Half a Sense to Learn

“You get two for the price of one!” a friend said when he saw I only needed one earplug to watch the Blue Angels fly over the Naval Air Station in Pensacola. I had rolled my eyes and laughed.
My unilateral hearing loss was the result of spinal meningitis at the age of six. I like to think I am in good company, as in George Bailey of “It’s a Wonderful Life”, who lost all hearing in his left ear saving his brother’s life. However, my hearing loss might possibly have saved my own life. I graduated from high school in the summer of 1999, two years before 9/11. I’d tried to go into the Navy as an officer (being a Navy brat). I certainly had the grades, and it had been my dream since freshman year. My mother had assumed that with my grades, they would make an exception.
They did not.
I liked to think my hearing loss made me special, rather than impaired. I preferred to look at the glass as half full, rather than the opposite. There were times I did use it to my advantage, like if my parents told me to do something, I could pretend I hadn’t heard (usually, it was because I forgot), and if they were watching a football game, I sleep on my hearing side to muffle their screaming at the television.
Kids are resilient, but however, as I grew older, I began to see that I had a hard time catching everything my teachers said. I had an algebra teacher who only verbally told us our homework assignments rather than write them on the board; when I told her I needed her to write them down for me, she said I should write them down myself. She was from the North and spoke too fast, so her words often ran together. Sometimes her back would be turned as she spoke, leaving me lost. I would often be treated as a “special needs” student when there was nothing wrong with my mind (except for when it came to algebra).
My single-sided deafness profoundly changed my life. I never learned to ride a bike without training wheels, and I never could balance on skates, because my equilibrium was thrown off. I have often almost tripped over my daughter because she has snuck up on my left side, and been frightened when someone I know comes up to me from behind.
I could never work the drive-through when I was a teenager, because I couldn’t hear my manager speaking to me at the same time orders were coming in, and so I stuck to waitressing. However, not being able to be cross-trained made me less valuable to the company, which equated in less hours.
I am a college student now, and take mostly online classes, because I can see the teachers’ notes, rather than try to look at their lips and down at my paper at the same time. When I was in high school where the kids tended to be loud, I had a hard time filtering the teacher’s voice from the din of the students.
When I got a job at a call center, I had too hard of a time understanding the people on the phone; when I asked if I could get transferred to chat, so I could see the conversation (as I was much better at deciphering misspelled words than I was with dialects), they said I needed at least a year’s experience, and so I had to take a lesser-paying job as a cashier.
When I watch British films, I have to have closed-captions on; I get more out of foreign films because of the subtitles as the background music in American movies drowns out the dialogue for me. Perhaps my deafness is why I am such an avid reader, and not as much of a music listener, even though I love music. I have never even been to a concert, because my other ear is so sensitive, it cannot handle the loudness.
My hearing difficulties have caused spousal miscommunication. There have been many times I haven’t heard, or rather, did not understood my husband. Nothing makes me angrier than him saying, “Never mind, it wasn’t important”, when I have asked him to repeat himself for the third time. There have also been times I have misheard what he said, which has led to arguments. I think that sometimes, because I don’t hear everything, I try to overcompensate by “hearing” between the lines.
I have missed out on so much—bits of conversation, punchlines to jokes—I wonder how many times my husband has said, “I love you”, when my eyes are closed. He sleeps on the right, and so I have to either not face him to hear him, or face him and prop my head up.
That said, I’ve often thought having a lesser sense has made my other senses more acute. I can see nuances in colors my family cannot. I can taste an herb in a soup no one else picks up on, and just a whiff of someone’s cologne gives me instant recall to the wearer. Yet, a part of me would trade it all in, just to have complete hearing, to be able to find someone who is calling me in a crowded room.
I was never given intervention, but just told to deal with it, and given examples of totally-deaf people who had beaten the odds. I was simply expected to try harder. It is amazing I graduated from high school with a 3.49 G.P.A.
However, I allowed my fear of not being able to pass College Algebra keep me from finishing college. I’ll have help this time around. And this summer, for the first time in over twenty years, I will try to learn how to ride a bike. (This time, without the training wheels.)

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