Signs of Courage
Tracy L. Brady, Hartselle Enquirer
Students who may have been best recognized for what they couldn't do in elementary school are now being recognized in junior high school for doing something most other students can't.
Signs of Courage is a special group of hearing and deaf students at Hartselle Junior High School who learn and interpret songs in sign language at performances throughout the community.
According to co-directors Lee Anne Pettey and Nancy Engle, the group was formed four years ago for a student-led Veterans Day program held at HJHS.
"We were searching for a way for our students to participate and show respect for our veterans," HJHS resource teacher Pettey said. "The students already had an interest in sign language, so we decided to learn 'America the Beautiful' and perform it for the veterans. From that point, things just kind of fell together and evolved into something awesome."
Pettey and Engle recalled that first performance with great pride and a few tears. As the co-directors sat leading the group with their backs to the audience, Pettey said she could hear the veterans sobbing.
"I went home and told my husband if I lived to be 90 I would never forget that experience," Pettey said.
"That's when we knew what the students were doing was something special and worthwhile," HJHS social skills teacher Engle said.
Pettey and Engle said the students were very brave at the premier performance, thus the name Signs of Courage.
Four years later, Signs of Courage has performed at HJHS PTO meetings, HJHS chorus and band seasonal concerts, HJHS homecoming, Tut Fann State Veterans Home, Sunshine Haven, Barkley Bridge Elementary School, Crestline Elementary School, F.E. Burleson Elementary School, Hartselle Depot Days, Special Olympics, Hartselle First United Methodist Church, and Bellview Baptist Church in Decatur.
"The invitations to perform make the students feel so special," Engle said. "It also makes them feel included and that is part of our goal."
"These kids have gifts, too," Pettey said. "Signs of Courage is a way for them to contribute to and be a part of their community."
The co-directors remembered an invitation that turned out to be not only a contribution, but also a great life experience for the group.
"One of our students passed away and the group was asked to perform two songs at the funeral service," Engle said. "In one day we learned 'Let Jesus Love Me' and 'Nothing Can Separate Me From God.' The performance not only honored the memory of their friend, but it also allowed the students a real-life opportunity to deal with death and loss."
Signs of Courage learns inspirational, patriotic and Christmas songs for performances and discuss the meanings of the words and signs they learn during regular class time.
According to Engle, the group has been so successful at incorporating memory and application skills with performing that Hartselle High School now also offers a Signs of Courage program.
Signs of Courage members are particularly excited about continuing to perform at the high school level, but they may be even more excited about getting to wear their performance T-shirts for a few more years.
Each performer wears a long sleeved, black T-shirt with the group's logo and white gloves to keep the audiences' attention while signing.
Pettey said she believes the uniform gives the students a sense of pride and belonging.
"Whatever nervous jitters they might have before a performance turns into pride once they are in uniform and on stage," Pettey said. "Just the sight of them standing there on stage, or even in wheelchairs, is simply amazing."