see him here and interacting with hearing people, to see how he’s able to communicate with the hearing world, it’s something that we just can’t teach in a classroom. You can’t learn that from a book.”
Jones’ act — with the help of interpreter Dustin Pelloni — walked the audience through his journey after a bout with spinal meningitis robbed him of his hearing at 7 years old.
Although certainly an alarming loss, the condition only further endeared him to parents who were deaf and knew all too well what Jones — one of seven hearing children until he lost his hearing — was about to endure.
Nothing, especially an absence of the ability to hear, would weigh him down if he had ambition, they told him.
“What counts is what’s in your heart,” Jones signed to the audience.
So, Jones did it all.
He quarterbacked his high school football team. He pole vaulted. He went bungee jumping. He traveled the world, from Japan to South Africa and continues to do so as an internationally renowned entertainer, producer, director, writer, actor, comedian and musician.
“I’m just C.J.,” Jones signed. “I’m not deaf. I’m not black. I’m C.J. I’m full of adventure. … That’s how you make this world easier to live in.”
Jones’ stop was one of several on a national schedule that will take him to New York, Washington, Ohio and back to California at UCLA.
To bring him to Temecula, ASL club president Rachel Storer reached out to Jones last year and had the club raise about $2,500 selling treat bags around campus.
The opportunity, Storer said, was priceless for the club’s 30 students who participated in the workshop that followed Jones’ show.
“Usually kids take sign language because they have to because they want to communicate with people in their family who are hard of hearing,” Storer said. “There are others who take it instead of Spanish. People who are in the club, we’re actually interested and this is something we want to be involved with even though this isn’t our native language.”