Green Light: Mr D.

This is the fifth installment of my autobiographical series on my experiences with hearing loss. You can view earlier posts: PrologueChapter 1: Seeing SoundsChapter 2: Fearless LeaderChapter 3: The Black Box. Posts appear every other Friday. 

Sometime when I was six or seven, I was sent to a new school. It was far from our residence, which meant waking up at 7am to frantically get dressed, eat, and take the elevator down to the lobby of our apartment building. There was a fireplace in the lobby, where I would sit awkwardly and keep watch for the bus through sleepy eyes. Every school morning was the same. The bus would pick me up, then Z, and two other kids who went to different schools. Z and I were in the same class and remained friends for the longest time. S would join us on the bus a year or two later. These were the happiest bus trips for us, as we would gossip, share homework, play kids games, or just talk. There were days we didn’t need to talk, as silent understanding gave way to gazing out of the window and daydreaming. It was this way for seven years.

My new classroom was small. Only five students at the start, I believe, though the number never went higher than eight. I don’t recall the first days, or how different it was from my previous school. I remember the sadness—everyone else in the class knew each other, could talk to each other, and I was the outsider. They were friends and I was the intruder. Miss K. was a kind, gentle soul with an incredible sense of humor. She had long dirty blond hair and a twinkle in her eye that never went away—I saw her years later with her newborn daughter, and the twinkle was still there, even as she was exhausted from motherhood.

The first year was a blur but some things stay with you. I recall laughing hysterically when Miss K. banged her knee at a table; I didn’t think it was funny, but I thought it was a time to laugh. I missed so many other jokes and took my cues from others who were laughing, wanting to fit in, wanting to understand what was so funny, wanting to bond with Miss K. like the others could. Everyone looked at me like I was a mean soul, for daring to laugh when I shouldn’t, and Miss K. scolded me. I didn’t understand why I was in trouble or what I did wrong, or why everyone else wasn’t laughing when they did at other times. My face turned red and the tears flowed. They would flow so many times.

Then there was another time we had watched A Little Mermaid and were told to draw our own stories. I had an imagination, but no stories to tell. So I recreated in drawing, the story we had watched, from memory. There was never a purer sense of joy as realizing how amazed Miss K was with my drawing skills. My Sebastian was the same one as we saw on the television. Eager classmates asked how I did that; with an immense sense of pride, I showed them how to recreate their own Sebastian. Pretty soon, that’s all what we did that afternoon.

There are stories of friendships, of fights, of first loves, of mean rumours, and of disobedience that I’ll share later. This was the school where my life began, where I learned lessons that I would carry with me for the rest of my life.

But, despite how much I’ve tried to forget, and how much has faded away through the years, nothing sticks to my memory from this time more than Mr. D, my speech teacher. He came maybe daily, maybe three times a week, and I dreaded my sessions with him. When I first met him, I used to think he was so cruel. So mean in the way he spoke so sternly, the way he grasped my cheeks to force me to utter sounds I’ve barely heard, to trace his fingers on my throat so I know how to recognize vocal movements. These were terrible sessions for me, and for others—nothing made us so uncomfortable, so sure of our own stupidity, so wanting of escape. Some of us finished sessions crying, me included.

It’s a very difficult thing to learn how to pronounce words that you’ve never heard before. None of us in that classroom were born deaf, we all lost our hearing sometime or another after acquiring language. Thus, according to the rule book, it was supposed to be easy to teach us how to restore our speaking ability, to teach us how to hear and speak like we were supposed to. It wasn’t easy. Not for us, those who had to meet with Mr D. The constant forcing of our tongue, of our lips, our throats, our jaws, being told to move it this way or that way, and certainly not in that way, was a daily reminder of our limitations. Buh-buh-buh. Say “B.” “sssszzzz” Say “S.” Say “Th.” Have your tongue bounce your teeth. “She sells seashells by the seashore.” Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat until you get “Sh” correct. Repeat until this becomes your mantra. Repeat until you learn. Repeat until you understand. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

