“Ho, ho, ho,” the round-bellied man with the flowing white beard bellowed, as he walked down the brightly-lit, colorfully-decorated corridors. Along the way, he stepped into each room to personally deliver presents to the youngsters within.
But one thing separated this particular Santa Claus from all others: as he laughed heartily and interacted with his young charges, he simultaneously spread his holiday cheer in American Sign Language, for the students he was visiting at the Lexington School for the Deaf in Jackson Heights are all either deaf or hard of hearing.
It was the last day of school for most of the city’s children before the winter recess.
The mere sight of Santa brought expressions of joy to most of their faces. Some sat on his lap. A few leaned on his shoulder to take a picture. One or two were shy and kept their distance, at least until their names were called for their gifts.
And several of the older youngsters, including a boy named Steven, were skeptical, but he had no trouble accepting his present.
And, as personified by Louis Taxin, the school’s director of pupil personnel and administrative support services, who has donned the familiar bright red suit for the past four years, this Santa helps to spread a special kind of seasonal happiness.
“Almost all Santa Clauses have big beards, which makes it hard to lip read,” noted Catrina Zowak, supervisor of the infant and pre-school programs at the school. “All the kids look forward to the visit each year.”
The events leading up to the visit are indicative of the positive vibes that seem to permeate the school, which, as the largest of its kind in New York State, draws students from the five boroughs and Long Island.
“It'’s a lot of work preparing for Santa’s visit,” Zowak said. “They learn new vocabulary words, write letters to Santa, and visit the post office” to mail them.
The 330 students currently enrolled at Lexington range in age from newborns to 21. The school also offers elementary, middle school and high school courses, as well as foreign language transitional classes.
As Santa took a seat in one of the hallways alongside a Christmas tree, small groups of the youngest children were brought by their teachers for a visit.
“Can you say, ‘Ho, ho, ho?” one teacher asked of a little boy who barely came up to her knee. His hearing aid coming undone as he happily jumped up and down, repeating, “Ho, ho, ho.”
When Santa visited the middle school classrooms, students in the Engineers at Work program were engaged in collaborative efforts to build the most creative structures using only toothpicks and gumdrops.
A couple of students, recognizing him under his beard, called him by his real name.
Throughout the day, the high school students were engaged in the Academic Challenge, a College Bowl-style competition. And “The Shortest Kid on the Planet,” a student-produced video, complete with captions, was given its world premiere screening in the auditorium. But the highlight of the day was Santa’s visit.
“It’s an exciting experience,” said Cindy Roberts, supervisor of the elementary, middle school and foreign language divisions. “It’s the best thing that Santa can sign. It’s more interesting when Santa can communicate on their level. And we’re so grateful for the donations,” which included hundreds of story books, crayons and funding from the Kyle DiStasio Memorial Fund, to be used at the school’s discretion.
Taxin, who has been at the school for 17 years, said of his recurring holiday role, “Seeing the smiles makes it well worthwhile. You can’t beat it. There is no better feeling.”