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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf Women's Lives: Three Self-Portraits

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Things began to make more sense now that I was wearing a hearing aid. With this aid, I could turn up the volume to any level and feel comfortable with it. It was a shiny, silver Zenith Royal, the size of a dental floss pack, tucked in a white cloth pocket with straps all around my torso. I remember so vividly receiving this first hearing aid at age four and a half that I can play it back in my mind like a videotape. Lindsay came rushing into the house with excitement and dragged me outside in front of Dad who was surrounded by the entire family and some neighbors. After removing a new hearing aid from the bag, Dad placed the straps over me and then jiggled the earmolds into my tiny ears with my mother’s help. He then glanced at me as if to say, “Are you ready?” and that caused everyone to circle around me like they were peering into a fish tank.

Dad turned on the hearing aid and said, “Hello, hello, hello.” Bam! I heard his voice and grinned, driving everyone to excited laughter. Actually, that wasn’t the first time I had heard a voice, since I had heard Mary Jane and others talking through mild amplification at Old Dominion. But this time was different—right here on the sidewalk—so many voices at the same time! Something else struck me, too. As I looked around with the hearing aid and straps and all, I realized that no one else had one on. I was the only one. At that moment, I learned of my deafness. Really, I had long thought everyone was just like me, not hearing anything. I even thought every single soul on earth took hearing tests as if they were a daily routine.

In the future, there would be questions and comments about the strange-looking thing on my chest. “What’s that on you?” “What music are you listening to? Oh? It’s not a radio?” “My gosh, it looks like a one-cup bra.” Many more would follow. Years later, my sister-in-law Vickie found a picture of me wearing these straps and hesitantly asked why I had a harness. Her innocent question made me feel like a flesh-eating jungle beast caught in a net. I had never thought of that in the past!

Mom and Dad had made a decision to send me to Clarke School in Northampton, Massachusetts. Although they knew it was going to be painful not to have me home, they felt confident about this school that had earned an article in National Geographic for its reputable oral program. I had gone to Clarke for orientation and had been pleasant the whole time. But the second time, they sent me there, and I was a mess, screaming the whole way up. Mom was so frustrated because she couldn’t tell me anything, even with my hearing aid, that would reassure me that I wasn’t being left there for good. That’s what made the situation so hard. Mom knew that I would be greatly upset being away from home, or worse yet, that I would be angry with her for “deserting” me. Being left at an unfamiliar place could be traumatic for any five-year-old. So the lack of communication wasn’t the only factor.

Whenever Mom tells the story about sending me to Clarke School, she dwells on the light blue smocked dress I had on. She had stitched it and was proud enough to parade me around in that dress nearly everyday. Mom still has a portrait of me wearing the dress, sitting and smiling, taken before the screaming incident. I am sure she is reminded of my piteous screams every time she sees that portrait. She has said that seeing the dress became so disturbing after the incident that she never put it on me again.

When it was time for my parents to leave, I started to scream again. Miss Miller, my new teacher, restrained me from running after them. I don’t remember any of that. But, whenever I think of the story Mom has told me many times, I can feel the powerful trauma of being separated from the two most important people in my life, particularly at such a young age of five.

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