Thursday, June 22, 2006

Finding voice

She came to our school at the age of 10, severely hearing impaired, with the English vocabulary of a 2 year old. She had only been in Canada for 2 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. She did not respond to speech, but allowed a touch. She followed her twin sister through the hallways on arrival, at lunch and after school. Trailing behind, she made sure she did not get left behind, she had no way to ask directions.

I phoned the last school and they told me that she was a very ‘difficult’ child, and ‘would not stop crying in spite of all their reproofs’.

"She would not behave properly and was a very noncompliant student!"

We passed her from teacher to teacher - the one who hugged her, the one that held her on her lap and relieved her sensory deprivation for a little time every day, the one who created a huge mural of colour that she helped design, and the one who got out the dressup clothes, the script, the play, the music and the dance.

She was the main actor, and learned to recite a few lines. Her dramatic body language spoke to us all, but at the end she collapsed in tears. She could be part of the group but she could not understand a single word.

Her 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. This was no ordinary child.

We advocated and fought for her, finally getting 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 never 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 started ‘cued speech’, lipreading instruction, speech therapy, computerized vocabulary and story programs.

But most of all, we required feedback for every interaction, all day long. She became the toddler that spends all day with a mother, asking a million questions.

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 4 legs?”

“Is a cat soft?”

Over and over and over, she asked the same questions, never tiring of the fact that she could elicit a response, and make contact with a world that had been forever on the outside of her own consciousness.

“Is your dog big?”

Then one day she heard someone sneeze.

“What is that?”

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 report to me the utterances that she had identified. She heard someone say that they had to ‘go pee’, she heard someone call someone else ‘stupid’, she heard someone swear, then she heard a school announcement.

One day she heard a joke! She even realized before the end of the year that the teacher at the front of the room was saying something.

She listened to stories on the computer, Little Bear, Goldilocks, 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. One adult after another moved in and out of her life, wreaking havoc, depression, and tantrums. But finally we were able to get that one right person to go with her through the day, with cued speech, 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 over and over, the same every day for weeks.

She called my name and like magic my head came up and I looked at her. It was like she had a magic wand that she waved over me to make me see her. Then she knew that she existed to other people not just herself.

Now she can read and write and talk and play. Sometimes still she falls into the old habits and sits and lets the world go by. But that is very rare. She dances, and does gymnastics, and draws cartoons, books full of cartoons filled with dialogue.

She was reading out loud all through the reading test and I said,

“That’s okay, 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, have you been to China? Did you see that movie? What are you doing this summer? I had a playdate. I rented the movie with the subtitles, just like you said. It is better that way. I passed my math test. I got the best mark in social studies, I like to learn big words. What are you doing? Can I watch you? 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 remember what it was like. I didn’t know any English, I could not talk to anyone. I was very sad. I will start to write about it. I can do this myself.”

Sometimes still she has her meltdowns, and her 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.

Why shouldn’t she be angry? She had a bad life.

She needs to tell her story and listen to her own voice speaking out loud. She has yet to experience being 5 years old and six and seven. But 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.

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