Can You Hear Me Now?

August 14, 2008
By Annie Keller, Eau Claire, WI

My heart thrashed and thumped around in my chest so tenaciously, I could almost hear its dynamic rhythm. Almost. As I stared out into the crowd of proud parents, grandparents, cousins, uncles, aunts, friends, relatives, neighbors, coaches, instructors and other relations of the class of 2007, my stomach did a flip-flop. What will they think of me? I hope my hair looks okay. Will they gossip about me after the speech? I hope they don’t feel all sorry for me. What if I throw up or pass out or start coughing relentlessly or something horrible like that? I really hope they don’t laugh at the way I talk. What if the words on the giant overhead projector next to me disappear? What if I inadvertently mispronounce a word and it offends someone?

All of these paranoid thoughts filled up the corners and crevices of my body, transforming my legs into Jell-O and threatening the return of my breakfast, although my chemically changed body didn’t affect my memory. A movie I couldn’t hear began to form in my head, trailing all the way back into my toddler years, temporarily finishing in my past, just hours ago.
Mrs. Hawkes, my interpreter, signed L-i-b-b-y in the front of the class by the teacher, her usual choice of stance. Throughout elementary school, I had always thought of Mrs. Hawkes as lazy and sometimes indifferent. When I was still a toddler, my parents were virtually connected to me. They continuously took sign language classes, always had a pencil and a pad of paper with them (I became dependent on quickly and efficiently reading and writing, even as a little kid), they learned games that I could play without difficulty and incessantly researched deafness; I was the core of my parents’ time, energy and attention. So when I started kindergarten, Mrs. Hawkes’ ways of achieving only the minimum made it seem as though she was apathetic of my disability.

I know, I know. I sound like a totally spoiled kid, right? Well I was only five, and I just thought that the way my parents treated me was the way all parents treated their kids. As I got older though, I realized Mrs. Hawkes was actually pretty amazing. I know that if I was lucky enough to hear, I sure wouldn’t be spending every day with a deaf girl, signing to her in front of groups of annoying kids every day, always having to transform each word into another language while still having to keep up with what the speaker was saying. How boring is that? I couldn’t imagine doing that endlessly, on and on through every day of my working life.

Back in kindergarten, as I watched my name being signed, I signed back, “Here.” I watched Mrs. Hawkes say something to the teacher who made a mark on her paper, and then began taking roll call again. Every once in a while, I would get a glance from one of the kids in my class who would just stare at me, not realizing it was impolite. At the time, I didn’t exactly realize it was impolite either. I didn’t know how to react to this; I didn’t even know why they looked at Mrs. Hawkes and me so often. All I knew was that the kids around me could do something called hear, and I couldn’t, so that made me different in a big way.

As the years went on and I learned more about being deaf, I trained myself to ignore the stares, points, and other acknowledgements between people at school about my disablement. But while the glances became a less prominent way of pointing out the obvious, other more vicious means of intimidating me became a part of my everyday life.

I remember in fifth grade, when a kid named Jett—a kid who I had had a crush on for two years—sat behind me. The first day of class, I felt butterflies in my stomach. A whole year spent within twenty feet of the impeccable Jett at all times! Being the fifth grade girl that I was, this was big. Colossal, even. I could see it now, Mr. and Mrs. Libby and Jett Walker. What would we name our kids? How about Logan? Or maybe Isabel?

We were only thirty minutes into class before Jett started kicking my seat. I ignored this for about an hour and a half before I turned around and looked at him. A nasty smile covered his face—the one that I had always daydreamed to be filled with kind and compassionate expressions, at least toward me. I tried to deny any prospect of ridicule that crept into my head by telling myself that this is what boys do when they like you and I should just go along with it. I did so, but it seemed more to amplify the situation than help it.
Finally, after two weeks of being kicked, poked, hair-pulled, pointed at, mocked, and basically humiliated in front of the whole class, I told Mrs. Hawkes about Jett, who told my teacher, who moved me to a different seat. I always thought that maybe if I could hear, things would be different. Maybe I would have been able to stick up for myself better than I did. It’s just that it was so hard, considering I knew he was teasing me, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. I felt like I wanted to melt into the chair and suddenly disappear forever. But I knew this wasn’t going to happen, so I stared straight ahead, took a deep breath, and waited for fifth grade to be over.
There were countless incidents like Jett throughout middle school and high school, although not everyone along the way has taken advantage of my deafness. There was this girl our freshman year, Lena, who would always hang out with me and write things down on a piece of paper to talk to me, as though I was just a regular girl, a regular non-deaf freshman girl. Shockingly enough, she wasn’t a complete dork, either. And when she found out how much I loved to run, she insisted I join the track team with her.
It’ll be fun, I promise, Lena wrote one day during U.S. history.
No it won’t. I wrote this with such force I broke the tip of my pencil. I pushed the lead through the hole at the bottom of my pencil, and started again. I won’t even be able to hear the starting gun. And how am I supposed to run with a bunch of people around me? What if I can’t hear when someone is coming up behind me? It’ll be a total disaster.
You’ll be fine, Libby. And I’ll run with you the whole time and I’ll let you know when someone is coming. Lena wrote quickly, as though if this wasn’t known within a certain amount of time, it never would be.
Easy for you to say now. And anyways, you won’t even be able to stay with me the whole time considering I got third place on the last mile. I must say, I even surprised myself with that one.

