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To the Girl Who Saw Me Struggle to Communicate

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I stand in line at the bistro in my university’s busy student café, shifting my weight back and forth from one foot to the other while rehearsing my order in my head repeatedly. “I would like a caprese panini without tomato, please,” I say to myself one last time before it is my turn to approach the counter and order my sandwich. The sounds of rowdy college students loudly laughing and talking with one another surrounds me from all angles, and I feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of sound assaulting my ears.

A blonde-haired employee smiles at me from behind the counter and begins to move her lips, holding a pencil in one hand and an order sheet in the other. I clear my throat and tell the woman my order, pausing for a moment while she writes the order down, and then I tell her my name. We’ve been through this exact same process hundreds of times throughout the three years I have been in college; I know what questions she will ask me about my order, and I have formulated my responses to these questions before even approaching the counter.

The employee starts assembling my sandwich and then slides it into the panini press. As she closes the lid, I breathe a sigh of relief; the only questions I must answer now are “Do you want your sandwich cut in half?” “Would you like to add a drink?” and “What payment option would you like to use?” I start to feel my muscles relax a little, and I quickly pull out my phone to answer a text message while I wait for my sandwich to be ready.

Suddenly, I feel a strong hand firmly tapping my shoulder, and I spin around to see what is happening. The aggravated guy standing behind me in line moves his lips while rolling his eyes, pointing at the counter and letting out an annoyed sigh. I turn to look where the guy is pointing, and I see a student employee holding my wrapped sandwich and moving her lips. “Oh, man,” I think to myself, “what is she saying?” I rack my brain, trying to figure out what question she could possibly be asking me. My sandwich is already wrapped up, so it’s too late for her to be asking me if I would like it to be cut in half, and I have not yet reached the cashier, so she can’t be asking me about adding a drink to my order or which form of payment I would like to use.

I instinctively step closer to the counter and ask the student employee to repeat herself, locking my eyes intensely on her face so that I can read her lips. “I said, ou ou i oo ahh a ow o ou oo ou o-ehh?” she says as she shifts her weight and moves my sandwich from one hand to the other.

I slowly run my fingers through my short hair, trying to make it seem as if I am smoothing it down, but in reality, I am discreetly pressing the program button on each of my hearing aids to change the settings and hopefully reduce the amount of background noise that is interfering with my ability to understand. The program change does help somewhat by reducing the amount of background noise that is being amplified by my hearing aids, but it also makes the voice of the student employee even softer and harder for me to hear.

“I’m sorry, can you say that one more time, please?” I ask, taking another step towards the counter and slightly raising up on my tiptoes so that I can see over the glass barrier better.

The student employee sighs and repeats herself again, but it doesn’t help. The combination of the girl’s slight accent, the distance between her and myself, the background noise of the busy café, and my own fatigue after having just spent all day long in my classes makes it nearly impossible for me to figure out what she is saying. I press my lips tightly together and glance at the scuffs on the toes of my black Converse low-top sneakers, secretly wishing the answer to the student employee’s mysterious unknown question would magically appear out of nowhere in written form.

I feel another tap on my shoulder, though this time, it is gentler and does not seem nearly as urgent or aggravated. I look up to see who tapped me, and I make eye contact with a girl from the line who gives me a shy smile and says “She wants to know if you would like to add a bowl of soup to your order.” It takes me a second to process what the girl is saying, but after a moment, I piece together her lip movements and the fragmented speech sounds I can hear and come up with an answer to give the student employee. I proceed to the cashier to complete my transaction and retrieve my sandwich.

As I walk past the line at the bistro to exit the café, I briefly catch the girl’s attention again, make eye contact with her, and mouth the words “Thank you!” She flashes me another shy smile, and we quickly part ways.

To the girl who saw me struggle to communicate: thank you! Thank you for being patient with me, and thank you for deciding to help me understand what was being said, rather than choosing to stand in line and talk to your friends about how annoying it is to be held up in line by a girl who can’t hear very well.

You turned an unpleasant, frustrating and awkward situation into a positive one, and you saved me from further embarrassment during an incredibly stressful week when I was feeling extremely insecure, isolated, and alone in regards to my hearing loss. It may not have seemed like much to you… but to me, it was encouraging, and it was exactly what I needed to experience that day.

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Thinkstock photo by GuruXOOX.

Originally published: February 22, 2017
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