As a little girl, I took ballet for five years. One afternoon when I was about six, my father arrived a few minutes early to pick me up from rehearsal. He quickly noticed something strange: I was perpetually one step behind all the other dancers.
Each time the instructor would call out a step, I would freeze a moment, glance at the dancer next to me, and only then do whatever move I was supposed to. They’d twirl—a second would pass—and I’d twirl. They’d leap—a second would pass—and I’d leap. Dad knew that I knew all the steps; I had insisted on practicing them and their fancy French names at home. “So what is she doing?” he wondered.
Finally, the instructor moved closer to me and suddenly I was in sync. So Dad figured it out: I hadn’t been able to hear the instructions.
I was soon diagnosed with a genetic bilateral sensory neural hearing impairment (i.e. my ears and brain have a communication problem). At the time of diagnosis, the audiologist estimated that I was missing between 40 and 60 percent of spoken conversation. This was a surprise to my family, and to me. Without realizing it, I had apparently learned to read lips and use context clues well, and unlike my little brother’s impairment (diagnosed shortly after my own) my hearing wasn’t bad enough to cause a speech impediment.
The audiologist shrugged off my parents’ concerns about how my hearing might be affecting me in the classroom. “Well, sure,” the doctor said, “Jennie has a moderate hearing impairment but she’s performing above her peers in school. She has obviously learned to compensate. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”
My father didn’t appreciate the metaphor. “No, she’s not broken,” he said, “but she is having to work much harder than her peers.” So, the audiologist helped my parents pick out a sound system: speakers for each corner of my classroom, and a headset for the teacher.
I don’t remember being hearing impaired before the diagnosis. I don’t recall, as my father said, that I had to work harder than other kids to learn. Still, I do remember how different school was for me after the sound system was installed. I remember instinctively leaning forward in my desk when my teacher turned away from me, and I remember realizing that because of the sound system, I didn’t have to, as I no longer had to read her lips to know what she was saying. I remember my surprise, and my relief.
Did my grades go up? Probably not. My audiologist was right: I was doing fine before. Still, school was far less stressful for me, which was good, because I was six years old.
Besides, the sound system made me a bit of a classroom star. A few days before its installation, my mom visited my class to give us some “exciting news.”
“On Friday,” she said, “this class—and only this class—is going to have something really cool happen. A team of technology guys is going to come in and install high-tech speakers in every corner of the room. Mrs. Rhymer is going to have a special headset that she wears every day that sends her voice to all the speakers. This will be the same kind of sound system that famous singers use when they have concerts.”
The class was buzzing. I smiled, waiting for the best part.
Mom continued: “And, Mrs. Rhymer has told me that she thinks the class should celebrate with a pizza party lunch on Friday!”
Mrs. Rhymer nodded her assent. There were cheers! And, we still hadn’t gotten to the moment I was waiting for.
Mom waited for the hullaballoo to die down. Then: “I have to tell you one more thing: The sound system is very expensive and very fragile, so only Mrs. Rhymer and Jennie are allowed to handle it. This special sound system is going to make it easier for Jennie to hear, because—and you may not even know this unless she has told you—she has something called a ‘hearing impairment.’ She can tell you about it sometime if she wants, or you can ask her about it.”
Here’s how I measure my Mom’s success that day: By the time she got to the words “hearing impairment,” I was feeling kind of sorry for the rest of the class. They didn’t have a “hearing impairment,” so they didn’t get to have the same kind of speaker system Britney Spears had. But I did! I couldn’t believe my good fortune, so I decided to be charitable.
“Well,” I interrupted my mom, “I mean, if we’re reading out loud during circle time or something, maybe then it would be okay if other kids borrowed the headset for a minute. They know how to be careful.” The class nodded their agreement.
And from there, it was smooth sailing—all the way through fifth grade.
Then came middle school, and with middle school came switching classes. As “high-tech” as my special sound system was, it was not transportable. I needed hearing aids.