Haha, you wish. But see? You got third place out of, like, three hundred people who don’t even care about running. Wait until you’re with people who are running because they want to be. They won’t care that you’re deaf. They’ll only care how fast you run. And if it’s any different, they’ll have to deal with me, Lena wrote.

I sighed. Lena wasn’t giving up without a fight, and I did like to run…but the same fears that usually filled me at times like these questioned whether or not track would be worth it. And what if Lena and I stopped being friends? Then what? At the time, I was completely torn between taking a chance and saying yes, or just walking away and pretending like Lena had never brought it up in the first place.

I decided to take the chance. Fine, Lena. I’ll join the stupid track team. But if anything happens to me, I hope you know it’s all your fault. Lena smiled and folded the paper we were using and put it in her pocket. She spelled, ‘I’m excited’ in sign language. I stuck my tongue out at her. What had I gotten myself into?

To my surprise, track turned out to be one of the best things I had done in a long time. I started hanging out with Lena’s friends, and by the end of our sophomore year, their group started carrying a pad of paper around with them. Plus, I got my hundred yard dash down to 12.9 seconds and my mile to 6:08—my all time records.
I watched every memory I had that related to being deaf drift through my mind, a well researched film biography playing in a broken DVD machine that skipped some scenes, and replayed others over and over again. By the time I finished, I felt almost relaxed. But there was no time to relax. It was time for me to give my long awaited oh-my-god-I-can’t-believe-I’m-going-to-give-a-valedictorian-speech-in-front-of-two-thousand-plus-people-by-talking-even-though-I’m-deaf speech. My oral and speech therapists had been helping me fully pronounce the words I’d be saying for almost six months, but I still felt unsure. My parents had gotten the school to use a machine that would have my speech on something sort of like a giant TV so that the audience would be able to read it if they couldn’t understand me. My mom said it would work sort of like subtitles in a movie, except for the words would be projected onto a giant screen.

I cautiously walked up the steps to the stage, as though if I missed the very center of each wooden step even by just a centimeter, I might fall and stumble down to my death. I took deep breaths my whole way to the podium, counting my strides to give me something else to focus on before I dove into my big graduation speech. I had rehearsed this for months. Every detail planned meticulously until it seemed almost perfect. Just do it, I told myself. Just do it. So I did.

I tapped the microphone.

“Can you hear me?” I felt myself mouth, as my throat and chest vibrated. I tapped the microphone a second time. “Can you hear me now?” I said. I took a big breath.

“Well I can’t hear me.” I said. “I would like everyone to know before I begin that I am pre-lingually deaf due to pre-natal causes. This means that I have been deaf since I was born. I realize that many of you expected a typical graduation speech. Either fortunately or unfortunately, I am unable to give you this, but I will try my hardest to talk to you in an understandable dialect.” I paused, took a deep breath, and then started again. “I think that everyone here in this stadium has looked over their past thirteen years of their education with sadness, happiness, pride, and regret. There have been good days, bad days, days when…”

Ten minutes later and I couldn’t believe it. I actually gave my speech. Even more shockingly, I gave my speech without passing out, throwing up, or breaking into an uncontrollable coughing spell. And by the looks on the audience’s faces, it had appeared that I given an at least slightly captivating speech, considering a few people cried, including me. I cried because I was glad I never had to go to elementary school, middle school, or high school ever again. I cried because I overcame a huge obstacle in my life. I cried because I would never see some of the people in my class ever again (although this could be a good thing when talking about Jett). I cried because I was scared for college. I cried for so many reasons all at once that I was overwhelmed with emotion and began to cry harder. I cried my freaking eyes out. And as awkward and cheesy as it may have seemed to some people, I knew that this was a huge breaking point for me, and I would never be the same.

As I began to step away from the podium and I looked out into the crowd, I saw them start clapping and I smiled. When I think about how much I went through to get this far while constantly carrying deafness on my back, and when I think about how many people I know who gave up before they reached graduation, it makes me think. I might not be able to hear, but who’s really deaf? The person who cannot hear, or the person who chooses not to?

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This article has 2 comments.

on Jan. 15 2009 at 11:22 pm
I love this! It reads like a novel, as though you are a novelist. What a fantastic short story--inspiring and well-written.

khal said...
on Jan. 9 2009 at 5:09 am
wow this is so good, even though it took me forever to read. you should totally be an author!omg!

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