This is the fifth 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; Chapter 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.