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North High School’s Autumn Moder
Tri-sport athlete, homecoming queen, student rep, ASL advocate
Packed into North High School’s gymnasium for a homecoming pep fest, a bunch of students pay special tribute to their homecoming queen by erupting into silent applause. Enthusiastically waving their extended hands above their shoulders -- signing their applause -- they celebrate Autumn Moder’s achievement as the school’s first deaf royalty member.
Moder can hear the hoots and hollers echoing off the walls because she can hear, albeit with some difficulty, out of her left ear. The display of solidarity, however, encapsulates the positive impact she’s had on the student body.
“I was surprised that I got it,” Moder says. “But it was cool.”
Deafness is a part of this popular tri-sport athlete’s identity that she takes pride in sharing with others, whether it’s through interactions with her teammates or by encouraging students to enroll in the school’s first American
Sign Language class, which she and her family helped establish.
“We’re proud of Autumn. She’s making both a current impact and she’s going to leave a legacy,” principal Greg Nelson says. “It’s certainly her family that was part of a movement to bring American Sign Language here. That’s been an absolute stunning success, even in its first year.”
But this senior may not yet fully realize the extent to which she’s affected the lives of those around her. She seamlessly navigates the hearing community, along with the deaf community, and sets her goals high.
“I feel original, I guess. It’s different,” Moder says, noting most people are surprised to learn she’s deaf. “It’s my ‘fun fact.’”
A hereditary trait
Growing up in a deaf household, Moder learned to sign by watching her parents, Mike and Dawn, communicate before she began to talk. Her brother Dawson, 15, attends the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf in Fairibault, where he, too, plays basketball. The youngest sibling, Everitt, 13, attends Maplewood Middle School. Both Everitt and Moder transition from talking at school to signing at home, where hands move faster than lips.
Moder’s talent for teaching began at home, where she’d often help Dawson learn how to pronounce words. When he couldn’t get their dog’s attention by calling its name, she held his hand up to her throat so he could copy the vibrations, along with her mouth movements to say “Purple.”
Apart from some subtle modifications, like a doorbell that triggers a blinking light and a video phone service hooked up to their television, the Moder household resembles that of any other family of active kids and proud parents. Photos of Moder and her brothers adorn the hallway. In the basement, her dad’s display of wrestling trophies serves as a source of motivation for all three kids to compete in school athletics.
“My dad pushed me a lot,” Moder says. “I wouldn’t be where I am without his encouragement -- being able to accept myself and push myself to go past my limits.”
‘I can speak for myself’
During her middle school years, Moder attended Maplewood Middle School, playing basketball for both her school’s team and a team with the Metro Deaf School. Approaching her freshman year, she had a difficult choice to make -- to continue playing for a deaf team or to pursue varsity sports at a hearing school. She decided to attend North High School, investing her talents and competitive energy in varsity sports and academics.
At North, she found a comfortable fit, where she’s confident in her own abilities but secure enough to speak up when she needs clarification.
“In high school, people were a lot more accepting,” she says, adding, “The most common word in my vocabulary is ‘What?’”
Along the way, Moder has learned to advocate for herself, with peers and adults.
For instance, back in middle school, she had used hearing aids through sixth grade, and then requested to use a classroom interpreter instead.
“I had a hard time getting an interpreter because I was getting good grades,” she says, adding she had to convince the school that hearing aids weren’t ideal.
In lecture-based classes, Moder says she relies on her interpreter to retain the information she may have missed. It’s an important resource, but she holds herself accountable for participating in class discussion and doing her work.
“I can speak for myself,” she says.
She gravitates toward math and science classes, including physics, AP calculus, AP statistics and CIS composition this trimester.
Her advanced chemistry teacher, Jody Murphy, says Moder showed a great deal of independence and ambition in class. They joked that Moder, a self-professed klutz, was a bit of a hazard in the lab, but she worked hard, even when the material was challenging.
“If she doesn’t understand something, she will ask,” Murphy says. “She always went above and beyond.”
Murphy also advises the student council, which Autumn actively participates in, along with the National Honor’s Society.
