RFamily: Melody Winters, American Sign Language Interpreter
Some of our teachers do their best work in found moments. On the walk to the auditorium, they ask children to recite dates of historical events. While students wait in line for the bathroom, they casually review math facts. Exit-pass questions are lobbed as scholars slide into the controlled chaos of a class change.
For most, it’s a great “dipstick” technique to assess student knowledge and spot-remediate after lessons or before tests. But with 13 years’ worth of those found moments, Melody Winters helped build a bridge to another world. Now, the amazing RPS senior she has served since kindergarten as an American Sign Language interpreter is preparing to cross it.
“The Deaf only get the information given directly to them,” Winters said in the mostly quiet first-floor hallway in Open High School. “They don’t get overheard conversations.”
That includes televisions absently playing that draw your attention when you hear something interesting to you, nearby discussions, and many more information pipelines most take for granted. As a result, she explained, Deaf students often have more gaps in cultural knowledge and vocabulary from the beginning to the end of their academic careers. But for 13 years, Winters has used all of those found moments at bus stops, in lunch lines, at water fountains, and more to fill in those gaps for Jocelyn, serving as a cultural mediator to help level her playing field.
In a quiet corner of the bustling art studio at Open High School, ranked the fourth-best public high school in the state, the 17-year-old senior carved away. She manipulated the space and plane of a plaster sculpture to create different perspectives as the piece is viewed from different angles. There will be more than meets the eye when Jocelyn is done.
“In third grade, I remember seeing a picture of the Mona Lisa and I thought ‘Why?’” Jocelyn signed through Winters.
She explained that she wanted to know what made it famous, how it could have been done without modern technology, and who the artist was. The flood of curiosity over da Vinci’s masterpiece inspired her own journey into art. In school, she works to create the portfolio she will submit for AP credits in 3D Art. At home, she pursues her real passion– computerized animation. She loves anime, and is replicating Japanese-style characters and creating her own more Americanized versions using Clip Studio Paint. She hopes to take it to the next level in college, where she plans to major in animation, graphic design, or another study of computer-based art.
She’s narrowed down her choices to Gallaudet University and Rochester Institute of Technology, two of the nation’s premier schools for the Deaf. Either way, for the first time, she will find herself not in the world of the hearing, but in the world of the Deaf.
“Eventually, most Deaf people– children or adults– find their way to the Deaf community, and that defines them socially,” Winters explained, adding that before high school, Jocelyn chose to stay in RPS instead of transferring to a school for the Deaf.
“I know that in the future, I’ll be around Deaf people,” Jocelyn signed. “I wanted to get my education first. That was my decision.”
In the meantime, through her interests, she has made Deaf friends, and those connections are a key part of her everyday life.
“My friends are far away, but I can just open the computer and they feel much closer,” she signed. “Reading, drawing, writing, socializing and chatting with my Deaf friends– that’s pretty much what I do.”
Winters has been a great supporter of those relationships.
“It’s hard to be The Only,” she said. “Deaf kids need each other.”
Her understanding and compassion has helped the pair grow close, but it hasn’t always been so easy for them to connect. In fact, their introductory meeting was an absolute failure.
“She kicked me in the shin, ran out of the kindergarten room, and screamed ‘No!’” Winters recalled.
Jocelyn laughed out loud at the memory, remembering it the same way.
“She was dressed all fancy,” Jocelyn signed. “I was transitioning from preschool and I thought she would somehow keep me from learning.”
Winters, who was herself transitioning from high school to elementary students, said she bounced back from the incident, learned to dress down and drink coffee to keep on her A-game earlier in the morning, and applied solid instructional strategies to ensure that Jocelyn would not only learn, but that she would also have fun doing it.
Winters recognized both Jocelyn’s tremendous appetite for knowledge and the potential for her deafness to leave her feeling isolated. In addition to teaching her classmates some sign language, she chose to focus on building a love of books as a way to satisfy both needs.
