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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 3, Nov./Dec. 2006

Finding voice

by Suzanne McCarthy

She came to our school at the age of 10, severely hearing impaired, with the English vocabulary of a two-year-old. She had only been in Canada for two years but her mother tongue was no more familiar to her than English.

She sat sideways on the chair and let her hair hang down over her face, covering cheeks smeared by tears, and did not respond to speech. She followed her sister through the hallways and made sure she did not get left behind.

Clinical tests showed there was adequate residual hearing to change this, but she could not discriminate enough sounds to differentiate treat from street, and teak from teach.

One day, I noticed in her drawing of an island that she portrayed perspective and contour in a way that few adults could. My skin tingled with amazement.

We finally got an assessment that showed a high average intelligence. The psychologist came to me later and said that it was a good thing that we had demanded this, since she could so easily have been dismissed as mentally handicapped.

"No one ever told me that," I protested.

"No, they did not have the heart to tell you that all your efforts would be for nothing."

We made a photo essay of her day and took it to the school board petitioning for an aide. The audio clinic worked to improve her hearing aid, and we tried cued speech, lip reading, speech therapy, computerized vocabulary and story programs.

But most of all, we required feedback for every interaction, all day long. Every adult that came into our school was scheduled to bring in their pet. Through touch and petting and playing, she counted legs and felt the fur,

"Soft, long, black, white, curly, straight, big, small."

"Look at my mouth, child, while I say the word—you say it, do you hear me? This dog is big, big and soft. Feel the ears, and the tail. The tail, once more, show me the ears, and now the tail."

She did learn to ask questions, but whispering only, forming words with her lips, and standing in front of me, she looked up, finally, and not down. At first, it was only this.

"Does a hamster have four legs?"

"Is a cat soft?"

She sorted out sound from context, foreground from background, and began to recognize that some sounds had meaning in a way that others did not.

She would run into my room from class and whisper the utterances that she had identified. She heard someone say that they had to go pee, she heard someone call someone else stupid, then she heard a school announcement. One day she heard a joke!

She listened to stories on the computer, Little Bear and Three Billy Goats Gruff. I heard an unusual sound one day, and turned to see her laughing. It was over a year and I had never heard that sound before.

Finally we got an aide assigned to her. It took six months to get the right person. But finally we were able to get that one right person to go with her through the day, with a dry-erase board, and an FM system. Every instruction was clarified and confirmed,

"Did you hear that? What was the teacher’s announcement? What are you supposed to do next? Put up your hand and ask? Speak out loud, child, I can’t hear you."

"People have to hear you. Use your voice. This is voice. Do you hear it? I turn my back and you talk and I hear you. Then I turn my head to look at you. Your voice does that. It makes me turn around."

She came by my room when I was not looking, my head was down, looking at my desk, and she stood in the door and called out in a loud voice, "Ms. Marthy!"

I had never heard her voice before. I jerked my head up and looked at her. She beamed. We played this game every day for weeks. She called my name and like magic my head came up and I looked at her. Then she knew that she existed to other people not just herself.

Now she can read and write and talk and play. She dances, does gymnastics, and draws cartoons—books full of cartoons filled with dialogue.

She was reading out loud all through a reading test and I said, "You can read silently."

"Oh, no, I have to hear myself read. That is how I understand it. I listen to the sound of the words."

Today she asked,"What does tingle mean?" How I feel when you talk, child.

"What does appreciate mean? Did you see that movie? I had a play date. I rented the movie with the subtitles. It is better that way. I like to learn big words. I need some more books to read."

"Don’t you ever stop talking? Don’t ever stop talking!"

She told her aide the other day, "I used to have a bad life, but now I have a good life."

She came to me today and said,"I am ready now to write about my life. I can do this myself. I remember what it was like. I didn’t know any English, I could not talk to anyone. I was very sad."

She still has meltdowns and sad days. Sometimes she curls up and pulls into herself and goes back to where you cannot reach her. She has her bad days, and she is angry.

She needs to tell her story and listen to her own voice speaking out loud. She is learning how to speak and listen and ask questions and be part of our world. She still needs that one person beside her, and one day, one year, but not now, she will be able to speak on her own.

Suzanne McCarthy teaches at Livingstone Elementary School, Vancouver.

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