By Jesse Lee Kercheval
Winner of 2022 Nonfiction Contest, Judged by Melissa Febos
I dream I am teaching and it is not going well. I still have these dreams though I retired a year ago. Counting grad school, I taught 38 years so this particular nightmare is hardwired into my nervous system. In my usual dream, I am talking, then shouting, at students who are talking to each other and not paying any attention at all—something that never happened in real life, unless a dream counts as life. In this dream, though, it is the students who are yelling at me. I can see their mouths open, their tongues wagging, every one of their white teeth, remarkably straight after years of expensive orthodontia—but it is a silent movie. I touch my ears, a reflexive movement to check if my hearing aids are there. Yes, but somehow they seem to have swollen, tripled in size, and to be plugging my ears like fat kids’ fingers, making sure all I hear is the sounds of my body, heart, lungs, that we hear without using our ears at all.
After all those years of teaching, this semester I am actually a student again. I am taking Comics 101 and it meets in the Comics Room on a floor of the Art Department where I have never set foot in all my time teaching creative writing workshops in the English Department. Universities are like that—whole worlds side by side but rarely touching.
But I have wanted to take this class for years. It is taught by the Queen of Comics, Lynda Barry. Over the years we have shared many students. I have invited students from her class to come into my workshops and teach my students for the day. It is always the best day of the semester, or at least my favorite.
Now, Lynda, or Professor Crop Circle, the name she has chosen for this semester, has let me into the class. For this semester, in this room, I am Sister Fox. The other students at my table this week were Nearby Lizard, Frog and Helen A. Handbasket. At this moment, on the other side of the room, one of the students is reading out a description of a childhood neighbor from an exercise we all just did in our journals. We are supposed to listen, not looking at her, but rather drawing tight spirals in our notebooks while she talks. This is to help empty our minds, to really listen to what our classmate is saying. If we let the lines touch, Professor Crop Circle tells us, we will be electrocuted.
Then we are to draw a one page comic based on the details in her story.
But I cannot hear her the student. I cannot hear her because there is music playing. There is always music playing in the Comics Room because we are drawing comics and comics are fun.
I cannot hear her because it is the middle of a plague and she, like all of us in the room, is wearing a KN95 mask.
I cannot turn and look at her because I have to draw my spiral. I do not want to be electrocuted. And even if I did turn, because of her mask, looking at her would not help. In this masked world, people do not have lips or not ones I can see.
I cannot use the app on my phone to turn up my hearing aids because this is a phone-free space and we have to leave them, turned off, in our backpacks on a shelf at the far side of the studio. And even if I could turn my hearing aids up, turn on all the complicated various filters for bass and treble—I know from experience, they would amplify the music more than the words of the student, timid, halting, reading softly what seems like miles away from me.
I feel like I cannot breathe. I feel tears burn in my eyes, in the back of my throat. I think—I cannot do this. I grip the table to keep from running from the room.
In the end, I think I hear one word, “fence” so I draw a fence on my card that looks more like the Berlin Wall. And nothing else. When the exercise is over, we walk around the room, looking at each others cards. Other students have drawn a family. A house. An actual neighbor. Images based on words that, for me, did not exist.
Since the pandemic began, my life has been on Zoom. And that, it turns out, is a wonderful place for a hard-of-hearing person to be. I could turn up the sound in my headphones. People sat, unmasked, usually facing the screen. Before that, when I was the teacher, I controlled the noise level in my class. I could turn up my hearing aids or set my phone on the table to use as an remote microphone in the seminar room where I taught.
Now, I am just the student. I could have spoken up, I could have told Professor Crop Circle I couldn’t hear. I could have asked the student to speak up. I would have if she were my student. But—I didn’t. I was embarrassed to say, Excuse me, I am deaf. Or cut the “excuse me”—I am deaf. Can you speak up? Pretty please?
It is hard even typing that. If I have to say something, I say I wear hearing aids. Or I am a “little bit deaf.” That last is true, I am not profoundly deaf. Officially, I have moderate hearing impairment. I do not want to claim to be more disabled than I am, to take attention from someone who might need more accommodations. We are told to call them accommodations. As if needing to hear were asking for an especially comfy hotel room. But, in truth, I want to slide by and not be seen as disabled at all. I am secretly deaf. Invisibly disabled. Basically, a disabled person still in the closet.
And though I know I am not the only one, that doesn’t give me the courage to speak up.
I make it through the class. And go home to consider whether I should email Professor Crop Circle. If I were a student in my class, I would want to know. I know that. I am not afraid of Lynda Barry, who of all people in this universe, I am sure will be utterly sensitive. But I also don’t want to change how she teaches. She is letting me take the class and I don’t want to be the one who kills the soundtrack always playing in the Comics Room, or keeps her from having students read out loud. And I don’t even know what to ask for. I could ask for an exception to the phone rule, so I can use my hearing aid app? But then I would be very obviously and constantly fiddling with my phone. Bad for her no phone rule. And I would feel like it would put a sort of iPhone shaped X of accommodation on my back.
