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San Diego teacher wrapping up a final lesson with a tribute to a former deaf student

Kelle Higgins teaches her second grade students God Bless America in sign language for the final assembly of the year and her former students had a special surprise.

SAN DIEGO — A San Diego elementary teacher is wrapping up her final lesson with a special tribute.

Kelle Higgins has been teaching for 40 years. In addition to her regular coursework, she has taught the song, God Bless America in American Sign Language in honor of a former deaf student.

At Kumeyaay Elementary's end-of-the-year assembly, known as the tribal meeting, her second grade students perform God Bless America.

This started 22 years ago, in honor of her late student, Garrett Baumann, who was going deaf from Neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that causes non-cancerous tumors to take over the body, including a person’s hearing.

“Ten friends got together and thought what can we do for our friend, so they learned sign language,” said Higgins.

Her son, KJ wasn't going to miss this performance. He was one of Garrett's friends who originally taught Higgins' first class. He surprised his mom at the assembly and guided the class alongside his mom.

But there was a bigger surprise hiding in the back of the school. Right before the performance, former students slowly started making their way to the risers.

Higgins didn’t initially recognize the older students behind her current class. But in the middle of the song, you see her grow emotional as she recognizes her former students who are signing the patriotic song.  

“I’m truly blessed to be a teacher for 40 years and to be at this wonderful school,” said Higgins.

Emily Wittig was in Higgin’s 1998-1999 class and learned the song by sign.

“I couldn't remember how I knew God Bless America in sign language and it got me choked up because it's pretty special cause I know KJ and Garrett. I think it's pretty awesome why I know God Bless America," said Wittig.

In 2019 Garrett lost his battle with NF2.

“He was one of my best friends and I miss him a lot, but he left me a lot of great life lessons,” said KJ Higgins.

A lesson many will say can be heard through guidance.

“I'm just so proud of each and every one of you,” said Higgins. “That is what you want. That they are truly loved.”

Higgins believes more than 250 of her students have been taught God Bless America in ASL. She says some of those students who went on to become teachers are now teaching ASL.

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