Shiloah James is a beautiful black woman with a quiet demeanor and a soft voice. For a year, my daughter watched her sit silently at the front of her classroom -- slim and dignified, usually in a long stylish suit -- signing each word the teacher spoke, interpreting for Hannah's classmate Elizabeth Yazbek.
I saw her on occasion, too, signing at assemblies, or walking -- always with a smile on her face -- beside Liz through the hallways. The first time I saw her, leaving Glenwood Middle School, I wondered who she could be. "She's too young to be a teacher and too tall to be a student," I thought.
Shiloah is only 22, but she has been working as a sign language interpreter and getting paid for it since she was 17. She learned to sign at 6 -- taking lessons from her mother, also a sign language interpreter -- to talk to her deaf friends at the Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall. Shiloah is a Jehovah's Witness.
One of seven children, seven years behind her next closest-age sibling, she graduated from high school at 16, taking her classes via home school. "I got to be both a part of a big family, and, in a sense, an only child," she said. Though all her siblings know some sign language, she is the only one to have made a career of it.
"I guess I didn't think it would always be my goal, but I really liked it," Shiloah said.
First job: Shiloah's first job was as a substitute interpreter working at various schools. Her first assignment took her to Western Reserve High School. Then, as an independent contractor, she was hired by the Youngstown Hearing and Speech Center to interpret for a student half-days. For 41/2 years, she has been with Liz, first at Glenwood and now in Boardman High School.
"We have a pretty good relationship," Shiloah said. "We're like classmates. She has to see me every day." They meet each morning at the first period class, then work together all day, with a break for lunch. Somewhere "in the middle" of teacher and kid, Shiloah characterized herself as "somewhat of a loner" in the classroom.
"It's a little uncomfortable the first day. The kids are curious, but it gets comfortable after a while," she said. "The teachers are always very nice and accommodating. I don't say much, and they probably forget I'm there." She smiled.
How she works: Translating is a painstaking process. Shiloah sits or stands at the front of the classroom, finding a spot that allows her student to see both teacher and interpreter. If a sign doesn't exist for a word, Shiloah spells it out with her fingers. Classes like physics, which have an unusual vocabulary, tax her spelling skills. "It's mentally tiring translating into another language every day, all day," she said.
Sign language is a language all its own with its own grammar and word order, according to Shiloah. "Most people start out by learning fingerspelling, then move on to vocabulary, then finally sentence structure," she said.
In addition to translating for Liz, Shiloah has taught signing through Youngstown Hearing and Speech Center and volunteers on occasion at her Kingdom Hall. She hopes to follow Liz through graduation.
"She's a really smart student," she said, "and a real good athlete." (Liz is a record-breaking track star, in addition to shooting hoops.) Shiloah tries to make it to her games whenever she can.
"It's a challenging career," Shiloah said. "And I enjoy the challenge. Also, I am getting better and better at signing." She also said she's learning just attending high school again. With a license from the Ohio Department of Education, Shiloah is working toward certification.
When Liz graduates, Shiloah may attempt to move from education to signing outside the schools. But that's a few years off -- for now, there is English, science, and math and a student who needs an interpreter.