I saw Mr D. for years as “Sh” and “Th” sounds were difficult for me and I had a terrible stutter, especially when I got nervous. One of my teachers thought the best way for me to get over my stutter was for me to enter the debate team. Public speaking, she believed, would force me to get over my insecurity and just say the words. I used to beg Mr D. for clues to pronounce words I knew only on paper. I used to ask my mom or sisters how to say words, then memorize them as not to make a fool of myself on stage. “Sh” and “Th” sounds could destroy confidence that I spent years building. How do you say words you know only on paper, how do you know the silent “a” or “n” or “s”? Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Mr D. was good at his job, kind and compassionate. We hated him because we hated what he had to make us do. But he had to teach us to speak, to learn, to understand. I thought of him often after I left that school, wondered what happened to him. One day I ran into him at my new high school, and an immense sense of dread washed over me. Was he there for me, I wondered? I was long past the years I required speech therapy, and didn’t want to do it again. I didn’t need him, I was just fine on my own, I didn’t need a hand to guide me through high school. He wasn’t there for me. He was attending another student at my school, who only then, I realized was also hard-of-hearing. Mr D. asked me if I wanted him to visit me too, to help make sure I was on the right track. “No speech therapy,” he said. “I’ll be a friend, a guidance counsellor so if you need assistance, I can help.” Standing outside the office window, we negotiated terms. I would see him once a week for 30 minutes after his meeting with the other student. If I didn’t want to come, he couldn’t get upset. He agreed as did I.

For the first year of high school, I saw Mr D. We talked, I shared some of the struggles I was having as a student, how much I missed my friends from my other school. He provided advice for increasing my grades, for thinking about what universities I wanted to apply, what career I wanted to make for myself. A few months down the line, he asked me if I wanted speech therapy again. I said no. I couldn’t put myself through that again. He nodded and told me he understood. He told me I didn’t really need it, but if I wanted to drop my Kuwait/deaf accent, I would have to devote to speech therapy for the rest of my life. “When you stop,” he told me, “you’ll have the accent again. So unless you care about that, it doesn’t seem like you need therapy anymore. It’s up to you. I’m here if you want me to come.” I repeated, no.

The last time I saw Mr D, I was 17. I ran into him at a mall and we sat on the bench, chatting like old friends. He scolded me for skipping school. I laughed and told him about my plans for becoming a writer and what universities I was applying for. He told me about his children and shopping for birthday presents. He wore the same black leather jacket I’ve always seen him wear. We hugged goodbye.

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Green Light: The Black Box

III: The Black Box.  

This is the fourth installment of my autobiographical series on my experiences with hearing loss. You can view earlier posts: Prologue; Chapter 1: Seeing Sounds; Chapter 2: Fearless Leader. Posts appear every other Friday. 

The moment you realize you can communicate and others can understand you, is when your world changes. Whatever tragedy, loss, or disappointment you felt is gone, replaced with a joy that removes you from your isolation. I don’t remember what I felt or thought when I got my hearing aids around age six or seven. I don’t remember my world changing so dramatically, because to me, my world wasn’t limited—the fault of silence was not mine, but others. They were the ones who shut me out, who refused to listen, who could not understand my words or my reality. The only thing that changed—that really changed­—was my schooling and my environment. Yes, I heard more with my ears than I did before with my eyes, but new friendships and creative teachers did more for me than hearing aids.

My first hearing aids were these bulky behind-the-ear types that weighted against my skin and irritated it. Though flesh coloured, they made my ear stick out, even though I didn’t become self-conscious of them until I was in my teens. They were just these things that I wore and barely took care of properly. Like my eyeglasses, which I broke so many times my mom scolded me over and over for being so careless. One day she just put tape on the broken frame and sent me off to school. My punishment was I had to wait longer than usual for new ones. They were just things that helped me see and hear but I didn’t care for them, didn’t clean off the wax or wipe away a fingerprint smudge. They were just things, you see, that sat on my face, on my body, but were not extensions of me. I wanted to run and play basketball, and swim, and kick the soccer ball, and jump and shout and giggle. They got in the way, these hearing aids and glasses. If they broke, I would still run and play.

There’s so much about being deaf that they don’t tell you. You feel responsible for your own shortcomings. You call yourself a fool if you misunderstand a person’s question and answer something, anything, even if it has nothing to do with the question; you blush at the expression of puzzlement. You call yourself stupid over and over, fighting back tears when others laugh when you mispronounce a word, even if it’s a word you’ve never heard before and had no way of learning how to utter it correctly. You feel the immense sense of dread of putting someone in danger, because you failed to hear a car honk or a fire alarm, or warning shouts. It’s your fault, it’s always your fault, and it’s your job to make sure you fix it, correct it, improve it.  So you look for ways to help yourself.

I used to close my eyes to the world, even blindfold myself, to hear things without seeing. I wrote down words broken in their syllables, so I’ll never make the mistake of mispronouncing again; sometimes I fall asleep saying these words, a mantra for self-improvement—even years later. I refused to wear the FM system because I wanted to hear more sounds than my teacher’s voice.

