Boy With A Hearing Aid, 1962
I was the boy with a hearing aid in 1962 at Nicolas Junior High, eighth grade. I was born with a hearing loss that gradually got worse every once in a while. I needed hearing aids immediately at age 2 or 3, but they were too expensive for my family. I thought I could get along without them.
When I was twelve, in 1961, I could just barely get by and understand the gist of what people said. I probably missed 50% of conversation, or maybe more. That means 50% or more in class, too. I was afraid to wear my hearing aid, and afraid kids would laugh at me and make fun of me, or not want to be around me. So I put it off, but I felt guilty for not wearing my aid that cost my mom about $600 then.
My best friend was Jeff Nix, and his mom was a former school teacher. She urged me to wear my hearing aid because I was missing a lot. Still, I was stubborn and refused. I wanted to be a normal boy like anyone else.
One day in 1962 I wore my aid, though. Right after lunch, I had Music Appreciation with Mr. Dan MacKain, one of the best loved teachers at Nicolas. I enjoyed the class,
I always sat in front, but for some reason I didn’t that day. I was probably self-conscious about my hearing aid. I imagined it looked creepy and repulsive, and extended way off my head, which it didn’t. So I sat toward the back.
A boy I knew from Richman Elementary sat behind me. He was a good boy, but he was mischievous. That day he suddenly climbed up on his desk to reach for my ear and yanked my hearing aid off.
The aid flipped onto the floor and the battery popped out and rolled away. Fast as I could, I dived down and retrieved the aid, chased after the battery, hoped the aid wasn’t broken, put the battery back in, put the aid back in my ear, and resumed watching Mr. MacKain — all in 10 seconds,
I was really shook up. I never imagined someone would yank off my hearing aid. It seemed like kicking a cane away from a blind man, or knocking over somebody in a wheelchair. But the boy behind me laughed, and a few students around us laughed, too. I didn’t know how to react.
Thirty-seconds later, the boy did it again. Again I jumped down to get the aid and battery. Yes, it hurt my ear, too. Mostly I was humiliated and almost cried. Mr. McKain looked over while it happened, but didn’t do anything,
I know many of you would have slugged the other boy and fought him, but I wasn’t a boy to fight. He was way too small for me, anyway, and I would have looked like a big bully. I thought Mr. MacKain would discipline the boy, send him to the principal’s office, but he didn’t. Possibly he told the boy to stop doing that, but I don’t think so,
Now I’m a nervous wreck in class. I held my fingers over the hearing aid so the boy couldn’t do it again, and that muffled the microphone and sound pickup, and made the aid feed back. Kids looked at me because of the loud whining noise.
But that was all, and the boy didn’t yank my aid off again.
Now when you’re that young, or sometimes at any age, you take these experiences and they mean a lot to you. You sometimes worry about them and think about them so much they get exaggerated and huge in your memory. They shape your view of the world and how people behave. Unfortunately, I started to think my world was grossly unfair and boys could do that to me any time they wanted, with no discipline. That was a sad attitude to develop, and took me a long time to get over it.
The worst part was that nothing happened to the boy, and that left me feeling helpless. Helplessness and hopelessness are guaranteed to make you depressed, and I was.
I didn’t wear my hearing aid again until the first day at Sunny Hills. I had recently lost a little more hearing, and the audiologist told me my hearing wasn’t “serviceable “any more. That meant I could not get along without an aid any longer.
I was nervous and fearful, but my very first class at Sunny Hills was English 1, taught by Miss Lois Bernot. I quickly met Cynthia Byerrum first, then David Rechnitzer, Andy Fall, Matt Hacker, Stan Commons and a few others who became my friends. Within a week of two, I was hardly ever self-conscious about wearing my hearing aids again.
