Suzanne Mattox has known since childhood that she wanted to be a teacher. "I played school' with my baby sister," recalls Mattox, who would set up her little chalkboard stand in her bedroom.
Even before those early teaching moments, the future teacher also knew she was deaf. "I was diagnosed with profound deafness when I was 15 months old," said Mattox who was born with profound bilateral sensorineural hearing loss.
Saturday, she took a major step to becoming a teacher when she received her bachelor's degree, magna cum laude, in education during Commencement exercises at Samford University. An interpreter for the deaf was nearby, as was true during all of Mattox's classroom work, student teaching and extracurricular activities for the past four years.
Mattox, who reads lips, speaks and uses American Sign Language, is the first deaf student to complete Samford's teacher education program. Her major is early childhood/special education/elementary education.
She has faced many challenges, but says she learned to overcome obstacles by having a positive attitude. Tackling the off-campus classroom experiences that go along with teacher education is an example.
"I knew I would have to teach hearing kids during my student teaching," said Mattox, who worried that even though she can speak, students in large group settings might not understand her.
"Amazingly, I ended up enjoying teaching hearing kids at a variety of schools around Birmingham. The students were patient with me and enjoyed having a deaf' teacher in their classrooms for the first time," said Mattox, who did her student teaching with hearing fourth graders at EPIC School in Birmingham and in a resource classroom with the deaf at Thompson Middle School in Alabaster. She also had additional classroom clinical experience at other elementary schools in Jefferson and Shelby counties.
"I came to realize that I should not limit myself to teaching deaf students only. I can teach anyone if I want to. Many hearing kids came up to me and told me that I was an inspiration to them."
"Although I loved the regular classroom along with all the students who were very enthusiastic about learning sign language every day, I found myself wanting to be a teacher for the deaf because there are greater needs for them," said Mattox, a graduate of Birmingham's Shades Valley High School and the daughter of Laurie and Jay Mattox.
She has a job lined up in Mobile, where she will work as a preschool teacher for the deaf at the Preschool for the Sensory Impaired. There, she hopes to instill a passion for knowledge in the students, "before they go off into the real world."
"I don't want them to be labeled as impaired' because of their deafness," said Mattox. "They have the potential to learn anything just like their hearing peers."
She hopes to show her students' parents how to communicate better with their deaf children. "Sadly, there are a very few parents who know how to communicate with their deaf children in today's society. I'm very blessed to have my parents who know how to communicate with me through sign language even though I can read lips and speak well," said Mattox, who always lived on campus with hearing roommates.
"Most of them picked up sign language quickly. We remain close friends," she said of her dormmates.
Her list of extracurricular activities is longer than that of many hearing students. A member of Alpha Delta Pi sorority and several academic honor societies, she participated in Student Ministries-sponsored summer mission trips to the Czech Republic in 2003 and Uruguay in 2004. Her community service has included tutoring, serving the homeless and assisting with a Hurricane Katrina clean up trip to Mississippi. She has studied at Samford's London Study Centre twice, once for a semester in 2004 and in January 2006.
Her favorite activity was being a part of LEAD program, an opportunity that came along with being a Presidential Scholar, a competitive scholarship awarded to select freshmen. "It taught me the value of leadership through many activities with other peers," said Mattox, who maintained a 3.7 grade point average out of a 4.0.
Mattox's abilities and attitude have impressed the Samford education faculty, including Dr. Carol Dean, chair of Samford's teacher education program.
"For Suzanne to go into a regular classroom and teach so well is remarkable. It took a great deal of courage, determination and self confidence," said Dr. Dean, who says Mattox's winning personality has not gone unnoticed by other Samford students. "You see a lot more students learning sign language, because they want to be able to communicate with her."
Mattox says nobody knows why she was born deaf. "My family and I believe that is a part of God's plan. He has made no mistake in making me deaf."
Before she assumes her new job in Mobile, she will spend three weeks on a mission trip in Africa. She was to leave Monday, Dec. 18, en route to Ghana, where she will spend her first Christmas away from her family.