I'M DEAF. MY being deaf seems to be significant to other people. "Why do you speak like that?" This question has recurred throughout my life: usually explosively from the mouths of small children unable to contain the excitement of their curiosity, but sometimes expressed with a flicker of puzzlement across an adult's brow.
"What can you hear?" is usually the companion question. Without my hearing aid, if I am concentrating and if the sounds are made loudly, I am aware of those sounds at the deeper end of the scale. Sometimes, it's not so much that I can actually hear them, it's more that I know that those sounds are happening. My aural memory of the deep-register sounds helps me to "hear" them, much like the recollection of any tune replays itself in your imagination.
With or without my hearing aids, if I am not watching the source of those sounds – for example, if the sounds are taking place in another room or even just behind me – I am not immediately able to distinguish whether the sounds are conversational or musical or happy or angry. I can only discriminate once I've established the rhythm of the sounds; if the rhythm is at a tearing, jagged pace with an exaggerated rise and fall in the volume, I might reasonably assume that angry words are being said.
I cannot hear high-pitched sounds at all, with or without my hearing aid. So I cannot hear sibilants like "c", "s" and "z". I cannot hear those sounds that bounce or puff off from the lips, such as the letters "b" and "p". I cannot hear the sound that trampolines from the press of your tongue against the back of your front teeth, the letter "t". With a hearing aid, I can hear and discriminate among the braying, heehawing, lilting, oohing and twanging sounds of the vowels ... but only if I am concentrating, and only if I am also watching the source of the sounds. Without my hearing aid, I might also hear sharp and sudden sounds like the clap of hands or crash of plates, depending on the volume of the noise. But I can't hear the ring of the telephone or the chime of the doorbell or the urgent siren of an ambulance speeding down the street. My hearing aid helps me to hear some of these sounds.
The cause of my deafness is unknown, although there was a rubella epidemic at the time of my birth. Also, my mother apparently had the flu accompanied by a very high temperature during pregnancy but a causal link has never been confirmed. The mystery remains.
SOME YEARS AGO, in confronting the impact of work on my health, I was pushed into contemplating the impact of being deaf on my life. I was struggling with my work and I wanted advice about how to manage my stress, so I went to see a psychologist. He was a softly spoken man, too softly spoken for my liking. I strained to hear him. Lip-reading – my fall-back position – was out of the question because he had an untidy beard fluffing up around his mouth and blurring the outlines of his words. It was like reading fading print: I could just make out the occasional vowel, but was that a "p" or a "b"? I couldn't quite see. Anyway, this psychologist took my history. He wrote a lot, looking up at me regularly from his concentration on the spiral notebook on his lap. I told him stories of long hours, of impossible deadlines, of coming out in strange red-striped welts all over my body. I told him stories of lying in bed at two o'clock in the morning, wondering whether the intense shooting pain down my left arm presaged a heart attack or whether I'd just slept on it crookedly.
I told my stories quickly, in a matter-of-fact tone of voice, because I didn't want to appear as though I was feeling sorry for myself, and I looked across the room at him, waiting for him to respond to my anxiety, to take the heaviness and fatigue out of my body. I watched his reactions carefully. I regarded him as an oracle.
But I was not rewarded with the relief of revelation. Instead, I was mystified by his response. I thought perhaps I hadn't heard him properly. Which was ironic as it turned out, because his response was a question, a statement offered in the tone of a rising inflection: "Your hearing loss must have had a big impact on you?" I looked at my hands resting on my lap. They were tightly clasped together; I stretched and flexed my fingers to release some of the tension. I looked down at the carpet. I could see dust motes hanging in the air. An arrow of sunshine lit a pathway between me and the psychologist. I looked back at him. I didn't want to offend him. "Hmm, not really ... perhaps?" Short silence; clearing of my throat. "Hmm, what was the question again?"
"Your deafness. It must surely have had a profound impact on you as you were growing up." No rising inflection this time. A declamatory statement, the force of it mercifully muffled by that fluffy beard. I thought a bit. I wanted to deflect his attention away from this line of inquiry. I didn't get it: why was he asking about my deafness? After all, I thought, being deaf was just part of who I was.
