GREENFIELD — On a recent afternoon at Harris Elementary, Andrea Espich stood in front of a crowded gymnasium, swaying to the music booming from a nearby loudspeaker. With a rhythmic sweep of her hands, she signed the words to an upbeat pop song as she waited for the convocation to start.
Whether Espich is interpreting in class or at a special program like the one that afternoon, her presence goes largely unnoticed by the majority of students. They’re used to her being there like any teacher, after all, and Espich is something of an expert at blending in.
But for the deaf and hard of hearing, an educational interpreter is their connection to a world they would not otherwise fully understand.
Hancock Madison Shelby Educational Services, which focuses on students with special needs, serves 76 children across six school corporations who are deaf or have hearing loss. Of those 76, eight require an interpreter.
As evidenced by Espich’s recent interpretation of a hit pop single, the job is hardly confined to the classroom.
The interpreters are called upon to sign at a variety of events both during and after school. If it’s any part of the educational experience – from chatting in the cafeteria to attending cheerleading camp – the interpreters are there, hands at the ready.
With a fast-paced program – or a fast-talking teacher – the job isn’t always easy.
But Espich, for one, never seems to miss a beat.
And it’s not just about the words.
A deaf student’s experience is enriched not only by the signs but the energy behind them, Espich explained.
“It’s the whole body language and the signs and the expression,” said Espich, who has been signing for students at Harris for 12 years. “It’s just all put together, and that’s what makes their language come to life.”
If a teacher is angry with the class, for example, an interpreter’s face must reflect that. If the teacher is telling a story, the interpreter’s expressions must mimic the emotion of the plot.
A fluent sign language interpreter might have a vocabulary comprising tens of thousands of words, but the learning process is constant, said Betsy Bandy, teacher of the deaf/hard of hearing.
Bandy, who oversees the team of interpreters at Harris, said sign language evolves over time just like any language, making it especially important for interpreters to keep up to date.
An outdated sign for a word that was acceptable 20 years ago – pulling at the side of your eye to indicate someone is Chinese, for example – would now come across as offensive.
“It’s like political correctness comes to sign language, too,” Bandy said.
Interpreter Sharron Hall describes her job as God-inspired.
When an interpreter helps a student make sense of what’s happening around them, everyone is happy, she said.
“Deaf people will show it on their face,” she said. “When you see that they understand it, that makes me feel good, that I’m doing my job.”
The one-to-one interpreter-student relationship is designed to make sure there are no gaps in the student’s understanding, Bandy said.
But hearing loss also shouldn’t affect social development by making the student dependent on the interpreter, she added.
Students are encouraged to interact normally with their teacher and fellow classmates.
Most have some residual hearing and are therefore able to speak. Though they might be difficult to understand, they are encouraged to verbalize, even if they are also signing, Bandy said.
“We want them talking,” she said. “We want them using phonics. It’s a hearing world; they’re going to live in a hearing world. I want them to function as a successful adult, get a job, … do all those things that we all do.”
Every few years, the interpreters switch students in order to expose the children to different signing styles.
For example, some interpreters use American Sign Language, while others prefer Signed English. The two utilize different word orders.
Rotating interpreters is also aimed at making sure the bond with an individual student does not become too strong, Bandy said.
The understanding is that children, especially the younger ones, can quickly become attached, but Espich said the connection goes both ways.
“I bond with all of them,” she said. “Every kid has something good about them.”
Because the interpreters are the conduits of language, they can sometimes become the go-to person when a child who cannot hear has questions.
In some cases, that means interpreters are faced with explaining the world in ways apart from relaying others’ words verbatim.
Bandy said she once had a student quiz her about whether there was a hospital at the North Pole for Santa Claus and the elves. The girl was especially curious about the Christmas tradition, and Bandy, not wanting to say the wrong thing, called the girl’s parents to ask about their specific beliefs.
An interpreter’s job is fast-paced and allows for few breaks.
Even trips to the bathroom have to be carefully worked into the day, Espich said.
If Espich leaves the room, she checks with the teacher first.
“We have to tell them that,” she said. “‘Are you going to speak? Because if you are, I can’t go to the bathroom.’”
The day doesn’t end when the child goes home, either. Often, interpreters must work ahead with teachers to make sure the interpreters are well-versed on upcoming vocabulary, songs and other activities.
Try helping a deaf or hard of hearing student sing “Pop goes the Weasel” in time with their classmates if you haven’t worked on it ahead of time, Espich cited by way of example.
While stressful at times, signing is a labor of love, Bandy said.
“I love the language, the beauty of it, the art behind it,” she said. “You can convey so much more in sign language that you can’t verbalize into English. I say all the time, ‘I can’t believe they pay me to do my job.’”