Maine sign language performers a hit at Fenway Park

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CUMBERLAND — As “The Star-Spangled Banner” was sung at Fenway Park on April 12, several local youths were shown larger-than-life on the giant video scoreboard, performing the song in sign language.

For Camryn Copp of Cumberland and Anna Hoffman-Johnson of Falmouth, two members of the Cumberland-based Sounds of Silence, it was the experience of a lifetime.

It was also a particular moment of pride for Robin Sidders of North Yarmouth, who runs the American Sign Language program for students privately, and through Cumberland Recreation Department classes.

The SOS members, who develop sign language skills and deaf culture awareness, are no strangers to widespread exposure. They’ve sung the anthem for the Portland Sea Dogs and Red Claws, performed holiday favorites at the L.L. Bean flagship store in Freeport and at a Christmas tree lighting at the Cumberland Congregational Church, and appear in a Renys department store TV commercial now being televised.

Hoffman-Johnson is a home-schooled junior who takes classes in Falmouth, and Copp is a freshman at Greely High School in Cumberland. At the game between the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles they were joined other SOS members from 8-18.

Sidders has taught children as young as 6, and far into adulthood, she said in an interview with the two young women April 14.

The group has 23 members. Most of them are from Sidders’ two recreation classes, and many have experience with people with hearing disabilities.

Copp had a deaf student in one of her classrooms, prompting an early desire to learn sign language. Hoffman-Johnson and her cousin tried to teach each other when they were 12.

“I like languages and I’m a visual learner, so it made sense” to learn more, she said.

Sidders learned last summer about the chance to perform at Fenway. She was asked to submit a recording, but Sidders didn’t hold her breath waiting for a response.

“I didn’t even tell the students, because I didn’t want them disappointed,” Sidders said. “I thought it was just a stab in the dark.”

Three weeks before the big game she received a call.

“It just kind of happened,” Sidders said, “and everything just blossomed from there.”

Fenway has a capacity of about 38,000, and was about two-thirds full before the performance, Sidders estimated. The number “is not something I wanted to tell the kids; I said, ‘Just look at me.'”

“It made me a little nervous knowing that I was being videotaped; I didn’t want to mess up,” Copp said.

“It helps, definitely, watching Robin” conduct the group, Hoffman-Johnson said. “It’s not like you’re standing there by yourself … it helps to be in a group. We could all just follow her.”

As the group held the sign language pose for the final word of the song – “brave” – for several moments, “that was my ‘ah-ha’ moment,” Sidders said. “I was like, ‘Holy cow; these kids are getting such an opportunity of a lifetime right now, which was so exciting. … They held that for a while, and the crowd kind of took off, and (the students) just had that look in their eyes.”

SOS represents a small community of youths interested in signing. Students are required in school to take some verbal foreign language, but learning sign language is also a choice, Copp and Hoffman-Johnson said.

“I don’t know anyone else other than the people who Robin teaches that know sign language … if they’re not deaf, or don’t have a deaf family member,” Hoffman-Johnson said. “But there’s a pretty big deaf community at the church that I go to, and I’ve attempted to talk to some of them before with the help of Robin.”

Recruitment for SOS tends to be by word of mouth – or perhaps word of hand – where one student’s experience will inspire another to become involved.

“I really would love to build this even further, because we have such an amazing deaf community,” Sidders said, referring to the Maine Educational Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Falmouth, formerly the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf.

“We want to bridge the two worlds” between those who can hear and those who cannot, she added. “They are two different cultures, but it’s not difficult to bring those together. … We may not have perfected their language, but we know enough of it that we have the responsibility to do what we can to show them that we are all one. And I love that.”

To learn more about Sounds of Silence, or get involved, contact Sidders at robinsidders@gmail.com or 829-8309.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Camryn Copp, left, and Anna Hoffman-Johnson study American Sign Language under Robin Sidders. Both are also members of the Cumberland-area Sounds of Silence ASL performance group, which interpreted the national anthem April 12 before a Red Sox game at Fenway Park in Boston.

 

The Cumberland-area Sounds of Silence group performs the National Anthem in sign language at Fenway Park April 12.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.