Angel Mahnick hunches down at a tiny blue table, sandwiched between five little kids: boys and girls, black and white, average age 4. The teacher's aide doles out milk and water, pudding cups and cookies. Using her fingers, she counts out animal crackers for a small boy in a gray sweat suit.
"Do you want to dunk your cookies?" she asks another.
"Yes!" says Elijah, a slight child in a maroon shirt. He eagerly scoops out a dollop of vanilla pudding.
Angel turns to Abby, a little girl all decked out in pink. "Want a lion?" she asks.
"No," Abby says with a shrug.
Tying Abby's shoes, Angel points to a pink frill on the girl's top. "Can you eat that?" she teases. Abby smiles.
It's snack time, a scene repeated all over Pittsburgh, all over America.
Except that here they aren't speaking. Instead, they're signing. Because everyone in the room is deaf: Angel Mahnick and her charges, and the rest of the 300-plus students at Edgewood's Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf.
Deaf from birth, Angel is the child of deaf parents, one of four deaf siblings. To Angel, the sounds of silence are perfectly normal. She and her deaf boyfriend, with whom she lives, hope to have deaf children. She has many deaf friends, with whom Angel prefers to get together in clean, well-lit places — all the better to see the signing, she says. ("Deaf people are always the last ones to leave a restaurant," Angel adds. "Because we're always talking.") And she also has many hearing friends, whom she tweets and sees on Facebook. Aside from emails and letters, for everything else she needs an interpreter.
A WPSD alum who is pursuing an education degree, Angel is good with kids — kind, patient, helpful. More than that, she prides herself on being a deaf role model. "These people are exactly like me," she says (or signs, actually, with WPSD staffer Vicki Cherney interpreting). "The kids need to know that they can do everything that normal people do. That I do. I'm perfectly normal. I go to school. I go to work. I'm not intellectually disabled. I just can't hear."
Angel likes the bustle. She's working all around the region: teaching American Sign Language to hearing parents of deaf children, tutoring reading, working as an early-childhood aide, helping ferry deaf weekenders from eastern Pennsylvania, coaching elementary school volleyball and basketball. (For the latter, it's all towel-waving and hand signals. "On the court," Angel says, "we can sense when someone's near us.")
"I'm very busy," she says with a grin. "I want lots of moolah."
She'll need it, if for nothing else than her suburban Pittsburgh home, which she and her boyfriend are remodeling themselves.
Her goal is to teach full time at WPSD. "I want to work with deaf children," she says. "I feel a relationship with them, especially younger students."
Like the ones in Ms. Katherine's Room 214, where the décor is all bright colors and dinosaur decorations. Ms. Katherine sits at a small brown semicircular table, with the children and Angel spread out before her. Val, a bearded man in a black shirt, comes in for an English and ASL lesson. The children are learning "I," "see," and "and," and must focus on both languages.
Elijah needs a bit of redirection, so Angel spins her hand, telling him to turn around, then points: Pay attention.
He does, and when it's Elijah's turn to go to the front of the room and use the words and signs, he performs flawlessly.
A flurry of hand gestures. Hurray! Angel exclaims.
Music comes on, and the kids get up. It's "The Alphabet Song," the music so loud they feel the beat through the room. As they sign their ABC's, Angel stands behind them, quick to snatch a tissue for a leaky nose, to refocus wandering attention.
"I love working with kids," she signs on the fly. "Deaf children need to know that we are the same, that we share the same experiences. I want to help them realize that."
"But more than that," she points, "I just love kids. Period."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated the location of the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf.