The stare (and vonlenska)

Paul is the author of ‘Neither-nor: A young Australian’s experience of deafness’ (Gallaudet University Press). His research and writings have focused on the social participation and the potential maximisation of people who are deaf. This fictional story is not about cochlear implants, mainstreaming, or the need for Sign Language. It’s about the senseless cruelty experienced by people who are deaf throughout their lives.

She didn’t want to go to school today. Julia, 14, sat at the front of the classroom as students pooled into the room. She did not want to be alone, again. Julia saw Tex and Sam talking at the desk opposite her. Seeing Tex flamed her passion for him.

What are they talking about? Basketball? A computer war game? If only she knew. Any snippet of information could be a source of conversation that she could have with Tex. But she dreaded what he may say, or that she would bumble through the conversation. Many fantastic daydreams had dazzled her imagination. How cool would I be if I was Tex’s girlfriend? She had daydreamed of them laughing, hugging, looking into each other’s eyes, taking long walks on weekends, and meeting each other’s families. If this happened, she believed, the other girls would want to be her friend. If not, they would at least respect me. Other girls liked him too.

Tex glanced toward Julia. She blinked. He’s looking at me! She turned towards the whiteboard. Unbearable! Scribbled blue inked words made no sense. I’m a freak. Her blood iced. Her hands were cold. Julia did not notice Tex’s kind smile. He liked her. She was not ‘the deaf girl’ to him. Her cochlear implants melted invisible when he thought of her strength of character: a special ‘it’ factor. That she had Icelandic blood charged her mystique. But he did not know how nor had found the opportunity to talk with her.

Best look busy, Julia told herself. Removing her laptop from a zipped bag, she flipped open the computer and pressed the start button. Noise tensed her ears. Classroom chatter, laptops chiming, and a highly excitable squeal from laughing girls electrified her implants. Her pocket contained a plastic instrument for her implants’ volume control. Pressing the sound down, she then massaged tight muscles behind flesh-colored horn-like apparatuses that hung over each her ears. Her cochlear implants do not completely restore hearing but improve sound quality. This is why Julia had an ‘accent’ typical of people who are deaf: her voice, which she sometimes struggled to master, was caused by her less-than-perfect hearing.

Her side seat remained empty. Impatient, she turned. Most of her class had arrived. Many students chatted in small groups and some thumbed their mobile phones. Please sit next to me, someone, please. Then she thought, What will I say if someone sits next to me? A bitter taste stung her tongue. Don’t smile too much if someone does sit next to me, be cool. At the back of the classroom, the cool clique’ – Sophie, Olivia and Jo – were talking, affecting their haughty airs and twiddling their hair flanks with their manicured fingers. I’m alone, have been alone, and will be alone.

Miss Hale, the teacher, entered the room with a lumbering gait. The breeze of this tall bird-like woman’s entrance sapped the children’s joy. The class came to attention when she announced the beginning of today’s World History lesson. Julia required her teacher to wear an FM microphone for better speech recognition. It transmitted clarity of voice and removed background noise. Julia missed the introduction. Miss Hale’s FM device lay on the classroom’s front desk. Had she forgotten? Or didn’t want to wear it?

Matthew walked into the room. The class jeered. He found the only free chair – beside Julia. Matthew’s body odour was pungent. She was conscious that she, too, was a misfit. Miss Hale glared at Matthew, “Why are you late?” He looked down. Julia could not understand his mumbling, but Miss Hale seemed strangely pleased.

Poets have suggested that a person’s appearance presents their soul. Miss Hale was an unremarkable person. Dyed a toxic dark shade of red, her wiry long hair contrasted grey wrinkled skin bereft of life’s sun. Bland and shapeless, her clothes were of a fashion that never was fashionable. That she was a teacher was astonishing. Living life by dead rules, her soul was starved. She had never truly loved nor genuinely loved in return. This horrible disability – an ugliness of soul – bristled when she was calm and spat nasty venom when roused.

Julia wanted to remind Miss Hale to attach her FM device – as she had done almost every lesson. Scared of inviting attention, or to make Miss Hale uncomfortable, she placed her unused receiver FM device in her laptop bag. Doing without her best means of hearing, Julia focused strongly on Miss Hale:

“Today’s lesson (vonlenska) will learn (vonlenska) the file is (vonlenska). Open this.”