Certainly, I've had a different life from others in some ways, but the differences arising from my deafness do not seem to be particularly great or exceptional. I could whittle them down to a few things: I wear a hearing aid (sometimes I wear two when I really want to hear – for example, at meetings); I went to a school for the deaf from when I was about three years old until I was eight years old; I've had to make adjustments from time to time, for example, when I transferred from the deaf school to a "normal hearing" school; I sit towards the front of cinemas and conferences to make sure I can see to hear; I dislike dim lighting – whether it's in a restaurant or on a friend's back deck – because I can't see what my companions are saying. And that's about it really. That's what I thought.
But I decided to agree with him. "Oh yes, a big impact. Hmmph ..." I ran out of puff after this gesture of agreement because I couldn't think of anything else to say that the psychologist might like to hear, but it was the right tack to take because he dropped the subject then. We spent the remaining ten minutes tossing around ideas for managing my stress. He told me that it would be good if I could go for a walk each morning to "clear my head". I smiled at him. He looked more cheerful and hopeful when I smiled. He looked like a man who had the satisfaction of knowing he'd done a good job.
STILL, I WONDERED why I had felt so jarred by the psychologist's certainty. My reflections on my deafness were rekindled later on when I needed a suitcase suitable to take on a holiday to Ireland and England. I went to my mum's home to see what she had. I was full of anticipation, looking forward to my brief adventure. My head was full of possibilities. I felt myself filling up with new and as yet unlived stories.
I was in this mood when my mother called out to me: "Look at this!" She sounded excited. She'd stumbled across an old Globite school case. It was dark brown, cardboardy in texture, with faded green and orange stripes down one side. Just looking at its surface, I could sense mysteries hidden within its archival mustiness. She said: "I'd forgotten all about this. I've kept your old things in here." She opened the school case and the air swirled with the clamour of noise and the smells of my girlhood years. Or so it seemed.
I looked down at my childhood paintings forming the top layer of this archaeological site. My mother started rummaging, pushing things aside and holding up other things for me to see. Here was my Grade 2 catechism project book. And there was an exercise book – with the legend inscribed on the front: "The Department of Public Instruction" – from my days at the deaf school.
I riffled through the pages and could remember, could smell, my school days. I could smell the Clag glue, the purple dye of the roneo stencilling machine, the plastic bowls with apples diced up in small, discoloured pieces swimming in orange juice and the dust of the white chalk. And I could see Mr Pritchard standing tall at the blackboard in front of his class of twelve children, teaching the story of Androcles and the lion. I remembered how my very best friend, Sharon, and I felt sad for the lion. We had to write out his story. And there it was in my exercise pad. I wanted to dive into that Globite school case and sink into its bed of memories.
When I was a little girl with wispy hair tied in two bunches, I wanted to write books. One afternoon, I gathered together some sheets of paper, packed them into a neat block on the top of my chenille-covered bed, knelt by the edge of the bed and started to write. I gripped my HB pencil in my right hand and gouged out a title: My Stories. But I could go no further. Despite the urge to transpose into writing those sounds that I was learning to read, I felt a silence well up within me. I was unable to translate the pictures I saw on my mind's screen into word images on the page before me.
Sometimes, I wonder if my love of words – the need to taste them on my tongue and to see them rounded out on paper – has its origins in the chamber of silence that I must have lived in during the first three years of my life, before my deafness was diagnosed. I was born deaf in the mid-1950s, an era when such things mattered, when parents were still being advised either to place a child with a disability in an institution or to accept a future of limited possibilities for that child.
A short woman with a broad smile and green eyes that hint at secrets she would be willing to share in exchange for a laugh and a cigarette, my mother has never volunteered much to me about what it was like to be the mother of a deaf child at that time, to be part of a pioneering group of mothers who placed their children in an oral-education program intended to teach deaf children to speak their words out aloud rather than to sign them silently – but so expressively – with their hands. She doesn't give herself the luxury of reflection: she simply saw she had a job to do and, like the country-born woman that she is, she just got on with it.
