03/06/2000 at 01:00 AM EST
Seven-year-old Josh Bryant is giving out rulers to some of his classmates at the Clinton Park Primary School, but not a single one says thank you. It isn't that they're rude. Instead of saying thanks, Josh's fellow students sign the words, using the swooshing hand gesture that Josh, deaf since infancy, understands. All 31 normal-hearing children in his class at Clinton Park—in Tattershall, England, about 180 miles north of London—have learned enough sign language to make Josh feel like just another student. "It's been overwhelming," says mom Fiona Bryant, 29, a homemaker. She wanted the middle of her three children to be integrated with hearing people but has been surprised and touched by his friends' gracious response. "He fits in with whatever they are doing," she says.
It all began when Josh's classmates started to spontaneously mimic his chats with sign language teacher Maria Harrison, 39, who translates for him at school. Sensing they were eager to learn how, Harrison set up a weekly choir that has helped teach about a third of the 190 students at Clinton Park to sing by signing. "I love signing so I can talk to Josh," says Hannah Oglesby, 7. "And we are lucky because we will be able to use this all our lives."
Luckiest of all is Josh, who, since the students began signing last fall, has become so excited about going to school that one recent morning he was up and ready at 4 a.m. He happily joins his pals on the playground and "will grab their hands and show them how to do a sign correctly," says Harrison. Helping them, Josh says, is the least he can do. "They are," he signs, "good friends to me."