When Iris Keller met Sydney Ward in January 1999, the sign language interpreter had no idea that in addition to a 16-year job interpreting for Ward, she would end up as "class mom" for the Cloquet High School Class of 2015.

Part interpreter, part therapist, part friend, part mom - Keller was always there.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

"(For) her professional job, she stands up there and signs what the teacher says," said Ward, who was born deaf in one ear and with only 30 percent hearing in the other, and who also has nerve damage on one side of her face. "The part (that she doesn't get paid for) is when she helps out all the kids: listens to their stories, helps them with all their problems, talks to them. She got to know all 150 kids."

From changing diapers and tying shoes to listening to tales of romance and family struggles, from ABCs to algebra, chemistry, prom and graduation, Keller was part of it all, as she attended school all over again with Ward.

"Not many people get to experience a whole group of kids like Miss Iris," senior Christian Pritchett said. "And it's been unique that we got to have an interpreter and we got to see a relationship like that."

"They're the tie that binds us," Gavin Takkunen said.

Keller watched the kids grow up. The mother of four grown daughters, Keller figures she has at least one tale to tell about every graduate.

Like Pritchett, who, as a first-grader, used to stand in front of the mirror while washing his hands, singing as loud as could be, fixing his hair in the mirror once the hand washing was done.

It was in those early years that Keller was known as "Miss Iris," a name the kids still use, even though they can drive and the guys have to shave most mornings.

But it's not all about Keller, either.

Keller recently told Ward a story of how her classmates "circled the wagons" when a new kid started to ask questions about Ward in an unkind manner.

"He said 'Why does she talk funny, that's weird,' " Ward said. "And they all told him, 'Don't you make fun of Syd, she's our friend. Don't mess with her.' "

After that unified response, he didn't.

"I've been doing this a long time, and I've worked with other deaf kids," said Keller, pointing toward the now 6-foot-1 senior. "I've never seen a kid like this, who just integrates into a class like she does."

"That's because I'm cool," Ward said with a smile, looking down at her 5-foot-2 interpreter.

A long relationship

Theirs is quite a story.

Keller and Ward met when Ward was not quite 3 years old, and together they attended three preschools before starting at Churchill Elementary School.

Ward was born into a hearing family. She says she never wanted to be treated differently, so she read lips at home and watched closed-captioned television. Ward has Mondini dysplasia, caused by the cochlea not developing properly; her deafness is not genetic.

Keller took Ward to meet other deaf kids in Duluth; the group went bowling and even held a deaf track and field day.

It is a very familiar world to the American Sign Language interpreter. Although she is able to hear, Keller's parents both were deaf. Her mother also was blind.

"I could sign before I could talk," she said. "English is my second language."

It was a different world back then for deaf people. They didn't sign in public, Keller said, unless it was under the table where no one could see. When she started school and would sometimes sign in response to her teachers, they told her to sit on her hands.

On the other hand, Ward came of age in a time where being deaf is not something to be hidden and there are more tools to communicate - such as texting, Snapchat, Facebook and email, which she uses all the time, like any other teenager.

Still, Ward struggled to accept her deafness, especially in middle school. Her friends and family all were able to hear, and she didn't want to be different. Sometimes she took her frustrations out on her interpreter, Ward admitted, giving Keller a lot of credit for helping her through those years.

Keller termed it a "love-hate" relationship.

"More love than hate," Ward clarified.

"Not in middle school," Keller added, softening it with a smile.

"I was just frustrated at dealing with being hard of hearing, and I took it out on her a lot and she was there for me," Ward said. "(Keller) kept telling me, 'You're OK.' "

When people would feel sorry for Ward, Keller didn't.

"I would tell her, 'No, I don't feel sorry for you. This is who you are,' " Keller said.

Ward eventually got through that tough middle-school period.

"I wanted to be like the other kids," she said. "I'm coming around now."

A couple of years ago, she learned to sign herself, something she'd resisted doing for a long time.

"I did it so I could talk to (Keller) in class and gossip," Ward said, laughing. "She'd be like, 'Stop it, I'm working.' "


There is no doubt that Ward and her classmates appreciate their "Miss Iris."

At an all-night grad party May 29, Keller was peppered by greetings and hugs as she made her way through the high school hallways. And not just cursory hugs, but long hugs filled with meaning.

On top of presenting her an honorary diploma, the kids, their parents and school staff members threw a graduation party for Keller last month at the Scanlon Community Center.

In return, Keller made every kid in the class a keychain out of different lake rocks she found.

The seniors also chose Keller as "staff member of the year," and she gave a speech at the senior slide show - which she put together - and had an entire page dedicated to her in the yearbook.

Although she stands at the front of a classroom, or next to a speaker at a podium when she's signing, Keller said she is used to being part of the scenery, not the focus of attention - so the past few weeks and all the accolades have been wonderful and weird, happy and sad.

"It's been a rough couple of weeks," she said, referring to the tears that won't stay away sometimes.

"For you, too," she added, looking up at Ward.

Both were quiet for a long moment, conscious that their unique working relationship will soon be over.

"It's not like we won't talk any more," Ward said.

"No, you'll be bugging me all the time," Keller both said and signed.

"No, you will be, actually," Ward replied.

And the two were back to their normal gentle teasing, for now.

When summer ends, Ward will head to college in Bemidji. Miss Iris will go back to fifth grade, to translate for a student who is moving into the Cloquet school district.

For her part, Ward said she offered to pay Keller from her student loans to go with her to Bemidji, but she'll settle for having an ongoing friendship.

Although she was anticipating a good cry when the all-night-grad party ended, Keller said she feels good about seeing Ward go off to college.

"She's ready," she said. "She really needs to go to college. ... It will be good for her to go out in the world and watch other interpreters and learn how to use them."