My mother thinks it is a miracle that I can speak, that I can take my place in the hearing world. She concedes that this miracle lacks the lightness of grace because it was wrought from effort and courage – hers in setting the pace, mine in staying the course.
When I was just an infant, she traipsed around town from specialist to specialist seeking out an explanation for my lack of speech. Once or twice, she was told that I was "mentally handicapped" or "just slow". She knew with all the sureness of a mother's heart that this was simply wrong. She could not reconcile this verdict with what she saw in me each day: my alertness, my evident ability to read her moods and my world from even the most subtle visual cues. My mother was defiant about this. Once, a woman on a tram recoiled from my grunting, mewling antics and asked: "Is she retarded?" Holding me close to her, Mum replied: "No. Are you?" I can imagine her taut face, her eyes daring the woman, a stranger to her, to speak again.
She watched me more closely, and saw my own watchfulness was focused on the movements of her body. She did little tests. One day, as she was hanging out the washing and I was playing around her feet, she dropped a peg from the laundry basket onto the lawn, stood still and said: "Donna, pick up the peg." I didn't react. She pointed then to the peg, repeating her words, and I hurried over to pick it up for her, putting it in her outstretched hand. Another time, standing still at the kitchen doorway, she called out to me: "We're going to the shops now, Donna." Again, I was unmoved. But as she approached me with her handbag, I stirred with the excitement of knowledge: an excursion to the shops was clearly about to take place. And so evidence of a sort mounted up: I knew how to comprehend my world but I couldn't hear and I couldn't speak.
She found out about the Commonwealth Acoustics Laboratory (now Australian Hearing Services) and organised an appointment for me. After I completed a battery of auditory tests, my mum was given a new appointment time to return with me so that I could have a hearing aid fitted. This was a small metal box, to be worn in a harness around my body, with a long looping plastic cord connected to a beige ear mould. An instrument for piercing silence, it absorbed and conveyed sounds, with those sounds eventually separating themselves out into patterns of words and finally into strings of sentences.
I'VE GOT A handful of photos taken when I was a child at the deaf school. I've stored them in a plastic sleeve. The photos present themselves as riddles to me. I like to take them out every now and then and shake them out as if they're a deck of cards and scatter them across my desk and look down at them, aware of the inevitable tug of nostalgia, but aware too of another feeling, a sadness of sorts, which I try to understand each time I experience it.
Some of the photos look as though they were snapped spontaneously; others have the formal look of professional portraits, having been taken for public-relations purposes to promote the deaf school. These public relations photos were taken at the preschool for the deaf at Yeronga, a riverside suburb in Brisbane. They include portraits of the bungalow-style school, the bus that was used to transport the infants to and from the school, teachers at work, infants wearing outsized headphones sitting in front of microphones and, finally, one of a young teacher kneeling by a sleeping child on a day bed. She has one hand protectively on the child's back, as if she is patting her in that same rhythmic tom-tom pattern mothers use with their babies.
Then there is a black and white class photo: the class of '62. I would have been seven years old then. I'm positioned in the middle of a group of seven children – five girls and two boys. Five of us are sitting on a brick garden wall, our legs swinging above the ground, our hands in our laps uniformly posed – right hand resting on top of the left. The two tallest girls in the class are standing sentry-like, clasping their hands, at the opposite ends of the group. We are not looking directly into the camera. Instead, our eyes are turned to something or someone beyond the left border of the picture. What lay outside that frame? It must have been winter because we are all wearing pullovers, their dark colours providing the background texture for the long looping cords of our metal-box hearing aids.
When I look at these photos, I feel tender towards these children. Without exception, all our faces reveal undercurrents of bewilderment, as if we are aware that something is missing but we are not sure what the missing thing is. We certainly didn't know we were missing sound, because we didn't experience the absence of hearing as a loss. Our worlds were complete: we didn't yearn to hear; we weren't wracked by grief or alarm or dismay because we couldn't hear; we didn't see ourselves as wanting or different in any way at all. I felt safe at that school where, for five years, in my grey uniform with maroon trim, I was taught how to listen, to watch lips and to talk.
