Today we introduce our new series, “Unsung Hero,” where we focus on career highlights of our employees. Realtime Captioner Sheri Smargon starts us off with a tale of her first captioning experience — in 1992.
I Captioned in Russian… Oops.
by Sheri Smargon, RMR, CRR, CBC, M.A.
I will never forget my first day “on the air” as a realtime captioner. I had been out of court reporting school for eight months and became part of a pilot project in Hillsborough County, Florida, where I live, that was given the mandate of providing captioning for the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners. They are the governing body that legislates everything related to county services, from pothole repair to what businesses will receive a liquor license. And the additional task was that the meeting would be open captioned. What this means is if you just turned on your television to Government Access Television, the captions would automatically appear. No extra button-pressing necessary. And if you didn’t want to see them, well… you’re kind of out of luck.
I was part of a three-man team that had to prep, design and implement the captioning program. The theory was that if you could write on “that machine,” you could caption. Unfortunately, we were the first county in the nation to attempt such a program, so we didn’t even have a footprint to follow. We prepped and prepped, brought in a nationally respected court reporting legend to assess our skill levels, abilities and dictionaries. And we were given an emphatic, “They’re not ready.” Despite that assessment, we went on the air a few weeks later, November 6, 1992.
It was a day that will live in infamy (for me anyway). My team was so new. It consisted of me, a newbie captioner and court reporter, a friend of mine from school, also a newbie captioner and court reporter and a veteran court reporter, but one who had never captioned or realtimed anything before. We would take ten-minute turns, quickly swapping places with the captioner in “the hot seat,” who was live in the air. This was all done in front of a “live audience” with the commission actively conducting business. When it came my turn to hop into the hot seat, I started to write, but I was shaking so badly. I just couldn’t control my nerves… or my captions. The commissioners could look up and see the captions scrolling by and would chuckle and point. There were journalists and photographers and media present, not to mention Hard-of-Hearing and Deaf community advocates. None of us wanted to let anyone down or embarrass ourselves or them.
At one point, however, while I was in the “hot seat,” the chairman of the commission said to a speaker, “You may want to speak slower. It’s coming up in Russian up there.” Of course, he was going 350 words per minute in my mind. In reality, who knows? An overwhelming sense of vertigo compounded by an imminent panic attack seemed to make time warp. But I made it through my session, passed the “hot seat” off to another of my colleagues and watched them get flushed and panicky and sweat profusely through their Calvins.
After that meeting was over, I had our production department make a copy of that particular meeting for me so I could watch it again later. And, boy, those captions were awful! It’s amazing how far I’ve come in the 19 years since. My teammates have moved onto bigger and better things, I’m sure, but I know we will forever have the memories of captioning in Russian… wanted or not!