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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Death Kids

What does it mean to be deaf? Perception is everything... those
first impressions we get upon meeting someone... How we react to
and deal with someone who is different... It all has such a
lasting impact.

I remember being a student in elementary school. This was before
I began losing my hearing. I had no idea that I would someday
be deaf, myself. I was just one of the "regular" kids back then.

There was a class of deaf students at my school. It was a very
small class, which always seemed weird to me. They ate lunch and
went out to recess with us. Sometimes, they came into our
classroom for a certain subject. That's the only time we ever
saw those kids. There was no real social inclusion.

Now I look back and reflect on my experiences at that school and
my perceptions of the children in the deaf class. How different
it is now that I am deaf. I've experienced a bit of what they've
always dealt with. I've learned firsthand about the isolation
of being different and not being able to communicate with other
people. I am now able to view it all from a different
perspective. And, yet, the memories of those children persist.

I remember Victor. He was a tall boy with wavy blonde hair and
thick glasses. He was hard of hearing and wore hearing aids. He
could speak. He was always saying obnoxious and annoying things,
too.

Victor was in my second grade math class. He was much older than
the rest of us, which is probably why I remember him being so
tall. He didn't have an interpreter with him. They just dumped
him into our class for an hour. I don't think he ever had a
clue what was going on. Even if he was older, he was one of the
slowest kids in the class. So I remember him as being pretty
dumb.

One day, Victor sat at a table with me and a couple other kids.
We were working quietly on our math papers. Suddenly Victor
pointed at me and said in a very loud voice, "She just picked her
nose and ate it!"

Of course, everyone looked over and laughed. I was so angry. I
did NOT pick my nose. "What a stupid deaf boy!," I thought.
"Why does that deaf boy always have to be such a jerk?"

Thinking about it now, I wonder if being deaf had anything to do
with his behavior. After all, I was eight years old. All the
boys were stupid back then. They all acted like jerks. But
Victor wasn't just a boy. He was a deaf boy. Somehow that made
it worse.

Or maybe he acted out because he was deaf and never knew what
was going on. He must have been so frustrated all the time.
Maybe he was trying to get attention. Perhaps he viewed the
students' laughter as social approval.

There were two girls I remember so well. Briana was also tall
and had short, dark red hair. She might have been a cute girl
but it was hard to look at her without thinking she was strange
and different.

For one thing, she wore one of those horrible hearing aid
harnesses. She wore it right over her clothes so it was the
first thing you noticed about her.

Then there was her voice. Briana was a good deaf girl. She
tried hard to listen and speak. She wanted to please her
teachers. But her voice was awful. Kids liked to tease her at
recess. They'd get her talking and then laugh as she squealed
and grunted. like a pig. There was nothing intelligent coming
out of her mouth. Still, her teachers would praise and
encourage her to continue talking.

Briana must have felt so lonely and sad. But she kept responding
to the mean kids who teased her. I think she was trying to make
friends. Did she know how much everyone made fun of her? I bet
she did.

Shelley was a year older than me. She was small with long blonde
hair. I guess she was pretty but, she too, wore a mark of
deafness. In her case, it was the biggest hearing aids I have
ever seen. They weighed down on her ears. This made her ears
stick out. She reminded me of Dumbo the flying elephant.

Shelley was in my fifth grade math class. This was not easy
because we never had math at the same time each day. She'd often
arrive late or completely miss math altogether. If she came
early, my teacher would get annoyed.

Unlike Briana, Shelley didn't talk. I don't know if she couldn't
or wouldn't speak. She had an interpreter.

Shelley and the interpreter would enter class and sit off to the
side where they would not disturb anyone. No one ever spoke to
Shelley or acknowledged her presence. The teacher never called
on her. When class was over, she''d quietly leave. It was
almost like she wasn't even there.

Shelley was in sixth grade that year but she had math with my
fifth grade class. Oddly enough, she was considered a great
success because she was mainstreamed into the regular classroom
for a short while. She was working a year behind her grade level
and all she did was sit in our room during one class. What kind
of achievement was that?

When I was in sixth grade, a friend amused us all by bringing in
her old year book. It was fun to look at those pictures from
when we were "little" kids. As a second grader, my friend had
written comments all over her year book: cute boy, jerk, bad
dresser, best friend, and so on.

The class of deaf students didn't even look normal in the year
book. There were only about seven pictures for their entire
class. They didn't even fill up a single row in the year book.
And there was Victor with his obviously grin, Briana with her
harness and Shelley with those huge hearing aids.

What really struck me was what my friend had written above the
pictures. "DEATH KIDS."

Obviously, the eight year old girl couldn't spell to save her
life. But death kids? Somehow it seemed like a fitting label.
They were so different and abnormal. They were the death kids.

When I began losing my hearing, did people point at me and say,
"She's one of the death kids"?

Twenty-five years later, I wonder if they ever escape the
perception and impression of being the death kids. I wonder
what life is like for them now. Is Victor still a jerk? Does
Briana ever speak? Does Shelley have smaller hearing aids now?
Are they happy now or did they grown up to become death adults?

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