Actually, the deaf school was not one school. It was three separate schools. There was the preschool for the deaf at Yeronga where I first went and was taught through play with water bubbles and much huffing and puffing on balloons the very existence of sounds with meaning. In the next suburb, Annerley, was the school for the deaf and blind. This was off limits to me, except for the annual sports day – an event fraught with farce and confusion, pairing deaf children with blind children for three-legged races and egg-and-spoon races. The deaf children at the "big school" signed according to the established traditions. And then there was the oral deaf school. This was the small school I later attended: it was pioneering an education curriculum designed to teach deaf children to speak, not through the dance of their hands, but through the effort of explosive vowels forced up through their sparrow-small chests and throats, and puffy, burring, hissing consonants shaped by their tongues and lips.
Located in the former home of a prominent local family, it was a red-brown brick Tudor-style home with mullioned windows and many rooms, set in terraced gardens and green lawns. It stood like a welcoming beacon on the top of a hill on Gladstone Road, Dutton Park. Some of the rooms in which we were taught were originally bedrooms, but one classroom must originally have been the lounge room. It was huge, with a rocking horse presiding in the shelter of a bay window. Downstairs was a large area where we had dancing classes, taking our turns to balance on top of Mr Pritchard's shiny black shoes, grasping his fingers as he glided across the floor talking to us all the while, trying to infuse in our emerging word-forced voices the motions of swinging and swelling, the tides of sound's rise and fall.
I loved all my teachers. I can remember their names, remember their faces. I can even remember aspects of their personalities which distinguished one from the other: Miss Nola Rumble, her name so oddly appropriate for a teacher of deaf children, with her white-blonde hair; Miss Clare Minchin who was elfin with blue stars for eyes; Miss Maryanne Casey, sweet and gentle, whose wedding we attended; Mrs Mason who insisted on my learning to say the "ess" sound. The more she persisted, the more I resisted. I was just not interested. It was too hard.
Mr Pritchard was my last teacher at the deaf school; he went on to become a religious minister. He sketched in my brand new autograph book, in yellows and blues, the outline of a beach and sky and water and wrote about the grains of sand on the beach. It was an allegory of sorts, about God. I didn't understand the words but knew all the same that the meaning was designed to be encouraging. Mr Pritchard was the person who first introduced me to philosophy. He said to me: "It's what you know about yourself that matters, not what other people think." He meant that I needed to be guided by my own conscience, my own beliefs. My mother had a similar philosophy, only she called it "running your own race".
THE MORE I looked at those photos of my deaf-school days, the greater was the distance that I felt that I had travelled since then. By some process of alchemy, I'd been transformed from a deaf child sequestered in a school exclusively shared with other deaf children into a woman who, though still deaf, lives and works and dreams in a world in which all her friends and colleagues can hear sounds unaided. I wondered how this had happened. I wanted to know more about my teachers from those days. Would they be able to explain this transformation? I decided to spy on my childhood.
"What was I like? Can you remember?" I asked Maryanne Kelly, the infant-school teacher whom I'd known as "Miss Casey", 42 years and a lunchtime after the last time we'd seen each other.
I'd arranged to meet with her to probe her memories about what the deaf school was like "back then". I'd always known how to contact her because her mother lived around the corner from my mother. The two mothers had combined to act as a lightning rod for news of us over the years: I knew about Mrs Kelly's four children and many grandchildren; she knew the vagaries of my career. Even so, I was a little nervous about seeing her. I didn't want to impose on her for news from another time. I had already spoken briefly on the phone with her, to organise the meeting, and she had sounded nervous, too: "I'm not sure what I'll remember. What if I can't remember what you want to know?"
I drove to her home where we greeted each other with affection and awe, because there we were, together in her dining room overlooking Moreton Bay, after all these years. The small girl in me recognised the young teacher with the gentle smile in the still-youthful grandmother standing before me.
Our conversation flowed easily, leapfrogging from topic to topic in no special order. Maryanne's curiosity meant that some of the jumps in conversation were random and unpredictable, sometimes halting me in my mind tracks so that I could take the necessary swerve to follow her course of thinking. Her husband, Tony, enjoyed the occasion too, encouraging Maryanne with this story and that anecdote. "Tell about how you ..." he prompted her at intervals.
Several things became apparent: her dedication to her vocation; the playfulness she brought to her teaching; her prescience in suspecting that oralism was being forced with zealotry upon deaf children whether it was suitable for them or not. Maryanne's retelling of her teaching days revealed a strength of emotion that may even have surprised her.
She remembered all our names, our hearing histories, our idiosyncrasies, our temperaments. She remembered our parents' ambitions for us. Her remembering was not only sharp and clear, it was also filled with warmth and humour, but most of all with a continuing concern for us all. She was still worried about one of my classmates: "Oralism wasn't suitable for her. She was just so profoundly deaf. We couldn't get the pitch of her voice down, no matter what we did. I don't know what happens to such children now. What happens to them? Oh! And the dancing lessons!" She leant towards me in laughter at that memory. It made her happy; her mood shifted. She described how much we liked to dance, to feel the vibrations of the floorboards beneath our feet as we moved up and down in time to music we could not hear.
Those days had a big impact on her. She had not expected to be a teacher of little deaf children without language: her ambition at teachers' college had been to teach literature to high-school students. But she went where the Education Department sent her. The first few weeks were terrible she said: "The noise! I couldn't bear the noise. All that slamming of desks and loud voices and stamping feet ..." I was taken aback. I said: "I don't remember any noise at all. I just remember the calm of it all." We looked at each other in surprise and renewed comprehension of our different starting points – she hears, I don't.
Maryanne showed me the wedding photo of her with us, the class of '61, and laughed when I showed her that I'd brought the same photo with me, along with some others. She fell about at a class photo of us dressed as fairies and elves. "Just look at you!" And at the one in which my hair is cut freakishly short: "I'd cut my plaits off the day before," I explained. "That's right! That's exactly the sort of thing you did!" she laughed. Her merriment was infectious. "And what was I like?" I asked.
"You! You were so vibrant! You were full of life; so keen. You just loved everything. You were just such a happy little child." She paused. "You were right out there. Everyone gathered around you. It must have been a real wrench changing schools, going from the security of a small loving group to such a big school." She looked at me. I agreed, briefly recounting how I took several years to stop missing Sharon, my best friend.
I asked her what she thought about oralism, the method – or rather, a group of methods – of education that emphasises spoken communication rather than signed language. "Well, you were the success story," she smiled. "Actually, you were the success story of oralism," she repeated, her frowning emphasis hinting at some misgivings. "No doubt about that. Really, it just doesn't suit so many deaf children." Maryanne recalled how the teachers back then basically muddled through as best they could. They were pioneering an approach that they knew little about and for which they received only limited specialist training or support. At the same time, they were required to teach the regular academic education curriculum, sorting out for themselves how to get such information into the profoundly, severely, moderately and mildly deaf children ranged before them.
Back then – and this is possibly just as true today – it seems that the quality of children's education lay as much in the strength of their teachers' commitment towards their charges as it did in the soundness or otherwise of a particular educational approach. Oralism had its fans and its critics: the true believers considered it to be the only option if deaf children were to take their full place in the hearing world; the opponents regarded it variously as a form of cultural imperialism or as simply unrealistic, demanding too much of the deaf child and too much of that child's family. It eventually gave way in the late 1960s to the next educational trend, "total communication", in which the child chose to sign, speak or do a combination of both.
I left my meeting with Maryanne Kelly feeling overwhelmed. My emotions were in tumult. I was stunned by my good luck. I was lucky to have been in the right classroom – her classroom – at the right time; and I was relieved to have been granted the opportunity to talk with her after all these years. I began to sense that the absence of hearing in my life had been – and still is – filled not just by sound, but by the love, care and attention of many people.
