For many years, I hid in the deaf/hard of hearing closet. I wasn’t comfortable dealing with the lone hearing aid that was given to me in fourth grade. During the school day, I hid the hearing aid under my thick hair and pulled off some impressive bluffing maneuvers. I would smile and nod along to conversations during lunch time and at recess. I did so well that the teachers often told my Mom that I was getting along “just fine in the classroom despite my hearing loss.”
When I look back at my early years in elementary education, I know that I had hearing loss long before it was diagnosed. I remember looking around after getting off the monkey bars, only to find all the kids lined up against the wall, ready to go back inside. I was the last kid left on the playground and I learned to calculate the time left at recess so I wouldn’t be the last kid in. I remember the kindergarten teacher coming over to tap me whenever nap time had ended. I quickly learned to watch the kid next to me and when they got up, I got up.
In second grade, the teacher had a reading session and introduced the book, “Curious George.” I couldn’t get the word “curious.”
“Erius George,” I repeated after her.
No, she said. She repeated the word and then went on reading. I stared at the book, seeing the man with the yellow hat and the brown monkey. I had no idea what the book was about or the interactions between the man and the monkey. It wasn’t until I had my first kid and obtained a copy of “Curious George,” that I finally learned what the story was about.
There are a lot of chunks of my life like that.
I’m sure to my teachers, I appeared to be doing pretty good in school. In seventh grade, we had a class where we each took turns reading a paragraph out loud. I would calculate the number of students ahead of me, count the paragraphs in the book and figure out where I needed to start reading. Sometimes I would get lucky and see someone close to me reading with their finger on each word and if I listened, I could follow along with the words. Then when it was my turn, I’d start in on the correct paragraph.
But inside of me, I know my stomach was churning and I was tense in trying to keep up. There were thousands of situations all through the school day, in after-school activities or on the playground where I was hyper-alert in trying to follow it all.
I’m sure today, there are kids still going through this routine– this coping skill that gets them through the day as “normal” as possible.
I can remember the day I came out of the deaf/hard of hearing closet. It was actually in college. I rode the bus with my hair pulled back in a pony tail and my hearing aid perched on my ear.
And I didn’t care.
For the first time in my life, I didn’t care who saw my hearing aid in public.
That was a turning point for me.
Over the years, I’ve met some people walking around with that closet around them. Any talk about being deaf or hard of hearing is a painful thing. They know that elephant in the room is there and they step aside so they can talk around it.
One only has to type in “deaf mom” on Google and they’ll quickly learn that Karen Putz and DeafMom go hand in hand. There would be no hiding the fact from a potential employer nor would I even try. Lately, I’ve been receiving emails from other bloggers, who share that they’re hard of hearing or deaf, but they don’t want to highlight that in their blogs for various reasons. Some feel that their hearing status has no bearing on their life. Others feel it’s a sign of weakness and they don’t want to share that.
“I don’t hide it in person,” says Holly Kolman. “It’s just that the internet is forever.”
After chatting with Holly, I learned that she had never published anything online about being hard of hearing. She was willing to discuss it for the first time online on this blog.
“Life with a hearing loss means everything is harder,” she explained. “Almost everyone takes it for granted that people can hear…it’s like expecting someone with normal breathing to understand what asthma feels like–it’s impossible. It is very socially isolating. People think that you’re ignoring them when you don’t answer and they take it personally.”
Holly recalled that some of her teachers did not understand what she was going through in the classroom. Over the years, they told her, “You hear what you want to hear.”
I’ve been told that too.
In sixth grade music class, we had a test where everyone had to listen to a recording on tape and then write down the beat times. The teacher noticed that I wasn’t writing anything down. She tried to explain what I needed to do. Again, I tried to listen along. Again, there was nothing for me to write down.
The teacher was upset. To this day, I still remember her words: “Karen, you need to turn your hearing aid up and listen!”
I told my Mom about this incident and she marched to the principal’s office the next day and explained why I couldn’t follow the music. The principal called in the music teacher and for some reason, he made me issue an apology to her. I didn’t understand why, but there I was, saying I was sorry. To substitute for the missed test, I had to write two 500-word essays on the piano and the guitar–over Christmas vacation. While my friends were enjoying a break, I was writing reports.
I think we’ve come a long way in terms of awareness, but I think we still have a ways to go to break down those closets that are still walking around out there.