In 1970, Eckberg was hired as an art teacher by the Vocational Department at the Nebraska School for the Deaf (NSD), a primary and secondary residential school that specialized in the education of deaf and hard-of-hearing children (see Figure 5). Students who attended NSD regarded their alma mater as the only place where they weren’t constantly reminded of their deafness—a place where they could be at home, so-to-speak. Eckberg worked at the school for nearly thirty years and came to regard it not only as her workplace, but also as her second and truest family. Throughout her time at the school, she would impart immeasurable knowledge and encouragement to “hundreds of children,” many of whom went on to pursue college careers, engage in lucrative professions, and raise prosperous families (Eckberg 1B). In addition to the time that Eckberg spent instructing students, she assisted with a wide variety of extracurricular activities, including national art competitions, Brownies, Drama Club, Student Council, and Senior Class sponsorship. Students knew her as Ms. Eckberg, the teacher who held her pupils to high standards, but who was universally “loved” for the playful, open, and unswervingly devoted disposition that she demonstrated toward her students (see Figures 6a–6e) (Darnall Personal Interview).
Art class with Ms. Eckberg was never just “fun and games,” nor was it a tedious succession of macramé, pottery, and painting projects (Bechtold 6). Through her courses, she proffered deaf schoolchildren, most of whom existed in an intensely “visual world,” an invaluable avenue of imaginative expression. Her classes fostered a sense of community amongst students while helping them experience catharsis through the creative process. Further, engaging in artistic pursuits allowed them to achieve a sense of success that aurally-based subjects wouldn’t have generally provided (see Figures 7a–7c).
But Eckberg’s influence as a teacher extended far beyond the walls of NSD. In 1981, she became the first deaf individual to teach at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (see Figure 8). Just prior to commissioning Eckberg’s expertise, the University had implemented affirmative action hiring policies and had begun to provide beneficial (albeit uneven) accommodations to deaf students. Presumably, the University did so in response to the nation’s evolving policies pertaining to the civil rights of disabled citizens (see contextual essay). Deaf scholar Brenda Jo Brueggemann has suggested that the presence of disability in college classrooms “changes and challenges the rhetoric of higher learning considerably” (“Body” 27). The truth of this assertion can be detected in Eckberg’s time at UNO. During her time at the University, she was self-possessed and never doubted her qualifications, authority, or capacity to teach manual communication to sizable bodies of hearing students. In the five years she taught sign language courses at the establishment, she instilled undergraduates with the skills required to communicate appropriately and effectively with deaf students and their community—the foremost objective of the Teaching the Hearing Impaired program. Wordlessly and “effortlessly,” she garnered the attention and admiration of her hearing students, broadening their formerly limited understanding of the deaf experience (Pritchard 7).
It is commonly said that “all good things must come to an end”; this axiom holds true concerning Eckberg’s time at UNO. In 1984, the Board of Regents threatened to cut the Teaching the Hearing Impaired program, despite the facts that the program was growing and its graduates were in high demand throughout the Omaha metro. Amidst this controversy, the program’s founder, Barbara Luetke-Stahlman, left the University. Shortly thereafter, Eckberg followed suit. Although future students sustained an incalculable educational loss as a result of Eckberg’s resignation, her legacy is still alive in the numerous special educators across the nation who once reaped immense benefits from her presence. And, thanks to the oppositional efforts of Eckberg and proponents of the Special Education Department at UNO, the degree path, which was renamed the Education of the Deaf/Hard of Hearing program, is still