I experienced this again some weeks later when I met with Miss Clare Minchin, my infant-school teacher whom I had remembered as having blue stars for eyes. She met me at the front door of her home, the sounds of classical music swelling from the lounge room behind her. Age had not dimmed her: the light still shone from her eyes. She greeted me with a question: "Can you hear this music? Isn't it absolutely wonderful?" I felt the same tug of surprise that I had experienced when Maryanne described her memories of the noise of the deaf school. My memories of Miss Minchin were limited to her teaching me the fundamentals of sound; that she enjoyed the fullness of sound in all its musicality had never occurred to me.
Like Maryanne Kelly, she remembered the children in my class at the oral deaf school with affection. And she, too, conveyed a strong sense of custodianship towards her classrooms of deaf children. She was moved by the responsibility of it all: she saw the task of teaching children even the minimum of speech as being essential for their personal safety and needs.
But, rather than talk about her memories of those days, Clare Minchin was keen to share her knowledge about oral deaf education. She had been sent to Manchester University in England by the Oral Deaf Pre-School Association in the early to mid-1950s to learn about the latest teaching methods. She returned to Brisbane bearing the trophy of specialist knowledge on oralism and now she wanted to transfer to me the excitement of that knowledge. She had loved teaching "the little deaf children". She was passionate about it, and even now, is still immersed in the detail of it. When I commented on Mrs Mason's failed efforts to teach me the "ess" sound, she leapt at the opportunity to teach me anew: "Can you do an 'ess' now? Do you know what an 'ess' is? It's the thin line, the very thin air. 'Sshh' is the broad air. Well, 'ess' is the thin air," and shaped her lips to show me. "Thin air," she repeated. I promised to practise in front of the mirror back home.
I asked Clare why she thought I had succeeded in the oral-deaf education system while some others had not. She was quick to answer. It was a question for which she knew the answer from a lifetime's vocation in teaching. "Deafness for some people doesn't impede a lot, but for some, depending on their degree of deafness and their ability to lip-read, well, it's harder. Yes, it's harder." She paused. "I'll give you what I think about lip-reading." She pointed towards a window. "If we look outside and see a tree, and three people sit in the same position and draw what they see is the tree, they'll each draw it differently. The first one will sort of draw a stick type of tree, like a child. The next one will do better, perhaps put some leaves on it, a bit more detail. But the third one is an artist and draws it properly, draws it so you know what it looks like – unless of course he's a modernist, a Picasso! Right."
She stopped to catch her breath. She wanted to be sure that I understood her point. "So what happens with artists is this: their eyes see, their brain tells their hands what to do, how to do it. Right. Lip-reading: your eyes see to tell your brain to copy those lip movements. There's not much difference, is there? Between eyes seeing the tree and the hand drawing it, or eyes seeing the lips and the brain copying the shapes." She leant back into her chair. "But look, that's only my theory. I'm not an expert on this. Not at all. That's just my interpretation of why some deaf people have the ability to talk in the hearing world."
Clare Minchin's conceptualisation of lip-reading as an art rather than a science makes sense. I am aware of the creativity associated with the task of lip-reading. After all, I do not actually see or read every single syllable enunciated to me. I spend much energy guessing what is being said by filling in any missing information through drawing on the circumstances of the conversation. Many words have different meanings in different contexts and I need to pick my way through this web of word trickery. My mother remembers an early childhood example of my comprehension in understanding the elasticity of words when she said to me once, "We'll have to catch a bus." I looked surprised and then scooped the air with my cupped hands, laughing, "catch a ball!" I scooped the air again, shouting, "catch a bus!"
Clare expanded on her theory. She explained that this sense of artistry needs to be supported by a sense of confidence. Unless a deaf child feels confident enough to ask a new hearing friend to repeat what they have said, or to remind a teacher to face the classroom when they are speaking, then that deaf child is unlikely to succeed in oral integrated or mainstream education. "That's why you did well," she said.
