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Unique program teaches how different can be the same

| Monday, May 14, 2012, 3:30 p.m.

There was a new face at Hartford Heights Elementary school last week.

He was a burst of energy, dressed in a shiny combination of turquoise and purple, who dashed around the stage of the multipurpose room wearing one red shoe, one yellow.

He was David Parker.

The Brighton Heights resident immediately captivated his audience's attention by taking his hand and touching it to his forehead, in a sort of friendly, but non-sailorlike salute, and then moving it away at an outward angle.

He was signing 'hello.'

Parker is a one-man show who performs musical revues with sign language throughout the nation and Canada. He visited the Norwin school Wednesday to conduct sign language workshops with students in kindergarten through grade 5.

If his routine seems simple, his energy level seems impossible to maintain.

He takes the stage and dances and sings to students in a non-stop routine, all the while incorporating sign language lessons throughout his stint.

'I love to teach and to entertain and to give kids people permission to be nice to one another,' he said.

During his initial performance, students learned to sign words such as 'friend,' 'gold,' and 'hamburger,' and phrases such as 'Hello, friend, I am happy to see you,' 'What's up?' and 'You go, girl.'

Parker's performance had a universal appeal. It wasn't too over-the-top for the youngest of the lot, and wasn't too 'corny' for the boys and girls bordering adolescence.

'You're just too funny,' said a first-grader named Hannah.

Parker said it has taken years of observation, research and independent study to develop successful programs for different audiences. Before he decides which routine to perform, he evaluates the motor skills, cognitive development and average attention spans of the age groups he is addressing.

Born in Queens, N.Y., Parker was actually told by his drama teacher that he had no talent, and had no business being in show business.

He took her words to heart and didn't take to the stage again until he had graduated from college with a degree in social work and began working with mentally-challenged adults and children.

Out of curiosity, Parker enrolled in a sign language course.

'I thought one class would satisfy that general curiosity,' he said. 'But it opened up a whole new world of excitement.'

Parker took four more years of sign language, then joined a performing group in 1978 called 'Breakthrough.' The group performed musical programs with sign language on evenings and weekends, working their schedules around their full-time jobs.

Approximately five years later, Parker decided to go out on his own and perform full-time.

'There are other groups that do what I do, but I think I am unique in that I don't know if other groups perform these types of programs as often as I do,' he said. 'I'm actually busy enough to have something scheduled every day of the year.'

Parker performs at schools, festivals, theaters and corporate events. He even scheduled a performance at his former high school, and escorted his former teacher to the show in a limousine. He didn't want to humiliate her, Parker said, but raise her awareness that no child should ever be discouraged.

He performed twice before at Hartford Heights and was booked again by Barb Flynn, president of the Norwin PTA.

'I think something like this touches everybody,' Flynn said of his performance. 'The students get to see something that they just don't normally see, and they've learned something that they can take home with them.'

Parker interacted constantly with the students, with loud and funny voices and dance moves, often asking the kids to repeat the sign language they learned throughout his routine. They did it effortlessly.

'It is exciting to watch,' Parker said. 'It is exhilarating when you are able to take children from one spot to another.'

Hartford Heights Principal Daryl Clair said he is extremely receptive to introducing into the school programs like Parker's, that teach diversity and tolerance.

'I think programs like this are important because they expose (students) to sign language ... and there are many different kids in the school who are challenged in different ways ... who will be exposed to one another in the world.'

One of Parker's main themes in his school program is 'we all look different, but we are all the same.'

Parker said he enjoyed working with the students at Hartford Heights.

'I love watching the teachers interact with their students on different levels, watching them enjoy the experience of their students,' he said. 'I love watching 400 to 500 individuals become cohesive as a group. ... I think that people have an innate desire to work with one another and to talk with one another in a safe environment.'

Most of the children, who sat together on the floor of the multipurpose room, prepared for Parker's visit by learning basic sign language in their classrooms. They wore their gold Hartford Heights T-shirts to greet him.

'I have always been proud of our kids; they've always been well behaved,' Clair said. 'And when you look at them in their shirts, look into a sea of gold and see them working together in unison, it just gives me goosebumps.'

Students looked saddened to leave Parker and head back to their classes, but they made sure to sign an occasional word to one another on their walk down the hall.

'That is what is exhilarating,' Parker said. 'It's greater than an Academy Award.'

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