They went to an elite school. They had a professor who proved to be enormously influential. Before they attended the College of William and Mary, Allison Shomaker ’16 and Merci Best ’17 attended the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Studies. They took American Sign Language under the tutelage of Ms. Brenda Thornton. And then they brought American Sign Language here.
Last Thursday at 8:00 p.m., nearly 40 people crowded into the third floor lounge of Blow Memorial Hall for the inaugural meeting of the American Sign Language Club. Attendants showed diversity in age, ethnicity and familiarity with the language. The only unifying thread was interest.
“I wanted to learn sign language for a while,” Barclay Sparrow ’17 said. “I’m in theatre and I’m going to try and get involved in theatre for the Deaf.”
Some students came with personal stories.
“I’ve always wanted to learn sign language,” Maggie Skorup ’15 said. “I’m involved with Campus Buddies and I work with kids with special needs so I thought this would be helpful.”
In addition to being a language for the Deaf, ASL has been documented extensively as benefiting children with autism.
Individuals with all levels of experience in ASL participated in the meeting.
“The turnout was especially encouraging, and I did not feel overwhelmed by the fluent members,” Kelsey Graf ’17 said. “I feel very prepared to learn and I feel like I could really grow in this environment.”
The number of attendees impressed Best, who serves as the club’s president.
“Through the cold snow, people pressed their way to get here,” Best said. “It was very exciting because we had various … levels of signers here: people who didn’t even know sign, people who were fluent. … It was really good to see the wide variety of people who are interested in the club. It really confirmed that ASL Club needed to be something here at William and Mary.”
Co-founder Shomaker did her research prior to enrolling at the College.
“I checked to see if [the College] offered courses, or maybe there was already a club, and neither existed. I went a whole year without any ASL, no practice or anything,” she said.
When she learned her friend was coming to the College, they began making plans.
Originally, they intended for the club to meet on a monthly basis; that was before more than three-dozen people showed up to the first meeting. Currently, Best and Shomaker are planning monthly silent dinners on campus, which would provide opportunities for both fluent and novice signers to practice.
They also want to gauge member interest in making bi-monthly trips to Newport News, Norfolk or Richmond for silent dinners with the Deaf communities there.
“We’re from Richmond,” Best said. “The Richmond Deaf community is very tight-knit. Here in Williamsburg, it’s very spread out. It’s not really prevalent here.”
On Jan. 31, members of the ASL Club will be signing the song “Where is the Love?” by the Black Eyed Peas as part of the Voices Against Violence program sponsored by the campus chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The ASL club’s first “gig” will take place in the Commonwealth Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. Best called this “a really big opportunity” to make a name for the club.
That name doesn’t come with any dues attached. Not yet, anyway.
“If we start doing the monthly trips to Newport News, we might impose a due, but it wouldn’t be any more than two bucks or something,” Shomaker said.
Several graduates of Shomaker and Best’s high school, who are now students at the College, attended the meeting. The majority of these individuals had taken ASL in previous years.
“We had so many people who showed up from our high school,” Shomaker said. “That kind of unity from a high school … We were all in the same ASL class, taught by the same woman, and we pulled together as a group to create something this wonderful.”
She said that Best put it best: “Brenda would be proud.”