The Pressures of Silence

I’ve been busy this month helping my mom organize the boxes of photographs and old documents at her house. The best part of this project? When I come across documents from my childhood that I’ve long forgotten about, but thanks to my mom, have been carefully preserved.

When I was 12, my English assignment was to write an autobiography of my life (so far) and make a diorama of some of my favourite hobbies. I misunderstood the assignment and ended up writing a biography–and forgot to make the diorama! This is one of the earliest expression of me ever sharing what it was like for me to get sick, to lose my hearing, and learn to navigate in a world while feeling ignored. I suppose this should rightly be part of the “Green Light” series, but oh well. Here are some extracts from the assignment.

Jaipreet lived a healthy life, till at the age of 4 1/2, on November 16, 1986, the day she got sick…

For the most part, Jaipreet was a healthy child, She had her share of colds and flus…But only one time the flu was serious…Of course everyone knows what having the flu’s like; feeling hot, throwing up, having high fevers…Jaipreet’s parents took her to the doctor. He checked her, and then told them to bring her back. They took Jaipreet back, hoping there would be good news. But, the doctor told Jaipreet’s parents that she had bacterial menengitis [sic], which was a disease that had something to do with the brain and spinal cord, and she had to be placed in Murbarank Hospital [in Kuwait] and had to be treated by anti-biotics (medicine) for two weeks. Some people died from menengitis [sic]. But, luckily, Jaipreet survived. But during the treatment, it did something to Jaipreet’s hearing that made her lose it.

Being in the hospital made Jaipreet the center of attention. Gifts and flowers came to her from her mother’s family. Visitors came to visit the child who sat on a hospital bed without hearing. Some nights, Jaipreet’s mother or father would sit in her hospital room to keep her company till she went to sleep.

After she was released from the hospital on the first week of October, Jaipreet’s parents did everything to make her better. They took her to doctors, hoping they would have something to help her hear better. One of these doctor [sic] gave her a [sic] instrument similar to phonic ears. To Jaipreet, they didn’t work very well. She had a hard time hearing with them.

When Jaipreet and her family moved to Canada, in 1988, Jaipreet got new hearing aids. After not being able to hear any sound [sic] for a long time, at last there was something that made her hear all the wonderful sounds around her.

Wearing hearing aids really helped her. Jaipreet could hear better with them than without them.

Following that paragraph, there’s a short section titled “Jaipreet on Sounds:”

Hearing aids are wonderful. They help me hearing better. Those kids, who need them, but don’t want them, don’t know what they’re missing. It’s be able to hear sounds, voices and music, and a lot of other things.

When you’re deaf, you can’t hear. Very loud sounds; you can hear. You can’t just forget silence. It has too much pressure. For example, you see people talking, but you can’t hear them, because you can’t hear. You just feel you want to shout, ‘Would you just speak up?’ You want to hear things, to be able to understand. That’s what hearing aids for the deaf are for. o hear, to not miss out any sound. To be able to understand.

None of the other deaf or hard-of-children I went to school with knew sign language, other than the alphabet, which we used as a secret code to spell out our names or pass notes in class. Our world was a world of sounds. Silence was pressure. All we ever wanted to be was understood.

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.