Opinion: Interpreter from hell

speed signing

Alexis Borochoff’s first experience with communication support nearly put her off for life but then she found out that, for all her unprofessionalism, Louisa did come with an unexpected benefit.

I stared at the door of my new high school’s math class during the summer before I entered 10th grade. My mind raced faster than the speed of light. I was apprehensive about opening the door and going in. Math wasn’t my strong suit, but that wasn’t what I was dreading. No, it was a woman called Louisa who I knew was waiting for me on the other side of the door.

“You need to try an interpreter. Your grades aren’t doing well. Maybe an interpreter will help,” my mother had said to me weeks earlier.But Mom, it’ll make me look like such a dork,” I protested in return.

I walked inside the desolate classroom with air duct mouldy green walls and a half-asleep teacher. Next to him, an unnaturally cheerful woman with frizzy curls tied up in a bun studied me carefully. I went over to her. By then, I was already learning a few signs, but my lipreading skill is what really helped me understand people.

“Hi,” I signed weakly. Louisa perked up, introduced herself and rapidly signed about the car trouble she faced before coming in. I nodded along. I already didn’t want to be here.

Speed signing 

As the classroom filled up with more students, the teacher stood stoically and started his lessons. Louisa listened tentatively and signed along almost verbatim at incredible speed that mostly went over my head. The numbers and the math jargon were spraying in the air before I could even grasp the concept. “Slow down, please. I’m not that good at math or signing yet,” I explained. She nodded … then carried on with the same speed. Lost in the vortex of her numerical signing, my mind wandered as I gazed across the room behind me, checking out my new classmates.

BANG! BANG! I felt my desk shake with a voracious jolt. I turned around wild-eyed and half scared to death.

“Pay attention!” Louisa signed to me before continuing her interpreting. I tugged my hoodie over my head, trying to shield my embarrassment from the prying eyes of my classmates. I quickly learned that if my gaze were to wander off for a mere second I would be faced with Louisa’s hands slamming violently on my desk to get my attention (along with the rest of the class).

It was then that I began swearing off sign language interpreters for the rest of my life. I hated her. This was the last thing I needed as the new deaf kid in a predominately hearing school. It never occurred to me at the time that Louisa was breaking every code of ethics and this was not the norm for interpreters. As days passed by, it became clear to me that Louisa was somewhat intimidated by my loner goth appearance. Casting judgemental shadows over my Marilyn Manson shirts and warning me how my Stephen King books were the “works of the devil”.

‘I just love math’

The teacher assigned us to work on some in-class paperwork and handed out math sheets to his students.

“Oh! Can I have one too?!” Louisa exclaimed excitedly to the teacher. He looked wearily at her and handed her a spreadsheet. I got the sense this was not the first time he had her in his classroom.

“I just really love math,” she tittered and went quickly working on filling out the solutions on the sheet. Whatever social skills and professionalism Louisa lacked, she made up for in her math skills. What took the rest of the course 10 minutes to complete, she finished in a mere two minutes like an overgrown prodigal Bobby Fisher.

“Done!” she signed to me, smirking at her somewhat idiot savant talent. I looked at my paper. I was nowhere near half done and frankly had no idea how to solve the next few problems. I thought for sure that I was going to fail this course. Luckily, Louisa’s immense pride in her math solving skills clouded her judgment as a professional interpreter. She moved her chair next to me with her paperwork to check if I had the same answers as hers. It wasn’t long before she took my pencil and started explaining me how to do the unanswered solutions and filling it in herself on my paper sheet. The teacher thought nothing of this and I wasn’t eager to stop her anytime soon. Either he didn’t care or he was too dozy to notice. I wouldn’t be lying if I said I didn’t feel relieved to have this unofficial cheat system.

The teacher rang his little timer and announced to his class for everybody to turn in their papers. I turned mine in with 80% of it in Louisa’s scribbles and answers on it. As weeks went by, I tapped into Louisa’s mathematical talent to complete most of my maths papers.

Enough is enough

But this wasn’t enough to compensate for Louisa’s shortcomings. So, as summer school was coming to an end,  I told my mother I never wanted an interpreter again. “But you got an A in math,” she reasoned, “obviously an interpreter works for you.”

I didn’t tell her the real reason for my sudden turnaround in math, as if I had sprung into John Nash overnight. I reluctantly told her I’d keep trying interpreters as long it wasn’t Louisa. “Anybody but her!” I begged. My mother called the school and specifically made arrangements for me to never have Louisa again. As the new school year began I I found myself liking my new interpreters as long as they maintained their professional demeanour. My grades picked up as I was able to follow lectures. It turned out that interpreters were exactly what I needed all along. Professional ones.

I barely thought of Louisa until that one day I received my curriculum for the following semester and saw algebra was listed among the courses. “Ugh, another math class?” I thought with dread. I thought about Louisa. Had I been too rash in requesting she never work with me again. I contemplated asking if she could assist me during this course.

But then I remembered those times Louisa slammed her hands against my desk and made repetitive remarks about my black clothes and stopped myself. I did my math class without Louisa and managed to get a C plus grade. And this without someone banging on my desk all day.