Because reading is visual in nature, many hearing people assume it must come easy for the Deaf. In reality, English and ASL are two distinct languages that evolved independently of one another and have significant variations in syntax. ASL, far from being English with hand motions, is actually more deeply rooted in French Sign Language than the English language. So the reading focus wasn’t a foregone conclusion for Winters– and it wasn’t an easy road. Through consistent efforts, play acting, interrupted reading and other strategies, books became everything. The bribe. The consequence. The habit. The connection. The lesson.
“She made me interested in reading books,” Jocelyn signed. “I have to read a lot for school, but honestly, I just love reading for myself. Books help me feel not so alone. I don't want to be negative, you have to be positive, and books help me do that.”
As the years went by, Jocelyn’s family continued to request Winters as her interpreter, though those assignments typically change from year to year. Winters continued to “loop” with her… from Fisher Elementary, to Thompson Middle, to Open High, and now… to senior year. Although Jocelyn’s plans for next year are coming into focus, Winters will await the next assignment she receives from RPS– which could take her anywhere from kindergarten to 12th grade.
Wherever she ends up, her principal knows she’ll be an asset.
“She has a really interesting background in Theatre that I think enhances her communication skills with sign,” said Candace Veney-Chaplin, Open High School Principal. “She is also well known in the Deaf community for her skills as a sign language interpreter.”
At Western Michigan University, Winters studied Theatre and ASL/Deaf Culture. When she took a role in a small touring Deaf theatre production, she gained amazing exposure to the Deaf community and learned powerful lessons in the meaning of deafness that continue to drive her passion today.
After graduating, she worked at two premier schools for the Deaf in New York before coming to Virginia, where she worked as an interpreter in Chesterfield for one year before starting with RPS in 2003-04.
For Winters, interpreting is more than her day job with RPS.
“You want your school-based interpreters to work outside of the school,” she explained. “To give Deaf kids language, you need to get the language, and you have to get it from Deaf adults.”
The constant pursuit of increasing language has seen Winters sign in some amazing local venues and events, including on the stage of the Altria Theater and at the Richmond Folk Festival. She serves at SPARC, working alongside Deaf students from RPS and other districts. Winters is now on the national circuit, and landed a huge gig last year as one of Elton John’s interpreters for a performance at the Capital One Arena. Most of her additional work is a bit more mundane, such as providing interpreting services for colleges and universities or Purple Communications, an important video relay service.
Achieving her Certification to the National Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf has helped open many of the doors that she uses to continue to develop her skills. The incredibly in-depth certification exam featured a recorded, three-hour, multi-situational performance requirement, as well as a written test of laws, ethics, Deaf history, Deaf culture, and various linguistic models.
Like many hearing people who have learned ASL, her initial interest began from a family member. At one point, doctors believed that her younger brother was Deaf, and the family began signing to him. Although the issue turned out to be a rare allergy-induced intermittent hearing loss, the interest stuck with Melody, eventually driving her to seek out and connect with the Deaf community.
“Deaf people taught me,” she said. “I feel very fortunate that they trusted me.”
When she’s not signing for Jocelyn or Sir Elton John, she and her boyfriend of 10 years, William Harris, enjoy taking in a movie, tasting their way across RVA’s food scene, or visiting her first love, the theatre.
“The Deaf consider themselves a minority,” Winters said, clarifying, “…an oppressed minority.”
It’s hard to argue the point. With a distinctly separate and identifiable language, culture, history, and even sense of humor, the Deaf are a unique cultural group. Given the lack of services they often experience, Winters has spent her career and her life to support the cause of equality.
“Deaf people are equal and, with her, I never feel less,” Jocelyn signed. “She’s taught me so much about the outside world…and the Deaf world. Sometimes I feel like she’s an interpreter, but sometimes I feel like she’s been a great mentor.”
For 13 years, Winters applied her ever-increasing knowledge to connect with and build up an incredibly talented and intelligent young lady as the bond between the two grew stronger... year after year... found moment after found moment.
“Not everyone gets to work in a job where their head and their heart are in the same place,” Winters said as the soft din of class change began, whisking her toward her last semester of found moments with Jocelyn. “I do."
Thank you, Melody Winters, for being a part of RFamily, and showing us what we really can do when we are all-in– every day, every moment– for student achievement and equity. #WeAreRPS