COUNCIL BLUFFS — Eighth-grader Damien Holste has a knack for telling stories.
The 13-year-old Iowa School for the Deaf student recently placed first in Gallaudet University’s national American Sign Language poetry contest for his poem called “Impressing the Girl.”
Holste first got involved in the contest after middle school teacher Justin Cyboron asked students if they wanted to participate in the contest. Holste was the only student who volunteered to follow through with the project until the end, Cyboron said.
The contest, sponsored by Gallaudet and Phi Kappy Zeta Sorority, asked students to submit an entry in one of two categories: writing or ASL. Holste chose to enter the ASL category.
He was tasked with not only coming up with a poetry theme but also creating and editing the video. No class time was given to work on the project, so Holste worked on his video submission during the lunch period and after school.
“As part of the guidelines, I could help develop a story with him, and that first meeting we talked about ideas,” Cyboron said. “He had this rooster idea, so he performed it and we were a little surprised at how much we liked the first video.”
The poem follows the story of a rooster — who’s a little arrogant — trying to attract a nearby hen by going after a worm.
Holste was limited to using only three hand shapes, per the guidelines, to tell the poem’s story and the video had a time limit of two minutes. Holste’s video eventually clocked in at 1 minute, 59 seconds.
“The first time I signed through it, I didn’t really like the way it came out,” Holste said through an interpreter. “The next time, I practiced some renditions, then I picked the one I liked, and I didn’t really have to spend too much time practicing.”
Cyboron called Holste a natural for his ability to tell stories using his hands.
“He just has a talent for manipulating his hands and his body and his face to match what he sees – he’s very visual,” Cyboron said. “His access to the world is through his eyes, and to be able to take that in and translate it on his hands is really remarkable.”
Holste is the only member of his family who is deaf, so it’s very unusual for him to have such a high level of ASL skills, Cyboron said. His natural knack to embody different characters and tell stories using ASL is a skill that’s highly respected in the deaf community.
“Being able to tell a story is a thing of honor and pride,” he added. “There’s been a huge outpouring from the deaf community in the area and from the school – I looked at some of the other videos he had posted, and, right now, he has over 900 views.”
After the duo submitted the video in November, they eagerly waited to hear back from the university and on Dec. 15, Cyboron received an email. He said he was shocked to find the email in his inbox congratulating Holste as the first place winner of the competition.
“I was so awake and ready for school that day,” he said. “I couldn’t wait to get here and tell him. I wanted to catch him before his first class.”
Once Cyboron relayed the news, Holste was just as shocked and excited, he said.
“I was excited,” Holste said. “I felt proud because it was a competition and I won out of all the other competitors.”
His prizes include a $100 check from Phi Kappa Zeta and a certificate from Gallaudet. He’s also now eligible to win all-expenses paid trip to Gallaudet.
“Him winning this award goes to show the importance of deaf schools,” Cyboron said. “Here he has the opportunity to be celebrated and appreciated for the talent he has; I don’t know if he’d have those skills if he had not been in this environment surrounded by remarkable role models.”