“Vonlenska” is an Icelandic term that describes some indecipherable melodic lyrics sung by Sigur Rós – a band from that Arctic island nation. The singing sounds like a ‘true’ language but isn’t. Spoken language is often vonlenska to the deaf: they usually hear the person’s voice and also see their body language. Despite obvious rhythm, the spoken message’s meaning is often indistinct.

A mix of imperfect hearing and lacking the mastery of speech-reading worsens the problem. A master speech-reader can correctly understand whole conversations by linking the speaker’s lips and facial expression with audio information received through less-than-perfect hearing. For them, vonlenska occurs less frequently. Julia’s young brain was developing the sophisticated wiring that will reduce vonlenska for her. But consistent ease of these unique perceptive powers, like any mastery of expert skill, would require much more practice.

Obeying instruction, students plucked DVD-ROMs from their bags then placed them in their laptops. Which one? Julia looked cautiously at Matthew’s computer. He stank, but she focused. If I miss this I’ll have no idea what to do. Matthew’s DVD-ROM title appeared on the screen. Julia quickly took note. Fishing her bag she found the disk to load into her computer. Then her peripheral vision registered that the class had stopped. Sensing dread, these moments usually meant that she was the reason. Julia looked up; her muscles jarred inwards. Miss Hale stood over her:

“Sorry Miss, I did not hear.”
“That’s an excuse. Now you must read (vonlenska).

Mystified as to what had happened, and watching the teacher talk, Julia told herself Vonlenska – the melody and rhythm of spoken language without definite clarity. More vonlenska, then the teacher demanded: “Will you do that for me?” Julia was unsure:

“You want me to read for the class?”
“No. I just told you.”

Relief, but she remained uncertain. The teacher huffed. “Matthew, show her.” Knowing her reaction was watched, and that judgments would be made, pressurised the situation for Julia. She felt incompetent, but had learnt strategies for acts of scorn. She focused on her task and ignored Miss Hale. Non-responsiveness often worked best. First, the aggressor had no fuel for more ridicule. And second, she kept her composure without getting upset.

Events then nearly always continued without further incident. Matthew gestured Julia to scroll down the page and then pointed at the paragraph that the class was reading. Seeing Julia was on her way, the teacher walked away. At last, Julia was in sync with the class – which settled her nerves. The topic interested her too: London’s bombing in the Second World War. Reading was her favourite class activity.

Words were just words. Sentences communicated messages that made perfect sense. There were no distractions. Absorbed for ten minutes, Julia realised Miss Hale was talking to the class. (She had missed: “Stop reading please”). More vonlenska. She understood some distinct words, but not a coherent message.

Oh no! She realised that her right implant’s battery was dying fast. Fresh batteries were in her laptop bag. But getting a battery meant fumbling with her ear in front of the whole class. She worried needlessly. Most students would be too self-absorbed to notice her. Yet, feeling anxious, Julia did nothing of her need. So, she watched the tall bird-like troll speak. More vonlenska.

Having braved the damning quiet of her implant, the strain of listening began to hurt. Her left ear’s ‘live’ implant was imbalanced by her right ear’s deadening hearing. Julia’s percentage of speech retention was therefore reduced considerably. But, she had the gist of something about America. What’s America got to do with it? (She had missed: “America was not involved in the second world war in 1940”). Suddenly, Miss Hale asked Julia, “Can you please read (vonlenska).”

“You want me to read out aloud?”
“That’s what I just said Julia.”

Twice she had been asked to vocalise printed words in her whole school life. Both times Julia stuttered her way through the readings. Attuned teachers knew not to demand such a difficult task of the child who was yet to master the written word and also her own voice. Julia’s body tensed. The teacher’s voice was lost. (She said “Show her Matthew”).  Julia saw Matthew point to the words on the screen – her task. She steeled herself then tried her best:

“The Blitz …” (she began), “was the sustained strategic bom-bing …” (Deaf to the sniggers behind her, she kept reading aloud) “…of Britain by Nazi Germany during the Second World War.” (Her heated armpits dripped cold sweat. The class was charged with a strange expectancy. She continued) “After 76 nights of sustained bom-bing…” Laughter erupted at her second phonetic pronunciation.

