Friday, July 18, 2014

El Deafo and Me

For 20 years, I taught my students as a hearing impaired teacher. No hearing aid, just 80% loss in one ear due to a tragic incident when I was just 22. At the time of the loss (1994), doctors said there was nothing they could do to return the hearing or correct it. They stated that a hearing aid would only amplify the muffled sound in my bad ear. I went back to the audiologist a few times in subsequent years, only to hear the same diagnosis.

Daily life became a bit different. It was difficult to hear in loud situations (or with loud conversation, such as in restaurants). I started tilting my head so that my "good ear" was facing the speaker. Family and friends sat on my "good side" when out in public places.

Since I didn't have total loss, I managed to compensate fairly effectively. I got used to not quite hearing everything people said. I'd repeat what I THOUGHT was said, and check for clarification when it didn't make sense. My inability to hear more than 87% of what was spoken (since my "good ear" compensated for what my "bad ear" couldn't pick up) became my new normal. I was missing so much of the world around me.

Luckily for me, last year I started having wax buildup in my good ear. There were a few scary days when the wax prevented me from hearing at all. I was afraid that would become a permanent situation. After having my ear flushed twice (an uncomfortable, but not painful, experience), I decided to check back with the audiologist to see what he could do. It was 2013 after all, and I was hoping that maybe something would work now.


I was definitely a candidate for a hearing aid. Unlike the main character, Cece, in Cece Bell's new book El Deafo (out in September), mine was so small it was not noticeable unless you looked into my ear canal. After waiting two weeks from the fitting appointment, my hearing aid arrived just in time for the beginning of last school year.

Like Cece, I was amazed at how loud everything sounded! Shuffling papers sounded like metal crushing. Putting away dishes sounded like I was breaking them. My usual television volume needed to be cut in half. I had to ask my husband, "Have our children always been this loud?" (He told me they have.)

The biggest change was in my classroom.

Thirty+ students are loud. Louder than I had ever heard (since my hearing loss occurred only four months after starting my first teaching job).

I had to step out in the hall and ask a colleague to go in my room to see if they were louder than what the collaborative activity required. She said that the noise level was what a typical class sounds like.

I was shocked and saddened by all that I had probably missed my students say over the past twenty years. How many had asked questions I didn't hear? How many comments had I misinterpreted? How many became frustrated and gave up asking or commenting?

When I read El Deafo, I felt like someone understood what it was like for me. Although I was not hearing impaired in K-12 (or even in college), I experienced many of the same emotions as Cece. I didn't have a Phonic Ear around my neck connected by cords to my ears, but I always felt different. I was embarrassed telling people I didn't hear what they said since they were talking into my bad ear. I desperately wanted to go to Happy Hour or social gatherings with my colleagues, but didn't because I knew I would miss too much conversation due to the noise. There was a part of my life I was missing.

This past year, with my hearing aid, I felt like I was part of the world again. It's amazing how many situations I used to avoid because they made it difficult for me to hear and carry on conversations. When wearing my hearing aid, I catch almost every word and don't have to sit in a certain spot or angle my head to hear what's being said. I know the hearing aid is in, but nobody else does unless I tell them. It has made such a difference, especially with my students.

We need diverse books like El Deafo so students and teachers like Cece and me can relate to characters in books. We need to read books about situations like our own. I am excited to have a copy of El Deafo in my classroom library (and our school's media center) so students can read Cece's story and gain insight into someone's different life experience.

Thank you, Cece Bell. We need THIS diverse book!


  1. I'm so happy for you! One little hearing aid changed your whole world. I can't imagine what an adjustment it was! I think you're right about having books available (for ourselves & for kids) that help everyone make connections to characters like themselves.

    1. Thanks, Jen! This book resonated with me and I want to find books like it for all my students. They deserve that.

  2. Thank you for writing this! It's amazing how many experiences out there and how having a book a kid can relate to could make a difference. My baby niece is deaf and until she is older and they can determine what/how much is her hearing loss, will they actually be able to do something about it. I'm looking forward to reading this book too!

  3. Sounds like another great book to add to my list. I love experiencing literature because I'm able to get a glimpse into the life of another. Reading books like this allow people to know they're not alone in the world. Well written post!