Finding an outlet in sports
Now in her senior year, Moder is currently serving as a tri-captain on the girl’s varsity basketball team and earned the same role on the girl’s varsity track and field team this upcoming spring. She played varsity soccer in the fall.
“I take most of my sports seriously,” Moder says. “My hobbies revolve around all the sports I play.”
In the off-season, she hits the gym to lift weights and practice basketball -- her favorite sport, ever since she started playing in third grade -- whenever she has downtime.
“When I first started playing sports, I was playing with deaf kids all the time,” she says, explaining it required a lot more visual communication on the court. Then, for a number of years, she played on deaf and hearing teams, learning to match her cues with teammates’ as she shifted back and forth.
With playoffs approaching March 11, Moder admits this may very well be her last competitive basketball season. Her coach, Andy Jacobson, is equally reluctant to see her go.
“If I had a choice, I would love to have 10 Autumn Moders, because of her hard work and her dedication,” he says. “She comes to [practice] every day with the same attitude to work hard and get better. That affects everyone around her.”
Having coached Moder for four years, Jacobson says he’s seen her overall game sense improve, as well as her offensive ability. To better accommodate her hearing impairment, he makes sure to talk on her left side during time-outs and sometimes uses cue cards to call out plays when she’s on the court.
During soccer season, varsity soccer coach Katie Nicholson says Moder brought the same level of energy to the field, even though it wasn’t her main sport.
“She had a really great attitude the entire season that wasn’t really based on playing time,” Nicholson says. “She knew her role and was a good sport about it.”
As a gag gift, Moder’s teammates gave her a stack of three bricks glued together -- they’re hard to topple that way -- because she was such a physical player.
“I trip myself, but other people don’t knock me down,” Moder says with a smile.
In track and field competition, she insisted on throwing the discus. When her coach doubted her upper body strength her freshman year, she says, she started lifting weights and earned his confidence in her ability to compete in the event.
Bringing ASL to school
It’s one thing to hear friends cheering for her in the stands, but seeing students signing in the cafeteria brings Moder another sense of satisfaction.
“I actually have a lot of friends who are taking ASL,” she says, adding many come to her for tutoring once they realize it’s not that easy to learn another language, let alone one composed of hand gestures rather than writing or speech.
Along with the help of her parents, Moder advocated to bring ASL as a language elective to North High.
They worked closely with principal Nelson to turn their request into a reality. He credits them with generating enough enthusiasm for the elective to be considered.
“Right now we have around 100 who are taking it and we will offer a second level next year because a significant chunk of those want to go to year two,” Nelson says. “Then we’ve had another influx of students wanting to take level one [next year].”
“Now I have way more students at the school who are aware of deaf culture,” Moder adds.
The ASL teacher, Jessalyn Akerman-Frank, who is also deaf, says students certainly develop a greater appreciation for Moder’s deafness, but they also gain a much broader perspective on diversity through guests who share their stories with the class. Especially inspiring are those who grew up with no communication and learned to sign later in life, as well as those who use tactile signing because they’re blind as well.
“It teaches the kids so much about people’s lives, people’s struggles, the way people overcome things, and the diversity of the deaf community,” Akerman-Frank says.
Out of curiosity, Moder took a trimester of ASL with Akerman-Frank, so the two got to know one another. Even in a classroom where talking is banned, Moder’s drive came through loud and clear.
“I myself look up to her a little bit,” Akerman-Frank says of Moder. “I’m amazed by her assertiveness and her intuitiveness and ability to get things done.”
Looking ahead, Moder plans to attend the University of Minnesota to study speech and hearing -- a continuation, of sorts, of her experiences teaching Dawson to speak when she was younger. After that, she says she may pursue a master’s in nursing so she can work with people living in group homes.
“With speech and hearing, I’d get to put my experiences out there and help people who may have been in the same situations I have been,” she says.
Whatever her professional route, Moder intends to follow in her mother’s footsteps by devoting time to interpreting for the deaf.
Putting her fluency in ASL and understanding of deaf culture together, Moder says she’ll one day apply to become a Certified Deaf Interpreter.
“I guess I have a unique opportunity to do it,” she says. “I can connect with people.”
Erin Hinrichs can be reached at 651-748-7814 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at twitter.com/EHinrichsNews.