I sensed an undercurrent of wistfulness in Clare: she wanted every deaf child to benefit from oralism just as I had done. She was a "true believer", and she saw that the hard choices made on my behalf all those years ago by my parents and teachers had reaped significant benefits for me throughout my life, particularly in expanding my education and work opportunities. Still, her insights about the artistry and confidence required to succeed in oralism sounded a warning bell: if it takes a village to raise a child, then a child's destiny must also hinge on the plurality of educational choices and family and friendship support available to her.
AS A CHILD, I was like a mirror. Unaware of my difference, I reflected back to my family an image capable of being shaped by their love and attention. I was a child without knowledge, without speech. I was immersed in my world of noiseless senses: my life's task was simply to "be". During those early years, I was variously coaxed, dragooned and persuaded into the world of hearing. I was introduced to a world of bubbles, balloons and fingers placed on lips to learn the shape and feel of sounds, their push and pull of air through tongue and lips. The words came later, much later.
You might imagine that this was a lot of hard work, but I only recall it as play. The hard work was done by others: by my mother, my teachers.
It was only when I went to All Hallows, an inner-city girls' college that had agreed to take me despite their reservations that I began to experience the concept of hard work. On the first day of my new life, one in which I would effectively be divorced from the deaf world, I stared at myself in my bedroom mirror. My sister, Cecily, stood beside me, sharing the appraisal.
My new conformity required a martial brown uniform with box pleats and more buttons than anyone could possibly need. My eyes, though, were drawn to my hair. My mother had pulled it tightly back off my face into a ponytail, revealing my hearing aid with its pink cord looping its way from my left ear to inside the collar of my uniform down to the bulge near my waist. The box of sound pressed warmly against my flesh, the up-down volume button rustling against the cloth of my uniform. I leant forward and tried to loosen my hair so that it covered my ears; no, the band was fastened too securely. Cecily chewed her bottom lip in sympathy.
My mother came back into the room. "Mum, it's too tight, my ears stick out." I pulled again at the ribbons, mussing up my hair. But my mother bent down and imprisoned my hands in her grasp. "Leave it. Let everyone see your beautiful ears." She wanted to send me off to my new school with the rhythm of bravado in my footsteps: I was deaf; I wore a hearing aid; that was that. I felt doubtful. I wasn't sure that I liked this approach. I wanted my hair falling loose, the way it had been before.
Still, I took on the job of interpreting the whirl of sounds around me in the classroom and playground, my teachers and classmates swinging from face-contorting exaggerated clarity of speech to forgetting to face me so that I could "see" what was being said. I worked hard at being "normal", to be invisible inside the wider group around me. I tried to blend into the landscape of the school playground. After a while, I began to collect new names to remember: Susan, Deborah, Maria. These girls enjoyed my quietness and the intensity of my gaze on their faces. They mistook this for a fascination with their conversation, not knowing my fatigue from the effort of comprehending quick words, of catching sentences slipped through murmuring lips, of watching for nuances of impatience when I missed their meaning. My smiles disguised my lapses of concentration.
"Why can't you speak properly? Why can't you say "ess"? Why can't you sit with me at the back of the class? Why can't, why not, why...?" I grew used to the rhythms of my new classmates' questions. I cried at first, my voice breaking: "They ask me all the time!" My mother was brisk. She adopted a no-nonsense approach: "Just answer them, just tell them. They aren't being unkind, they just want to know, that's all." She taught me to answer questions about my deafness as directly as possible. In any case, I discovered the more fully I answered the questions, the more quickly the questions died away. I came to accept my classmates' ignorance, I understood that they couldn't help not knowing about being deaf. It wasn't their fault.
Once though, I was thrown: "Tell me, why can't you hear? Did you do something wrong?" The words seemed to echo: "Something wrong." I felt clammy and breathless. I looked back at the girl, searching her face for cruelty, for torment, but saw only a freckled face knotted with puzzlement. I coughed, trying to catch my breath. "I was just born that way. I was born deaf. You know, I was just born," stumbling now, "not to hear." The last words felt clumsy in my mouth, taking up too much room, stretching my lips unnaturally. I backed away from the freckled face, willing it to dissolve. "I didn't do anything wrong," I said, my voice faltering. "There's nothing wrong." Even as I repeated the words, I felt queasy. I wasn't sure.
