The "Dynamite" Happy Hands Club
One of the entertainment surprises of 2004 was the popularity of the independent film "Napoleon Dynamite." Just in case your teenagers have not yet brought home the DVD, the movie follows the adventures and misadventures of the title character and his friends in the small Idaho town of Preston , located just a few miles north of the Utah border. The movie's director, Jared Hess, grew up in Preston and draws heavily on his high school experiences there, making gentle fun of all aspects of Preston life.
Napoleon Dynamite is.well, let's avoid the "g" word and just say he's an odd duck who doesn't quite fit in at Preston High. The first twenty minutes or so of the movie devotes itself to establishing this. In one scene, we learn that Napoleon is a member (apparently the only male member) of the "Happy Hands Club," which is signing "The Rose" for a classroom audience as the school jock sniggers in the front row. You'll see the club (minus Napoleon) performing again near the end of the movie, at a school assembly-and you may notice that they are good at it!
The Happy Hands Club has its real counterpart at the non-fictional Preston High School. Its original name was the Good Hands Club, and it has been in existence for more than ten years. Like many good ideas, this one started with a teacher. While still a student at Brigham Young University , future science teacher Dan Robertson became curious about sign language and took an evening class to learn more. Before long, he was hooked-he ended up attending the local deaf branch of the LDS church for three years. When the students at the school where he taught discovered that he had deaf friends and knew sign language, they asked him to teach them. He started an after school class that drew over 200 students. Their favorite activity was signing songs, and they soon were performing.
In 1994 Robertson moved to Preston and began teaching physical science during school hours and sign language after hours; thus the Good Hands Club was born. While they do more than 100 performances annually, either individually or as a group, the club is about more than signing songs. Some students have used their skills to communicate with deaf and hard of hearing friends and relatives; some have gone on to become interpreters or have served deaf missions with the LDS church. A couple of current members are experiencing progressive hearing losses and expect to eventually need the sign language skills they are learning through the club. One former member of the group returned to town to film a movie, and asked Robertson if he could include the club and "make fun of it a little bit." We've already seen what became of that!
Robertson and the club have formed ties with the Deaf Education program at Utah State University. The sign language staff there helps them with translating English lyrics to American Sign Language. The Good Hands Club and Utah State ASL students get together for what they call "Deaf Day"-they have lunch together and play games, with nary a spoken word. It's a great experience educationally and culturally for these high school students.
The movie "Napoleon Dynamite" brought wider recognition to the group. Last year they performed on the stages at Disneyland, in the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and flew to Orlando for the convention of a large corporation. Notwithstanding the fame and glamour, Robertson states that the main goal of the club is to keep pleasing audiences with their signing wizardry and help close the gap between the hearing and non-hearing communities.
Next year brings a new dimension to this purpose. Preston High School will enroll its first deaf freshman, a young man who has grown up in the community and attended public school there from the beginning. Whether or not the Happy Hands Club manages to entice him onto stage, he is at least assured of a signing community the size of which would be the envy of many another mainstreamed deaf high school student. Sweet!