M. Richard Horrell-Schmitz
As a teacher I have had many students over the years who have touched my heart. Few have had such an emotional impact on me as Janessa Sales.
Janessa was born hearing, like I was, and became deaf as a result of painful and traumatic cancer treatment—she nearly died of brain cancer—twice—by the time she was twelve. Day after day, week after week, month after month, she went to sleep wondering if it was the last time she would experience the world. She literally feared death daily as a child.
But she beat the odds. She beat the odds twice and established herself as a fighter, someone who could face anything, or so she thought. It turns out, though, that surviving cancer wasn’t the hardest battle she would face.
Janessa had been an auditory learner, a star student, a musician, a singer, a dancer; she was the quintessence of the hearing child. After taking a couple of years off of school to face the struggle of her life—the struggle for her life—she developed a severe to profound sensory neural hearing loss as a result of her cancer treatment. But her hearing loss, in and of itself, wasn’t as traumatic as her refusal to accept her new life. She spent the next four years trying to be hearing—trying to fix herself—trying to pretend to be what she once was.
I watched her struggle, and I cried for her. My heart broke for her as she became frustrated trying to lipread, trying to get anything out of hearing aids, and her FM system. Trying to be something she was not. She struggled, threw temper tantrums, had meltdowns and fell apart little by little each day.
This little now-seventeen-year-old had beaten cancer two times, been bald two times, been on national television two times, and had bounced back academically two times; but couldn’t beat back her inner demons that were making her feel she wasn’t whole. She just couldn’t get over what she had lost. The focus in her education, until last year when she came to my classroom, was always on auditory rehabilitation and speech. And she felt that she was constantly failing at this.
Last year she came to my DHH class—where the classroom policy is ASL at all times. She was lost, shocked, worried, and nervous about coming into this room. She didn’t know enough ASL, only some SEE signs, and had never socialized with Deaf people before. Some said that she should have an oral interpreter in my class so that she could have a bridge to learning ASL. Others said it was entirely the wrong placement. But Janessa and her mother, a very supportive, encouraging, and wonderful mother, were determined to learn how to be Deaf by total immersion. And so she entered her first Deaf Centered environment.
Janessa spent this last year not only learning ASL in the DHH room, but learning about her new culture, her history, her people. She started attending college level ASL classes in the evenings with her mother. Soon she started coming into the DHH room before school, at lunch, and hanging out with her Deaf peers more and more. The more she developed ASL abilities, the more “normal” she became. The more she developed her Deaf identity, the more her grades improved. She learned how to learn visually, no small task for someone who had always been an auditory learner.
Janessa learned a lot this year. She learned a lot about herself—learned that she doesn’t have to be hearing to be whole—that happiness and wholeness are found in one’s self—that a Deaf life can yield as much joy as a life in any other culture.
I look at Janessa now and I still cry for her. Not because her sorrow breaks my heart; not anymore. I cry tears of pride as I see her coming to her own understanding of Deafhood—she knows she is whole. With the support of her mother to learn ASL, and the support of her Deaf peers to include her, she is discovering her wholeness.
Gone are the tantrums, the meltdowns, the pretending to hear, the struggle to lipread. No more does she obsess about her FM.
Janessa still uses and enjoys her hearing aids. She has developed communication strategies with hearing friends, and she still enjoys music and aspects of her former hearing identity. But she has started on her Deafhood journey. No matter where that takes her, she will always have our community and our culture and our language with her.
I share this with you in the hopes that this story will be read by a hearing mother or father who doesn’t know what to do with her/his deaf child. Please understand that, though it seems foreign to you as a hearing person, entering the Deaf world is not “taking” anything from your child, but giving them access to a world of rich and wonderful language culture and support that they will thrive with. More importantly, take that journey WITH your child, like Janessa’s mother is. You will grow closer as your child grows to understand his/her Deaf identity. And your child will always treasure you for your willingness to step outside of your own presuppositional thinking and embark on this journey to Deafhood with him/her.