Then there are the things, actual objects, that did help, the technologies that I came to rely on, the ones that were made to deal with difficult, if not impossible things. Like television. It was a screen that showed me pretty pictures, stories whose plot I didn’t understand, words that were garbled and voices that went unheard. One day, my mom comes home from a visit to Rogers, paying a twenty-five dollar deposit to bring me the closed captioning box. This black box, which sat on top of the television, was the greatest joy in my life. I relished in the fact I could finally grasp what everyone else in my family could—watch cartoons with my sisters and giggle at the tv, instead of glancing at their faces for clues when to laugh. I felt sad that Looney Toons or Tom and Jerry did not have words at the bottom for me. My sisters adored Mr. Dressup, but unlike so many children, I was not part of his circle; no words for me so I didn’t care for him. I got annoyed when any Blockbuster VHS did not show the captioning, even though the captioning symbol was clearly marked on the cover. And Sunday afternoons were spent watching Bollywood movies with my mom, with even the songs subtitled in English, relieving part of my memories before deafness that I thought long gone.

The black box did more than let me watch my favourite cartoons again. I paid more attention to how words sounded. I looked at many more facial expressions and body languages that I ever could at school, at home, or at the park. I watched the news with my mom, Jeopardy with my grandfather, basketball games on the weekends, movies with my sisters, documentaries at night. I wanted to absorb so much of the world as I possibly could. Commercial breaks were for continuing to read my favourite books or do my homework. While my mom braided my hair and I ate my Lucky Charms at seven in the morning on school days, Inspector Gadget and CareBears entertained me, becoming a part of a ritual. I would then go on the bus, and read through my books for the day. I cried when the black box broke and my mom had to take it for repairs, agony filling me as I waited for its return. It sat on front of the television, but it was such an integral part of me. I didn’t just hear music, but for the first time, I understood the lyrics. I memorized them, so that when I shared the song with my friends, I could tell them what the lyrics said, write them down for them, so they too, could memorize them.

My siblings too, grew up with the black box. All four of them told me that they at once, relied on the captioning. They didn’t need it, but it was such an integral part of our household, they never questioned it. They learnt somewhat to lipread, to absorb the words on screen, as opposed to reading it. The black box that sat on top of the television is confined to some dusty shelf of my mom’s storage room. It’s now a relic of a past long gone, replaced with digital televisions and embedded DVDs.

But once upon a time, it was the thing that, just a little bit, let me be free.

Green Light: Fearless Leader

This is the third post of my autobiographical series on my experiences with hearing loss. You can view the first (here) and second (here) ones as well. Posts appear every other Friday. 

II. Fearless Leader

When you’re a little kid, so many things can mean the world to you. You may be unable to explain why, but it can something, one thing, that you’ll want—nay, demand—more than anything else you’ll ever be able to get. It might not make sense. But you’ll want it anyways.

For me, at age 6, it was a badge that said “Fearless Leader.”

I thought my kindergarten teacher was the most beautiful and kindest person I’ve ever met. I didn’t speak. I didn’t hear. She understood me somehow. I knew this because she would calm me down when I would enclose myself in the corner of the classroom, lost in thoughts and tears streaming down my face, pretending to play with the toys in front of me or mindlessly flipping through the pages of a book. Nothing made sense in that classroom. She spoke, but I heard no words. I saw in her eyes what she was trying to say, her patience, and her struggle to make this little girl understand and feel belonged. There was no belonging in a classroom full of children who taunted and laughed, pointing fingers, and ignoring pleas to play.

I made up my own stories in my head, games to play with. Recess was me running after children who had no desire to engage in my game. Or sitting on the swings. Staring at the sky. Years later, I had a conversation with a friend about what it was like to grow up deaf in a hearing classroom. She told me the children were mean, bullying her for being a “freak,” for not speaking or listening, and especially for the days she sobbed uncontrollably in folded arms on her desk. “What about the teacher,” I asked, “didn’t she stop them? Didn’t she help you?”

“The teacher,” my friend replied, “was the worst of them. She had no patience for me, would scream and yell at me as if in the loudness, I would suddenly understand her. Of course, I never did. How could I? I’m sure she hated me, though I never knew why.”

My teacher was not like that. Her blue eyes, earnest, soft with sympathy, connected with mine. She stroked my hair one day, telling me how much she liked my braid. I turned away from her. The kids were still mean and I was still left out. Nothing she ever could do would make me feel like I had a place in the classroom, or that school was a place for me. My mind’s reality and the reality I lived in never matched up to me, so how could it for her?

Then she did the most astounding thing of all.

Every week a child was chosen to be the leader of the classroom. The child would lead storytime, choose what games to play, receive first dibs. You had to be smart, popular, and creative to be chosen the leader. And once you were chosen, you were bestowed a button that said “Fearless Leader,” and all the other children in the classroom were your friends, respected you, wanted to talk to you, and play with you.