Miss Hale seemed very pleased by her class’s favour. Matthew kept his head down, smiled a little, but dared not look to his right side. Julia looked around the class quizzically. I’m funny? Infectious laughter doubled. Strange? Only Tex did not laugh. Miss Hale loomed over Julia, and carefully said,

“We don’t say bom-bers, Julia. We say bommers. So, instead of saying bom-bing,”

She sneered;

“What do we say?”

A third wave of laughter collapsed onto the bewildered child. Miss Hale’s shoulder’s swaggered pride. Our Julia’s heart hurt. Hot humiliation blurred her thoughts. But what happened next was most unexpected. Julia looked her assailant in the eye, kept still, and did not answer the question. Childish laughter quieted. Julia kept the woman’s eye. Miss Hale twitched as if hit by a thought. Her glare dissolved. Bloodless frothed lips itched to repeat the question, but broke as a soundless whimper. Telepathically, the young fighter dared the teacher to remain strong. Julia’s clean eyes squinted slightly – an unrelenting silent act with a definite message: You have had your fun. Now you will stop.

The teacher’s grey eyes shriveled. She staggered a little and quickly turned away. Denied her fix, the power tripper was tripped by her own force. Very pale and with her back to the class, the sadist’s downcast eyes darted as if scared of the child’s stare. Julia felt a strange exhilaration. She dared not smile, but savoured her triumph. Tex’s heart pulsed with keen feeling for Julia. You go girl! Respect!

The teacher then lashed out, “Laptops off!” No one moved. “I said laptops off!” Sensing threat, the students quickly obeyed. Miss Hale ducked her head and her pursed lips quivered. She walked to the television. Her hands wobbled when placing a DVD in the machine. Julia’s joy dissolved. Not again! She dreaded ‘TV time’. There would be no subtitles of the spoken dialogue for her to read. With her new-found confidence, she thought Am I being punished? But familiar self-conscious pangs did not sting. She snuck her hand down to retrieve a packet of batteries from her bag. For the first time she was doing what she needed to do for herself.  She was unbothered by inserting a live battery into her implant. Whoah! Cool free feeling of hearing returning to her right ear. Sweet relief!

The white words ‘London, September 7 1940’ appeared on the screen. Black and white footage of marching German soldiers, rushing tanks, and then soaring planes gave the impression of invasion. A map of Europe showed flags and moving red arrows. With effort, Julia allowed the visuals to stir her imagination. Footage of thundering flashes were followed by an untouched white church clear amongst the smoking ruin. (She missed “Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, St. Paul’s cathedral was a symbol of the British spirit – defiant”). Older people were interviewed. Their names, useless information, appeared on the coloured screen.

Tex read Julia’s unease. Seeing the unused FM device on the table near the whiteboard, he thought to place it at the television so Julia could hear. But, the boy sensed Miss Hale’s absurd loathing nearby. She sat cross armed and sulking outside Julia’s sight. Perhaps the coward had wished a crestfallen teary girl. Instead, a deaf girl four decades younger had revealed her as pathetic. Unaware that respect is earned, she schemed to punish the child. There was enough hatred in this woman to supply any known army on any given day.

Julia tried to speech-read the two-dimensional faces on the television; saw the phrase ‘The glass, the glass is what we feared’. Glass? Without reference to the topic, she could not know that many deaths were caused by bombs and the glass from exploding windows. When will this video finish?

Buildings collapsed into streets as grey haunting images. How much longer will I have to sit through this? Subtitles would have made clear this video’s spoken dialogue. Without, her concentration waned until boredom numbed her mind. Julia wished she could read, but her laptop was closed. Reading profusely helped her to recover what she missed in class. Twenty tedious minutes later, the video’s closing credits signaled an end. Thank God!

Miss Hale detailed the class’ homework. Julia did not understand, so she looked to Matthew with a questioning shrug. Although an outcast, he appreciated helping her and passed his diary to copy. She thanked him. Reading his notes saved her another conversation with Miss Hale.

