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Sign Social puts spotlight on American Sign Language

Union Leader Correspondent

March 18. 2018 11:00PM
Students from across southern New Hampshire performed Friday at Pinkerton Academy during the annual Sign Social for teenagers learning American Sign Language. (COURTESY)

Pinkerton Academy senior Abby Thomas shares a hug with Gale Christensen, one of the two full-time American Sign Language teachers at Pinkerton, during the annual Sign Social Friday morning. (Courtesy)

DERRY — The sounds of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” came roaring out of the Stockbridge Theatre on Friday morning, with Manchester Memorial High School student Matt Grant electrifying the crowd with a flawless moonwalk off the stage at the conclusion of his performance.

But Grant’s production was unlike any other of the King of Pop’s smash hits — he executed the song using American Sign Language, word for word.

“It’s cool to see the songs performed because some people think it’s sign language and you can’t do songs, but you really can. You just have to change the language around to really get the meaning of the song out,” said Pinkerton Academy sophomore Jagger Bell, who is in his second year of taking ASL courses.

Nearly 40 performances took place on the Pinkerton Academy stage for the annual Sign Social, designed to offer upper-level ASL students the opportunity to highlight their signing skills through interpreted music, poetry and children’s stories.

Instead of clapping after each set, the students applauded with the ASL gesture of both hands in the air waving and fingers shaking with excitement.

Teens from Pinkerton Academy, Manchester Memorial, Nashua South and Bedford high schools were in attendance. For roughly a decade, this collaborative effort has allowed hundreds of students to see the language come alive.

Gale Christensen, one of the two full-time American Sign Language teachers at Pinkerton Academy, said the social is a great way for the students to showcase what they have learned in class and “be a little brave and step out on stage.”

Many schools across the region offer ASL as a course, much like French, Spanish or Latin. Pinkerton has four levels for students who wish to advance in each of their high school years; the program has roughly 250 students.

Manchester Memorial students had 15 sets and featured several performers who doubled up on their performances. Each pupil works for weeks, picking their own set and practicing on their own time.

Pinkerton Academy largely featured ASL interpretations of well-known songs, including “I Lived” by One Republic performed by senior Abby Thomas.

“I just always loved One Republic, that song really connected with me and what my family has been through. It means something to me,” Thomas said. “It always helps to perform something meaningful.”

This is her second year participating in the sign social.

“I love it, I get really nervous performing but learning new signs every year with (Christensen) is the best,” she added.

“People aren’t really aware (of ASL), and it makes me kinda angry. The Grammys, when Pink had her interpreter for her song, they didn’t show her on camera even though that’s how they understand her … how is that supposed to help the deaf community and the deaf culture understand? It doesn’t.”

Christensen agreed, saying student awareness of ASL is an important aspect of the Friday morning performances.

“A lot of these kids, they’ll probably forget most of their sign language when they go on, but they’ll never forget that deaf culture part, that deaf respect part. They’re never going to make fun of someone who’s signing because they know and understand this language,” she said. “It’s a real opportunity to have some fun and to have it be about them for a day, let them show off a little bit.”

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