Deaf, Not Dense

I come from a family hard of hearing. Now, we aren’t completely deaf; I don’t want to give the wrong impression. There are others who have it much worse. Like, we don’t need sign language to get by. However, my dad, sister, grandma, aunt, and uncles (all on my dad’s side) have and need hearing aids. Whatever recessive gene is selectively expressing itself in the Ford family is probably the only downside of descending from this clan.

I visited an audiologist a couple of years ago. My hearing is not as bad as some of my family; they need hearing aids buzzing in their ears to get by day-to-day. According to my audiology screening, hard m n, g, h, d, t, and a few others I hear just fine. It’s those pesky v’s and b’s; quiet, low-frequency vowel sounds; and other various soft sounds that I have trouble with. My hearing loss is rated as “moderately deaf”, and my audiologist said that she was surprised I could get by in normal conversation. I think I mostly pick up on contextual cues and read lips a little, too.

My hearing has gotten progressively worse as I’ve grown older. While at community college, I would sometime sit in the back of big lecture halls. Now, I am never deeper than the first two rows, hands sometimes cupped over my ears to shape them like a deer’s. Seminars often prove invaluable to me. If I look at the presenter’s slides, I can read what they’re talking about but can’t hear what they’re saying. If I’m watching the speaker’s lips moving, I can refer to the graph on the projector screen. I don’t know whether the material has just gotten harder, and I can’t rely on textbooks and internet sources to complement what I learn in class, or if it’s actually getting that bad. Still, there have been a few situations that have been a little sticky due to my faulty ears.

Just a few weeks ago, I was in a training session for a course that I’ll be teaching in the fall. We were going around, and each instructor was contributing ideas for course goals. It came around to me, rocking in my chair while reading my worksheet. Squeeeak. Squeeeak. My chair screeched periodically as I went back and forth, back and forth. The sound was high frequency, low decibel: inaudible to me. Another instructor thought it was funny; as if I was hammering my points, using the chair for emphasis. When I finished, I naturally looked perplexed, wondering why she was laughing. She asked if I knew that my chair made noise, and I sheepishly stopped rocking and said no, realizing what was going on. I explained that I was deaf and couldn’t hear lots of things, making it a little awkward for everyone.

I shake situations like that one off. You can’t tell someone is deaf unless they use sign language or have hearing aids (and even those are getting harder and harder to see). Plus, as I’ve mentioned earlier, it could be way worse. I’m young, healthy, fully functional. But because of my moderately poor hearing, I have to pay close attention to everything people say; completely aware, constantly engrossed. I need contextual clues, and if my attention lapses for a second, I lose track of the entire conversation. I like to think that my hearing loss might actually be a positive. Because I have to watch the person while they’re talking and can’t afford to miss a syllable, I’ve actually become a pretty good listener. It’s an oxymoron, a good listener who can’t hear, but it’s something that seems to have manifested itself in my case.

As a rambunctious teenager, one of my favorite movies was Fight Club. It was rebellious; it had intense action; and there was a great twist. That movie could make a hormonal adolescent hopped up on testosterone want to find out what it felt like to get punched. The movie left my consciousness along with my teenaged angst, but there was one line that stuck with me. The main character becomes addicted to support groups: cancer survivors, alcoholics anonymous, terminally ill. He starts going to a new group every night, making up a story and sharing with strangers. He starts to see a woman in all of the groups and confronts her, telling her she’s “stealing” his groups. She asks him why he goes. “When people think you’re dying”, the narrator says, “they really, really listen to you, instead of just…” And the woman cuts him off, “Instead of just waiting for their turn to speak?”

It’s happened to me before. Someone is telling a story that reminds me of something really awesome that happened to me. But I can’t interrupt this person. I’ll just wait. Man, I can’t wait to tell this story. This is such a good story. Oh, they’re pausing. No, wait, they just forgot something. My story is really good. I can’t wait to tell everyone. They’re going to laugh and be so impressed. Oh, here’s my chance! The whole time I’m thinking of my story, I didn’t listen to what the other person was saying. I just wait for my turn to speak. It’s better to listen, digest what they’re saying. Don’t just chew it and swallow it, but become a conversation cow. Chew what they say slowly and carefully like thick, green blades of grass. Swallow every little bite, savoring the flavor. Let it break down through each of the four parts of your stomach. Analyze it, understand it, ask about it. Don’t just hear what they’re saying, listen.

I might be a teaching assistant in the chemistry department this year. The department requires TAs to undergo a two-week long intensive training session, which includes a dress rehearsal of a lab lecture. Lab sessions are supposed to supplement the lecture portion of the course, and so teaching assistants in these labs should be more like technical instructors, demonstrating how equipment works and supervising procedures. A lecture for a lab class should be a brief explanation of how to use glassware or how to troubleshoot a tricky part of an experiment, not an in-depth lecture on theory. That’s what the regular classroom is for. We were all shown an example of a lecture, one that covered too much theory, and told how we could improve our own presentations. A few days later, the rest of the class gave their lectures.

Many students spent a majority of the time talking about chemical reactions and the theory of light absorption and how a battery works instead of giving valuable, technical information, even after the lab supervisor had advised us not to do this. I focused on showing how to use a burette, what safety measures should be taken, and various tips to make the experiment run efficiently. The lab supervisor told me what a great job I had done, and how she hopes I’ll be teaching this year. It’s not because I’m a naturally better teacher or because I know more about these experiments than anyone else. It’s only because I listened. I’ve learned to listen out of necessity; because I can’t hear.

Listening is a tremendously valuable skill. You don’t have to hear well to be a good listener (and you definitely don’t have to be deaf either!) My hearing loss might seem like a disadvantage, but there is a positive to be considered (besides things like not having to hear a flea-ridden pup scratching and gnawing incessantly at 5:45 am every morning, a regular occurrence that Kierstin has suffered through recently while I’ve been immune). A lack of hearing helps me listen. And you don’t have to be a genius to listen; in fact, it’s almost the opposite. You have to stop thinking and just open your ears.


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