There was one boy in the class who was also in my PE class, where he made fun of my hearing loss in front of the other boys and mocked my deep voice. Well, you can’t win them all,
Years later, I found the boy from Mr. MacKain's class on Facebook and reminded him about what he did. He didn’t remember, and he seemed shocked about it. He apologized repeatedly over email, and I forgave him. I believe he didn’t mean any harm. Like a typical 12 year old boy, he was just goofing around. The kids who laughed didn’t really mean any harm, either, but you don’t realize that when you’re 12.
That’s the story, and I hope I described it so you could sense some of my humiliation, fear and frustration. I was a good student, a fair athlete and I had friends, but I wondered if I’d ever make anything of myself if things like that kept happening, and they did, of course. One bully on the street at Hill & Citrus one night grabbed my hearing aid as I rode my bike past and wouldn’t give it back for half an hour. Again, I didn’t want to get in 100 fights over this, get in trouble, lose my good reputation and maybe my two front teeth.
Fortunately, Sunny Hills went much, much better for me.
I realize other people have problems, too. I know they do. I counseled disabled collage students at Cal State Fullerton. I knew people with muscular dystrophy, blindness, diabetes mellitus, epilepsy, polio, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, brain damage, amputations, and all the rest. I understand, and I never thought I was ever the worst off, of even anywhere close.
We cannot compare disabilities or handicaps. We can’t say this one is worse than this other one. It’s meaningless to try. There are a thousand factors involved, including your personality, your family, your family support system, your capabilities and skills, your family income, your experiences, what the disability happens to be, and many more. We are truly unique, each one of us.
Now one or two classmates have reminded me that there is another guy in my Class of 1967 who also has a serious hearing loss, and told me I should be like him, be more mellow and accepting. That is one of there worst things you can do to someone who is disabled in any way. It’s presumptuous and rude. It’s like telling someone how to raise his children.
The other guy is an old friend of mine. Our hearing losses are quite different, including intensity. I studied audiology. No two hearing losses are exactly alike. We respond to them differently. People have been insensitive and crude enough to tell me I should have a better attitude about my hearing loss, and be more like another person, and do this or do that.
Please take my story exactly as it tell it, the truth. I don’t blame the boy who sat behind me or Mr. MacKain. It just happened. It could have happened to any one of you if you’d been in my shoes.Maybe my story can help us understand people better.
Please don’t feel sorry for me, or look at me differently, and I’m not asking for your compassion or sorrow or tears. I wrote about this incident to express what it’s like and how it feels, and how it shapes a person’s life.
Yes, maybe some of you might have handled it differently, and better. Some of you have much better social skills than I do. That’s not the point, though.
Finally, I have been thinking about Nicolas lately, and because my friends now are still learning that I’m totally deaf, it seemed like the right time.
What do you think?
Let me tell one more true story that seems appropriate. When I worked at Cal State, I helped handicapped students take their tests and exams. Many of them couldn’t get to a classroom, or hold pens and mark answer sheets.
One student I helped that way was a thirty-five year old lady with severe cerebral palsy. She lived in a board and care facility, and a small van dropped her off at the college every morning. She had an old, beat up wheelchair she used as a walker, and it took her a long time to get around. We would see her in the distance from our office, and fifteen minutes later she would come in the door.
She couldn’t speak intelligibly, like many with cerebral palsy. I admit now that I was uncomfortable around her then. She wore old worn-out Goodwill Store cotton dresses, just one or two, and she was thin, as if she hardly got enough to eat. She was also extremely intelligent, and got A’s on all her tests.
I’d read each multiple choice answer and she would pick the one she thought was correct. She moved her head and made a groaning sound to let me know.
I admired her courage and determination, and with age and experience, I admire her more now. I could kick myself for not inviting her to lunch every week, just so she would have a social friend and I’d have a new friend. It would have been so easy for me, and it would have been wonderful. I guess I was a chicken, and I wish I could make it up to her now.
So there you are. Two stories about disability and how they affect human lives.
Thanks for reading. I know many of you are hard of hearing now, so you know some of what I’m talking about. If you’d like to hear more about my own experience, let me know. — Paul.