I wanted to be the leader so badly. My heart soared and sunk week after week as I was cast aside and another child gasped and giggled, running to the front of the classroom to be pinned with this precious jewel. Some got to go up more than once. Each time I had to hold back tears. This was never going to be mine, no one could understand me, so I could never say how much I wanted to have this.

But she did. She knew I wanted it. She knew I had to have it. And perhaps most importantly, she knew it would make me feel the sense of belonging I always wanted to feel; that I was not alone, that I was not a “freak” or undeserving of friendship.

I raised my head one day when I felt her tapping on my shoulder. She smiled so warmly at me and I was momentarily distracted by her beauty that I didn’t realize she held in her hands the badge for me. That feeling stays with you. The kindness that breaks the dividing line between your mind’s reality and the reality of the world.

She gave me the badge on Picture Day, a permanent reminder that I was not alone.

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Green Light: Seeing Sounds

This is the second of an autobiographical series on my experiences with hearing loss. Posts shall appear every other Friday. You can view the first post here.

I. Seeing Sounds

I lost my hearing at the age of four following a serious bout of meningitis, but my world never became silent. I may not have heard words escaping from someone’s mouth, but I heard their heartbeats, their laughs, cries, and sometimes, their thoughts. I may not have heard the school bell ring, but I heard the teacher’s lessons, marvelled at the stories in my books, and the gleeful noises children made on the playground. I may not have heard the newer songs of Bollywood, but I heard music in the dancing, harmony in the colors of saris, and echoes of former, favourite songs.

That’s important to remember: my world was never silent.

Or at least, I don’t recall having lived in silence, even if I could barely hear sounds of life rotating around me. What I recall the most is the frustration. Speaking and having no audience to pay attention to me. Screaming, throwing tantrums, sobbing, never grasping that those who tried to hear me, could barely comprehend what I was saying. I heard them well enough, I understood them well enough, so why couldn’t they all bother to listen. Was I too young? Too bothersome? One day, when I had nothing more to say, no more energy to demand attention, I would eventually retreat into the abyss of my imagination.

I wish I could tell you all the thoughts that ran through my lonely mind, how the more I felt ignored, the further I delved into isolation. I felt left out in many, many instances during my life, but never isolated, or at least by force. I became quiet, because I didn’t have much to say, not necessarily because I felt no one was listening. When I learned to speak again, my stutter could barely stop me from chattering away with my sisters late into the night.

I wish I could tell you how different my life was in Kuwait after I lost my hearing. The truth is, I don’t remember. I remember fragments of a childhood but I can’t discern what was before and what was after: the lion chocolate candy, playing with my sister and my cousins, eating Cheetos, walking outside with my nanny. Reciting the Ik onkar prayer in front of the congregation and my dad beaming proudly. Eating kebabs and hummus. Shopping for my birthday dress, getting the blue instead of the green one. Travelling to Holland and running away into the field of roses. Getting a kinder surprise from a convenience store in England. Meeting bhangra dancers at a festival.  Arguing with my aunts as they placed shiny tape on the wall as decoration for my birthday. A poster of a motorcycle on the wall. I remember the cement wall that enveloped our backyard, where one day, I skinned my knee quite badly in a failed attempt to retrieve a ball that went over the wall. The joy when I finally learnt how to braid my hair. My mom’s puzzled look when I insisted on her buying me the blue Mickey Mouse blanket instead of the brown Tom & Jerry one—she knew Tom & Jerry was my favourite cartoon and couldn’t get why I didn’t want it. I never knew how to tell her the brown color was the ugliest I’ve ever seen.

I remember packing the steamer trunk with my prized possessions, fearfully clutching my Dennis the Menace doll as not to lose him; my new pencil crayons went in the box, with a promise that I’ll see them again. Of course I never did—the Gulf War broke out while we were safely settled in Canada.

These are not silent memories.

A Digital Reader

I was invited by Karen Bourrier, the project director of Nineteenth-Century Disability: A Digital Reader to write a post about a Victorian mourning ear trumpet. The digital reader is a remarkable project at the University of Western Ontario, an interdisciplinary approach to provide a collection of primary texts on physical and cognitive disability in the nineteenth century. It’s meant to be a free scholarly resource for incorporating disability studies into the classroom and teaching students how to work with primary sources (I absolutely love this!). The project has gotten started with a few wonderful posts, including on wooden legs, Thomas Edison’s talking books, ‘The Blind Beggar,’ and my own contribution on a Victorian mourning trumpet.

The project is still under construction, with an eventual goal of posting lesson plans on how to use primary sources, a timeline of disability in the nineteenth century, and a bibliography of secondary sources in nineteenth-century disability studies. Without a doubt, Nineteenth-Century Disability: A Digital Reader is a remarkable contribution to not only disability studies, but on all subjects that intersect with ideas about the body, science, technology, and medicine.

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