My bald, 80-year-old grandfather had hearing aids. They were huge and they squeaked when they shifted out of place. Worse, he never heard the squeak. I blushed with embarrassment for him whenever that happened.
My little brother had hearing aids, too. His were fluorescent blue and green and they wrapped around his ears. He called them “his compooters.” But my brother was a little kid. Calling them “compooters” was cute, I thought. But I was going to be in the sixth grade. I didn’t want “compooters” and I didn’t want hearing aids.
Yet, when I first began to write this essay, I had no recollection whatsoever of being anything other than thrilled to get my hearing aids. My parents, however, remember my anxiety about them—anxiety confirmed by my journals from the time, in which I bemoaned that hearing aids were “ugly” and “for old people.”
Any memory of that anxiety, however, is totally eclipsed by the excitement that somehow replaced it. I remember marking out the days one by one until the “Hearing Aids Ready” day. I remember my mother asking me why I was so quiet during a seven-hour car ride to the beach, and I remember telling her that I was just “having fun imagining what it’s going to be like when I have my hearing aids.” And finally, I remember the day I came home from the audiologist’s office, with a bouquet of daisies (a gift from the doctor) and my two, new hearing aids. I remember listing every new sound—leaves crunching, pencils scraping, rain falling—in my journal. I even remember the words to a song I wrote about those sounds.
So, clearly, the mystery is this: How did I go from absolutely dreading the very idea of hearing aids, to being able to think of little else, and with such glee?
The answer: My parents’ deliberate, methodical manipulation of my young mind, of course.
At the end of fifth grade, mom began with a straight-forward approach. “Do you want to consider hearing aids?” she asked.
“Absolutely not, no way, and please don’t bring it up again,” I said. And that was to be that, because I was 12-years-old and so I knew what I wanted, thank you very much.
And that was that…except, I kept finding brochures on hearing aids all around the house. “Oh Mom thinks she’s clever,” I thought. But I knew what was up. This was one of my mother’s favorite techniques. Around the same time, The Period Book: Everything You Don’t Want to Ask (But Need to Know) mysteriously arrived on my night stand, and Growing Up: It’s a Girl Thing was stealthily left in my bathroom.
“Mom, I know what you’re trying to do,” I said. “I do not want hearing aids.”
But oh, she was ready for this. “I know, Jennie. Don’t jump all over me! We’re thinking about getting Noah this cool new kind that go all the way inside the ear canal. They’re the newest thing and you can’t even see them so we think he’ll be pretty excited. Honestly, I’m relieved you’re so adamant about not wanting hearing aids. This new kind costs an arm and a leg and we couldn’t afford them anyway!”
Immediately, I stashed one of the brochures in my backpack. There were so many around the house, I figured she’d never notice.
The next afternoon, I asked my Mom to make me an appointment with the audiologist. “I just want to learn about that new kind too, Mom,” I said.
By this point, my mother had gotten downright cocky in her scheme. “No, I don’t think so, Jen. If you don’t want hearing aids, that’s fine, but we don’t need to waste the doctor’s time.”
I responded how she figured I’d respond, because damn it, I was 12 and she was smarter than me. “Nuh uh, Dr. Stone said she’d be happy to just talk to me and it wouldn’t mean you’d have to buy hearing aids or anything.”
On the afternoon my hearing aids arrived, I insisted on going back to school even though there were only 45 minutes left in the day. I pulled my hair back in a ponytail, daring anyone to ask me about my “high-tech computers.”
Lining up to go home, the kid behind me took the bait. His name was Oleg, and his family had just moved to Tennessee from Bosnia. “What’s in your ears?” he asked.
Oh this was going to be fun. “They’re hearing aids,” I said, “but they’re also tiny computers because—don’t you dare tell anyone—I’m a Russian spy.”
He smiled. I didn’t. I gave him a wink as we walked out the door.
about the photo: That’s me, around the time of the sound system’s installation. Photo credit goes to Joshua Williams, of course, because he has documented my whole dang life.