LAND O'LAKES — For those who talk with their hands, dinner party conversation can be a real test in multitasking.
"Nice to meet you."
"Where are you from?"
"How's your salad?"
"Are you married?"
"When did you become deaf?"
Just try exchanging the usual pleasantries one-on-one. Never mind trying to keep up with what's being said down at the other end of the table.
One glance downward to pick up your fork and you might miss what Phyllis Frelich has to say about winning a Tony for her stage role in Children of a Lesser God; what Linda Bove has been up to since leaving her role as "Sesame Street's" deaf librarian or what deaf rapper Sean Forbes really thinks about the chicken alfredo.
That was the challenge for students in the advanced American Sign Language class at Land O'Lakes High.
Their assignment: to eat, drink and use only sign language to carry a conversation during a dinner party held at the school's new Culinary Academy — all while taking on the personas of famous deaf role models they had researched.
"It's kind of like in The Little Mermaid, when she loses her voice and she's having dinner at Prince Eric's house and they're trying to communicate with each other," said Maisha Estaile, 16, who took on the role of actress Terrylene from the 1990s television program Beauty and the Beast. "It's awkward like that — except we have ASL."
The dinner party was a "real world experience" in deaf culture for ASL students and the culinary students trying to serve their non-speaking customers, said ASL teacher Allyson Heymann. "Deaf people encounter hearing people all the time in service industries, and communication is difficult."
Just ask culinary student and waiter Jason Greer, 15, who was looking for empty salad plates and feeling rather confused when some of his famous customers were getting antsy about the whereabouts of their entree.
Turns out the text mode on your cell phone comes in real handy when you want to know when the chicken will be out.
"It was fun and difficult at the same time," said Megan McCarthy, 16, who dined as American gymnast Aimee Walker who is not only deaf but also blind in one eye. "I was sitting at a table with 10 different conversations going on at the same time. You just can't multi-listen with ASL."
Among the other obstacles were the different levels of communication skills between students and the rectangular table setting, rather than a round table which makes it easier to observe the conversations of others.
"That was hard," said Avalon McMann, 18, who dined as Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin. "A lot of food ended up in my lap."
Throughout the 45-minute meal, Heymann stayed to the side, observing and grading students on various interactions "beyond nodding their head." No voices were allowed; students had to remain in character and were even required to speak through interpreter Samantha Thomas when answering questions from newspaper reporters.
"It's really hard to interview deaf people," said Angelina Bruno, 18, who was reporting for the school newspaper, The Gator Gazette.
No doubt that's something the deaf and hard of hearing have to deal with on a regular basis — and one of the reasons Heymann promotes immersion-type activities for all her students.
Her students already know the limitations of signing in a traditional classroom setting where desks are set in rows, rather than the u-type formation of a typical deaf classroom.
They also were the first ASL students to participate in the annual Tropicana Speech Contest using their hands and an interpreter. ASL student Courtney Sandifer, 18, whose subject was "the annoying people you meet in high school," won the school-level contest in the entertainment category. In February, flanked by her interpreter, Misha Turner, Sandifer took second place on the district level. That was an accomplishment in itself, but she also opted to immerse herself in the role of a deaf person throughout the entire day, even in a discussion with one of the judges over whether the interpreter should share the entry and the eventual win.
"I wrote the speech. I kept saying this was my speech, not hers," Sandifer said. "It was an eye-opening experience. This was just another one of the kind of things people in the deaf culture have to go through."
Heymann's students also get out into the community in an effort to educate and help others. The first Saturday of each month they join with ASL students from Sunlake High at the Florida Aquarium to offer interpretation services for the deaf and hard of hearing during various exhibits and shows
Now on the agenda is an assignment for students to write, produce and direct their own television show. They will also be participating in the school's upcoming Literacy Night and will join in the ASL Extravaganza, a musical performance to be held in May, hosted and sponsored by the ASL program at Fivay High. And there will likely be more dinner parties to come.
"This is the first time that we've done something with the new culinary program," said McMann. "We're really proud of that and we're hoping that it becomes a tradition here at Land O'Lakes. One that we started."