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When I Learned I Could Listen With My Eyes

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Can you imagine not hearing your mom’s true voice? Can you imagine not hearing the phone ring? Imagine not grasping these sounds for the first five years of your life.

I was born in the early 90s when hospital hearing tests weren’t exactly accurate. Following my “aced” test, my parents took me home thinking I could hear perfectly. I acted like a typical child: threw temper tantrums, cried and begged for attention. No one realized something was different until Pre-K.

One afternoon during recess, I was standing too close to the edge of a playground set. Panicked, my teacher called out to me from across the room; I didn’t answer. She took a step closer calling my name again. Every kid heard, except me. Thankfully, when I realized she was addressing me, I returned to safety. That afternoon, she shared her concerns with my mom. A few days later, an audiologist disclosed the results of the conclusive hearing test with my parents. “Your daughter has a significant hearing loss.”

My parents were scared; they had no idea what this truly meant. What were their options? Was there a surgery to make me hearing instead of deaf? Did I have to go to a special school? Would I ever be “normal?” Those questions and thousands more raced through their minds in the months that followed.

At age 5, I received my first hearing aids. Uncomfortable, annoying things! My mom constantly had to remind me to wear them, because without them, syllables jumbled together instead of being clear. Talking to someone was a complete guessing game, instead of understanding at least every other word. She remembers the first time I had them on in the car. I asked, “What’s that noise?” Confused, she listened hard to figure out what I could be talking about. “That’s the blinker, honey.” Amazed, I smiled. “Ohhhhh.” I had never heard that sound before. It hit her right then and there how much I had missed.

Speech therapy began in kindergarten after I had my regular class with my peers in the morning. Learning how to speak all over again while listening with borrowed ears was challenging. Looking back, it was the starting point of a long and difficult journey. I constantly fought who I really was and blamed God for everything. Why would a loving God, whom I believe died for me, create a person who never fit in anywhere? Supposedly God has a plan for everyone. What could mine possibly be with a significant hearing loss?

The school years that followed were hard, both mentally and emotionally. At the beginning of elementary, I had an FM unit with wires going from my hearing aids to a blue box the size of an iPhone 5, but with the thickness of a paperback middle-grade novel. In middle school, they nixed the wires and replaced it with a boot that attached to my hearing aids. The box had shrunk to the size of a Rubik’s cube. This device helped me understand the teacher’s words more clearly, that way I wasn’t constantly trying to figure out what was happening in the classroom. The friends I had in those years were the closest I’d ever have till college. I didn’t feel quite so different around them, and for that, I am forever grateful. Regardless of what system I had or whether I had close friends, I was mercilessly bullied.

As a shy kid who didn’t like calling attention, shame clouded my every move. Between being singled out by teachers to feeling like an outcast, it only caused me to fear the world and dive deeper into my comfortable shell. Students would look down on me or purposely laugh when I couldn’t figure out where my name was coming from. For years, I denied the difference between me and my peers. I refused to associate with the term, “deaf.” In those days, I thought it meant I wouldn’t amount to much. That word tore me apart. I tried so hard to be hearing, to be “normal.” It was never enough.

However, there were a few bright spots amidst the bullying. My two best friends in elementary school defended me whether it was to force the bully to back off or to be the loud voice I couldn’t muster. We were all in Girl Scouts together and played after school most days. I’ll never forget them and how they let me be myself. They didn’t chide me when I didn’t understand; instead, they were patient. Most of my teachers encouraged me and took me aside to work on concepts and assignments that seemed to elude me. I remember my first grade teacher specifically taking the time to help me understand multiplication. Math was never my strong suit, but the fact that he tried spoke volumes. He even took my whole family out to pizza the following summer.

I liked my third grade teacher best because I discovered my love for writing in her class. I still remember crafting my first short story and seeing her face light up. She even read it in front of the whole class! This craft became not only a creative outlet, but also a safe place. In my stories, I could be whoever I wanted. I could do everything my bullies told me I couldn’t.

Sadly, my high school years were spent in a private institution where life drastically changed. I had no encouraging teachers nor comrades. While relying solely on lip reading, I had to build trust and a new set of allies from scratch. While private schools are known for their rigorous academics, this one was also the home of ignorant bullying.

Not only was I the only non-white student in my class (one of six between ninth and 12th grades), I was also the only one who had a disability. Most of them had never gotten to know a black or Deaf person before. Instead of being welcoming and willing to learn about another culture/background, they found ways to intentionally shut me out. Worse of all, the teachers didn’t care — everything was always my fault. They said I didn’t try hard enough to make friends, or I didn’t smile. It wasn’t until sophomore year when my eyes perceived a new world that would soon fill the hole I felt inside with a culture I didn’t know existed.

When I was introduced to the world of Deaf culture, it altered my life. I honestly haven’t the faintest idea how I survived without it for 15 years. As the years went on, my heart yearned for more: American Sign Language (ASL), culture and integration with the Deaf community. Before this point, I had no idea there were others like me. No idea there was a language built for me. This discovery turned into my college minor and a significant part of my life.

ASL came naturally and I hung onto every sign I could. Many people don’t realize how different ASL is from spoken languages. For starters, ASL mirrors spoken French word order. For example, English speakers say, “I want to go home.” In ASL, “Go home I want” or simply, “Home want.” The “missing” words aren’t needed because facial expressions and body language help you see the story.

When I started making lasting friendships within the Deaf community, I finally realized I wasn’t alone, and through them I realized God made me different for a reason. I was no longer ashamed and more importantly, I finally felt free. As I was becoming more comfortable being me, walls came down and letting people in became less scary. A revelation came to me; I wanted to show others the uniqueness of Deaf culture through writing.

Later, I went on to college as a Writing major and am now writing professionally with a few published works under my belt. This passion blossomed with that first creative short story assignment back in thirdgrade and since then, I have found ways to grow. In my world full of “You can’t,” I realized I can write.

Learning to listen with my eyes changed my perspective. I didn’t have to find a way to politely decline a party invitation. I didn’t feel lost because I had no clue what was going on around me. Instead, I could read people’s hands. Listening with my eyes is a whole lot easier with the hearing God has given me. Every day, I strive to continue learning more about this beautiful, unique language and culture. I’m not a mistake. I believe I’m a creation of God, who has a unique perspective to share. I am Deaf!

Originally published: June 24, 2019
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