I longed for the carefully spaced words of my old teachers; I missed the theatre of my conversations with my old friends, their faces lively with meaning and their hands gesturing the story when their words could not. I was school-sick: I didn't want to learn any more new names; I liked the old ones: Sharon, Matthew, Kay. I wondered when I would be able to go back to my old school. I wasn't sure how long I was going to be at this new school. I did not want to ask my mother. Such a simple direct question seemed beyond my grasp.
Even a year after I started at my new school, when I was nine years old and in Grade 4, I sometimes stood at the chain wire fence bordering the playgrounds, imagining that I could see across the muddy river to the deaf school. It wasn't that I was terribly unhappy; well, maybe just a little. It was more that while I was conscious of everyone's kindness and efforts to reach out to me, I also felt I was in the wrong place. I didn't belong at the new school; I belonged at the deaf school.
On the first day of each new school year for a few years, I would wait, looking out with hope for Sharon, anyone from the deaf school, to turn up. I never expressed my hope aloud to anyone. I held it to myself. I knew the voicing of this hope out loud would clang. It would jar in a way that I didn't understand. And so, instead of killing the hope swiftly by exposing it, I secured it to myself for too many years, allowing the hope to wilt a little more each year, and me along with it. I lost a little bit of heart.
It took me the rest of my primary-school years before I accepted wholeheartedly that I was at All Hallows and began to make real efforts to belong. Over time, I gradually learnt through closer observation that the art of friendship lay in the ebb and flow of exchanges between people, and involved a lot of apparently aimless hanging around. And so, I hung around and grew more involved in school life, more confident in my place in the world. However, ever mindful that I didn't really belong, I made a point of always being pleasant, of smiling a lot, of looking cheerful.
A COUPLE OF years ago, I received an invitation to attend the "class of '62" reunion of my friends from the deaf school. When I realised that I would be overseas on that date, I arranged to have lunch with the reunion organiser, Jennifer Holdsworth. We had not seen each other or even been in contact with each other since 1962, but when we saw each other again, uncomprehending of our private histories that had aged us both, we embraced with all the warmth and affection of unbroken friendship.
Jennifer had brought some photos with her; some of them were already familiar to me, others were new. As we looked through the photos together, exclaiming over this person and that person – Jennifer knew who was doing what; she knew all their careers, marriages, children, divorces and grief; she'd kept up with all their news – I started to cry. I could not explain to Jennifer, or to myself for that matter, the sense that I had lost something by not being a part of my childhood friends' evolving lives. On seeing my tears, Jennifer insisted on arranging for a few of my old deaf-school classmates to meet me for an after-work drink the day before I left for overseas.
And so, just three days later, some of us gathered in an inner-city cafe, smiling at each other, excited and awkward in our efforts to catch up on so many years in such a brief splice of time: Carmel, who still sported the scar on her forehead from when she had fallen off the monkey bars in the playground; Wayne, one of the little boys who had looked so particularly unhappy in his elf outfit in a class photo but who now bore the maturity of the senior Australian Customs officer that he was; Matthew, who was my first boyfriend, carrying my things for me when we were both four years old at the deaf preschool; and Jennifer.
We tried to chat. We wanted to share our news and our clannish excitement, but the differences in our communication styles were too great to be breached easily or quickly. The others were able to sign to each other, but I do not sign: I have never learnt Auslan, the Australian sign language. Our ability to comprehend speech varied markedly, so that we spoke at different speeds and different pitches and even with different grammar to each other, depending on who was holding the floor at any one time. I spent much of the hour smiling; I was happy to be with my deaf companions. I did not feel any need to do or be anything more than that: I just simply liked being with them.
Since that brief reunion I have worked in public policy in England, established myself here as a freelance writer and policy analyst and been invited to work in London again. I enjoy remarkable work opportunities, illustrating the breadth and extent of the world that continues to be open to me because I can listen, speak and communicate ... gifts given to me when I was just a child.