I email her. She is immediately totally and appropriately responsive. She wonders if other students also had trouble hearing—masks made it so hard. She says next time a student is reading out loud, she will announce that if anyone is having trouble hearing, to feel free to move closer. I appreciate that she is making this change a general thing, not something just I have permission to do, and lifting that burden from me. She says she had meant to turn off the music when the students was reading and would from now on. But I don’t ask about the phone—still afraid of being obviously different. But I feel a rush of relief as profound as a dive from the high board into a lovely cool pool.
Still, in the weeks since, I notice she hasn’t asked anyone else to read in the class. I may have changed the class in spite of my desire not to.
I have had hearing aids for five years now. I first tested as having hearing loss a good decade before that. The audiologist at the time suggested I might want to try hearing aids, but I didn’t. I really, really, didn’t want to be a person who wore hearing aids which I associated with my grandmother in her nursing home.
I was sent to the audiologist to have my hearing checked because I have an autoimmune disease, Sjögren’s Syndrome, that can affect, rather randomly, just about any part of your body. But my hearing loss could be because of the Sjögren’s or just too many concerts spent standing next to the stage and the big banks of speakers.
Still each time I was tested, there it was, in neat black and white charts. And each time, a little bit worse, inching from mild to moderate, marking more and more frequencies I couldn’t quite hear.
I found myself in conversations where I could not tell if someone said bread or breath or breadth. And when I was in Uruguay—where I spent more and more time translating Uruguayan poetry—I had more trouble, my ability to catch sounds in Spanish, a language I learned late in life, even worse than in English. The writing workshops I taught had a mere fourteen students in them. Pre-pandemic we all sat around one table in a small, quiet room. Still, more and more, I found I could not hear the students at the far end of the table. Or worse, the ones right next to me, but whose mouths I couldn’t see without turning my chair and staring at their mouths from six inches away.
So, hearing aids.
At the meeting with the audiologist to pick them out, I was delighted to see they did not have to be bandaid tan like my grandmother’s hearing aids. I picked out a pair in bright electric blue. I wanted them to show. I wanted not to be embarrassed about wearing them. But it turns out, you can’t see them. Small, sleek, they hide above my ears, hidden even by my short hair.
I slipped into silence about them.
Years ago, when Ellen Samuels, a disabilities studies scholar at my university, came to give her job talk, I remember her saying that, unless we died young, we would all end up being disabled. It was the first time I’d thought of disability in that way. And as I age, see friends struggle as they age, I think often about what she said. But at the time, I confess, I merely thought to myself that it was a good way to frame her argument, a good way to get all us non-disabled people interested in her topic, to be advocates for those who really needed the university to accommodate—provide that comfy special space—for their needs.
In other words, I was a fool—and a jerk.
Now, from my seat (or in the case of the Comics Room my tall stool) as a student, I know that I have, over the years, put my students in the very spot that I was in, putting the burden on them to speak up.
The system at my university put the burden on the students as well. I often got a letter that said I had a student in my class with an unnamed disability who might or might not wish to contact me about accommodations. This is to make it their choice, their decision. I understand that. But it makes it their burden as well—to speak up or to try to fit in. Fit in, even if it means they can only hear well enough to draw a wall.
Even after a student identified themselves to me, I know I was not always good about making sure I did what was requested consistently. How many times did I talk while writing on the board, my face hidden from a deaf student who told me she needed to see my lips? Even one time would be too many and I am not sure it was just once.
I expected the student to be the one who spoke up.
Professor Crop Circle also wrote in her email to me that if I didn’t hear everything, it didn’t matter. I could just draw whatever I heard or imagined—the drawing was the important part. So the wall I drew, I realized with relief, had been just fine.
But I also realized, it was not fine. Not fine for me.
As the world reopens and I move back out into its uncontrolled noise, I realize how often I just fake having heard something. I go to a book party for a friend and with everyone talking at once—and music—I realize am just nodding as friend after friend tells me what they have been doing for the last two pandemic years. I go to get my hair cut and between the music playing in the salon and the mask the hairdresser is wearing, I have no idea what she is asking me about I want done with my hair. I nod. She cuts it and I get what I get. I meet a friend in a coffee shop and realize there is nothing noisier than an expresso machine. I can hardly hear her even though I have moved from sitting across the table to perching at her elbow.
I speak up. “I can’t hear you,” I say.
“Then let’s move into the other room where it’s quieter,” she says.
And, this time, it is as simple as that.
Jesse Lee Kercheval is a writer and translator. Her essays and illustrated essays have appeared in the New England Review, Guernica, the Sewanee Review, The New Ohio Review, New Letters and the Los Angeles Review among others. Her memoir, Space, was the winner of the Alex Award from the American Library Association. Her latest poetry book, I Want to Tell You, will be published in Spring 2023 by University of Pittsburgh Press.