I was considered precocious and advanced for my age, so  alarms went off when my teacher informed my parents that I would flunk the first grade. I was tested for all sorts of problems, and found to be profoundly deaf in my left ear and mildly deaf in my right.

There were few good options for schooling at that time, and my parents chose to keep me in the mainstream classroom instead of sending me to a school for the deaf. Just before I started 4th grade, we moved to a new school district and by  this time, I had developed a slight but noticeable speech impediment -- my lips would tug to the right (as if to my good ear...?) whenever I pronounced "R's" -- R's that initiate a syllable, that is. Imagine saying my name: Barbara Robertson. Other kids quickly picked up on this. Most of the teasing was verbal: kids in my school would call me "Ra-Ra," contorting their lips to the right as they said it. I learned years later that my brother, two grades behind me, was physically harassed when he tried to stick up for me. 

There were a few boys who made me their target for physical harassment as well. After school, I had a 3/4 mile walk home. I would usually have my hands full with a violin case and a pile of books. These boys would follow me by 15 or 20 yards and taunt me. Then, they would throw rocks or whatever was handy. One day, I felt a sharp pain in my ankle -- they had thrown a9-volt battery at me. I was only half way home -- I remember limping in pain the rest of the way.

This continued through 4th, 5th, and most of 6th grade. I took to hiding out in the school library --Though Ididn't consciously seek out books to cope with what was happening in my life, I smile now when I think of my book selection. I gravitated to biographies of women in dire or difficult circumstances: Helen Keller, Annie Sullivan, Edith Cavell, Hannah Senesh, Joan of Arc, Mary (Queen ofScots), Marie Antoinette...well you get the idea. 

By now I've forgotten the names of most of my high school classmates, but I've never forgotten the names of my grade school tormenters. I know now that they had their problems, and I've long forgiven them. But I can't forget.

The adults in my life left me to fend for myself. Some of the teachers were fine, but others were oppressive. They all knew about the deafness, but either could not or would not make the social aspects of school attendance any smoother. Sometimes they would not be particularly helpful in the classroom either. I remember diligently lipreading and paying as close attention as I could everyday, and leaving exhausted from the effort while other kids were bounding out the door full of energy. When I asked a teacher to repeat an assignment that I hadn't heard, she told me that if I tried harder I would have no problem. I was demoralized.

We had a substitute teacher for awhile who was kindness itself, though. I remember looking closely at her and spying *hearing aids*! One day, after class, I approach her meekly, and (hesitatingly) asked her about them. After we talked for a while, she asked if I'd like to try them on. I was eager to do so. I was able to hear, and I'm sure my eyes were wide as saucers. It was an amazing experience. While she was there,  I had an ally.

My parents were supported in trying to make my deafness a non-issue by an authoritarian doctor who felt I could be molded into a "normal" child. What a jerk! My father would mimic me when I asked him to repeat something, and would tell me that mentioning my deafness would be using it "like a crutch". That all changed when I was eleven years old, when my father, at 30 years of age, was rapidly going deaf. He who had tormented me about my deafness now turned to me with pain-filled contrition, and asked for my advice and support. He never teased me again.

By the time I began junior high school, I was reconciled to having little or no support in the school environment. I addressed my speech impediment myself: I would face a mirror, hold my index fingers vertical in front of the corners of my mouth, and speak (choosing many words with R's in them). I would use my index fingers to delimit the range where my lips could travel. When I saw my lips gravitating to the right, I would repeat the phrase and push my lips straight when they strayed. I gradually trained myself how my lips should feel when speaking, and the impediment was removed. Only a soft lisp remains, which is more pronounced when I'm tired or have had an alcoholic beverage.

In junior high, my deafness was largely a non-issue. My only recollection of it ever having been an issue stemmed from my continuing interest in foreign languages, particularly Spanish. When I was in eighth grade, a teacher told me that I shouldn't take foreign languages because of my deafness -- that I would fail at them. I remember shrugging this off, and seeking out Spanish speakers with whom I could practice -- not hard to do in Oregon.

The only other recollection I have from junior high school years related to my deafness was that my usual tactic of nodding while faking that I heard something (that I really hadn't) backfired rather badly in dating situations. I learned to place myself at a boy's left so that I could hear whatever he was saying or asking or proposing rather than just nodding. This was my first clue that passing for hearing could lead to problems!

By the time I reached junior high school, my deafness was not an issue for other children -- only for the adults. I had friends, even experienced some popularity at times.

In high school, I took advantage of my choices and took every foreign language offered. I'd sit where I could hear the teacher well, and strain to hear the accent. I took four years of Spanish, two of Latin, two of German, and one of French, and earned mostly As. I was active in all foreign language and international student clubs. So, when the time approached to apply to the American Field Service to study overseas, it seemed a natural choice. When I walked into the room for orientation for all AFS applicants, the adults were all looking at me strangely. It was the first time I can ever recall anyone looking at me with naked pity in their expressions. A few weeks later, I was notified that I had been cut during the first round. They did not offer a reason, and I still did not know how to ask. After all, I was told at home that if I had a good attitude about myself and did not make a big deal of my deafness, no one else would. Even with my father's deafness, I still was not allowed to factor deafness into any aspect of my school experience.

Because my deafness was a relatively taboo subject, I was not able to take deafness into account for explaining any experience -- even when it would have been appropriate to do so. I had fully internalized the notion that if I could not hear something, or if others rejected me for any reason, that it was due to a flaw in my own character. This made it very difficult for me to advocate for myself.

As I was growing up, I wish that I'd had permission to speak openly and honestly about what I was experiencing at school, and I wish I felt less pressure to be "normal."

                     All the best, Barbara Robertson

 More Stories Write to Barbara  To the site map

Joan Fleitas, Ed.D., R.N.
Associate Professor of Nursing, Lehman College, CUNY
Bronx, New York 10468
< Last updated: November 14, 2004