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Francis Phiri: Teaching ASL With a Dose of Gratitude

Francis Phiri, Mid-Pen’s teacher of American Sign Language (ASL), has a way of making people smile. If you aren’t smiling when you enter his class, you will be by the time you leave 50 minutes later. You will be smiling because of Francis’s unmatched warmth and energy. You will be smiling because learning a new language and culture with Francis is pure fun.

You will be smiling because while you learn, Francis will devote himself to learning about you. Mostly, though, you will be smiling because you have realized how grateful you are for what you have in life.

Francis himself is almost always smiling – out of gratitude, he says – though it’s safe to say that most people would struggle to maintain such positive energy after living through what he has experienced. Born and raised in the African country of Zambia, at the age of 12 Francis contracted malaria, complications of which led to the gradual loss of his hearing, so that by the age of 18 he was entirely deaf. After both his parents became ill and died, he went to live with his aunt, who passed away when he was in 10th grade. Francis dropped out of school and moved in with his brother. In a final cruel twist of fate, his brother also died, leaving him homeless and alone.

Losing his family as well as his hearing, Francis found his opportunities in life rapidly narrowing. Determined to succeed and to get an education, he asked for help from the International Labor Organization, which provided him with a scholarship to a boarding school for the deaf in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, so that he could finish high school. There he met Frank Lester, an American teacher working as a Peace Corps volunteer.

“Francis was an outspoken, outstanding, and active participant and always very helpful. When I encountered language or cultural barriers, Francis was there to mediate,” recalled Frank, who is also deaf. “I saw that he loved to learn and had a love for people. That was when I decided to bring him to America.”

After graduating from high school in 2008, Francis returned with Frank to California. He lived with Frank and his family while learning English and ASL and attending Ohlone College in Fremont, then moved to upstate New York to pursue a degree at Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf.

“Everything happens for a reason,” said Francis, explaining that if not for his misfortunes as a teen, he would not be where he is today. “I believe that, had I not lost my hearing, I would never have met Frank Lester and come to America.”

Along with his aunt, Frank has been Francis’ greatest inspiration. “Frank saw something special in me,” Francis explained. “He saw that I was motivated and wanted to learn. He showed me that being deaf does not mean limiting my goals and dreams.”

Given his relationship with Frank, Francis knows intimately the power of a teacher who can truly see, know, and connect with students. The students in his immersive and energetic ASL classes achieve fluency remarkably fast, in large part because of the close relationships he builds with them. His students love ASL, to be sure, but they are also driven to work hard for Francis. They know his story, admire his resiliency, feel his gratitude, and recognize that they, too, can overcome whatever obstacles they may face. It’s no wonder that ASL has become one of Mid-Pen’s most popular classes.

Francis lives in San Francisco with his wife, Kaci, and spends most of his free time growing the nonprofit organization he recently started, Give Back to Community-Zambia, which works to advance the opportunities for deaf children and their families in Zambia.