Julia rode the school bus home. She preferred the longest seat at the back where she could see everyone in front of her, but the cool clique’ sat there. Damn! One empty seat was midway down the aisle. Seated there, she hoped the others were not talking or sniggering about her. Our heroine then cleared the frost on the window with her mitt. The land’s snow blanket reminded her of Iceland. To quiet her fear, her mind’s musical ear played Sigur Ros’ ‘Sæglópur’ sung in Icelandic.

Her intuition was again true. Thankfully, she saw and heard nothing of the cruelty. Olivia, the cool posse’s leader, saw Tex – ‘the hottest guy’ – was within earshot. Sensing a chance to win him, she announced to her friends,

“How stupid was Julia today? She’s so dumb! Who says bom-beers?”

Jo then impersonated Julia’s deeper toned ‘deaf’ voice, “Like, huh? What? Umm, I’m a spaz!” She then used mock sign language with her hands. Snickers became giggles. Sophie ducked down playfully, placed a finger to her lips. “Shhhh!” All came down with fake fright. Jo asked, “What?” Olivia mocked. “She might hear!” Jo cut in “She’s deaf, duh! -She’s looking out the window and has no idea!” The three girls bounced up clapping with glee. And each hoped Tex would join them, but his ears burned and his jaw clenched.

“She sits with Matthew! Urggh! He stinks!” Sophie’s needless cackle electrified the others. Olivia straightened her shoulders, waited for laughter to reside, before injecting more poison, “Do you think she will ever have a boyfriend? I mean, like, you know, have sex, or get married, and stuff?” Olivia and Jo were quiet, looked quickly at each other with smiles trapping laughter. Sophie dipped her eyebrow for theatrical effect, “Maybe Julia and Matthew will … you know…” Pause, then her punch line: “have smelly deaf babies?!”

Jo was giddy beyond restraint, “Smelly deaf babies! Oh, that’s so funny!” Tex had heard enough. “Stop!” Astonished, the girls saw a fuming boy standing in the aisle. “Did you see Miss Hale’s hatred today?” Hatred is a strong word. “Can you imagine being Julia?” No answer. The girl bullies had never before had their behaviour questioned. “My older brother has Down’s Syndrome. And he has to put up with bitching like yours.” Sophie attempted giggling but saw that Olivia was shocked. But Jo started firing stock ammunition of the bimbo vocabulary: “Chill, Tex!” He retaliated, “What is your ambition in life?” Sophie recoiled, “You’re being weird,”

He didn’t relent, “To be airheads? To be Paris Hilton? Like, totally stupid?” Sophie attempted intimidation, “You are so intense!” But he mocked their ‘cool to be dumb’ airs with flippant airiness, “Like, huh, whatever, duh?” Jo sniped: “So, what are you going to do about it Ein-stone?” Tex calmly asked, “Who is Ein-stone?” Clueless Jo fired back, “The guy who invented time, dumb ass!” Seeing her friend’s strength, Sophie added more fire, “Yeah, he’s, like, the cleverest-est guy ever.” Watchful and wary, Olivia heard the mispronunciations, but agreed, “Totally. He is totally.”

Tex corrected them, “His name was Ein-stein, not Ein-stone. And he didn’t invent time, but the theory of relativity – how time can be bent by speed.” The three bimbos replied, “Huh?” Tex mimicked Miss Hale, “So, instead of saying cleverest-est’, what do we say?” Stunned silence. And his patronising tone ended with one devastating point, “You should be ashamed of yourselves!”

The bus slowed to halt. Julia stepped onto a firm field of ice. She knew nothing of her champion’s grace. A seafarer alive, she had returned home. “How was your day Julia?” asked her mother. “It was okay,” was her daughter’s usual reply. Her mother smiled, and then kissed her forehead.

“What did you learn?”
“Something about a war.”

For Julia the war had just begun……

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4 thoughts on “The stare (and vonlenska)

  1. This article illustrates beautifully the situation of a mainstreamed “isolate” (referring to Gina Olivia’s book). Every word is TRUE and hits it dead center. I’ve bookmarked it to use as a reference in future writings. Thank you!

  2. Lovely and well written. I hope people learn from this, as we are human and have feelings too.

  3. Swap cochlear implants with old hearing aids, that was my old days as a student in a mainstream co ed school… sighs.

    Well written and this should be used in high schools.

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