Tuesday, July 26, 2011

They Move in Silence

I was at the forefront of the Baby Boom. American GIs, returning from four years of war, made babies like crazy. I missed Kindergarten due to an affection for cowboy hats. A friend who lived down the street let me wear his cowbot hat just before school started. We shared everything. Secrets, tricycles, a cowboy hat, and a nasty ringworm that had taken up residence inside his hat. There were 70+ kids in the Kindergarten class at St. Charles School in 1952 in Drexel Hill, PA, and the good nuns were NOT about to have a plague of ringworm spread through the hoards of little people in their crowded school. I was sentenced to my home for a year of plucking hairs from the infected site with tweezers under a heat lamp. Since this was before Sesame Street and The Electric Company and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, I did not breath in my numbers and letters from TV. PBS was not in existence, there were only three channels, and kids' programming consisted of shows like Howdy Doody, Kukla, Fran and Ollie, and Bozo the Clown. I was behind when I entered first grade.

People were flocking to the suburbs from Philadelphia, and primary school age kids were now tumbling out the windows. The good nuns had to do something. We wouldn't fit anymore into a conventional classroom, no matter how hard they squeezed us. Their solution was brilliant. Let's put them in the auditorium. We can put LOTS of desks in there, and we can put up a non-permanent, accordian wall between the first and second grades so they won't see each other. Problem solved.

But not for me. My only memories of first and second grades in that auditorium are muted images and echoey noise. I didn't know how terrible my grades and comments were until I helped clean out my parents house 15 years ago after my Mother had died and my Dad was preparing to sell it. I garnered Ds and Fs both years. "He does not listen." "Poor attention." Disorganized and lack of focus." These were the comments of my first two years in school on the faded reports cards in the lowest drawer of my mother's dresser. She had hidden them. I don't know if she was embarrased by them or she just didn't want me to see them. I ripped them up.

One year before, I had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. I was awarded a Doctor of Education degree with a 3.85 Summa Cum Laude average. My mother and father sat in the stands at Franklin Field and later at the International House where I was handed my diploma. My mother wept. I suspect that she was remembering those report cards tucked away in her drawer.

Fate being what it is, my wife and I were given the exact same comments in the early 1980s from the pre-school teachers of my son, Jim. "He pulls off his shoe and yells for us to be quiet," one said. "He doesn't pay attention and ignores me when I talk to him," another complained. "My classroom is very active," his Kindergarten teacher told us, "and he's unfocused and becomes very stressed. I suggest that you get him used to multiple sounds by turning on the radio and TV at the same time at home."

My wife, Trish, and I were concerned. Jim ignored us frequently when we spoke to him when he was watching TV. Trish had his hearing tested at the pediatrician's office. He passed with flying colors. Jim's Kindergarten experience was going downhill fast.

But Fate is a quirky thing. One day, Trish happened to hear a report on KYW News Radio. The report said that juvenile delinquents often report that they did very poorly in school because their immediate environment was too noisy. Their low grades over the years made them frustrated and angry. But a new hearing test had been developed that could now uncover a subtle hearing disability called APD, Auditory Processing Disability.

We immedeiately had Jim tested by an audiologist in private practice and an audiologist at St. Christopher's Hospital in Philadelphia. I will long remember sitting in the office at St. Christoper's with Trish next to me when the results were given to us.

"Your son has Central Auditory Processing Disability or APD," the audiologist said. "His normal hearing is fine. But, if there are loud competing sounds, he cannot distinguish between them. This makes it very hard for him to follow directions, remember information presented quickly, and be focused on only one speaker. Somebody sharpening a pencil near him will make him loose information from the teacher or  speaker somewhere else in the room. A loud room will make him very uncomfortable, and he may not be able to distinguish verbal commands or information at all."

My wife and I looked at each other.

"Is this hereditary?" I asked.

"It appears that it's often genetic," the audiologist said. "The good news? You've diagnosed Jimmy early. The bad news? There is no medication or surgery or hearing aid to help him. Your job from now until he completes his schooling is to inform his teachers of his hearing disability. Many won't believe you or they'll forget and some may not care. This is a hidden disabiltity and many people blow off hidden disabilities."

"What do we tell the teachers?"

"He needs to sit VERY close to the teacher. They should write important information and directions on the board or hand out printed information.  Jimmy needs to look at speakers in a loud room to really hear them. He should be away from the PA system and pencil sharpner."

The audiologist stopped and looked at me.

"I'm describing you, aren't I."

"Yes," I said. "I have to sit in the front of the room to hear a speaker. I teach and possibly have the quietest classroom in the world because distracting sounds make it impossible for me to hear my students."

"You were lucky that you survived going through school," she said.

I wasn't lucky. For some reason, my third grade teacher plucked me from the masses in our jammed classroom and had me sit directly in front of her. I was assigned to write the homework assignments on the blackboard every day. Kids stood when they spoke, and she always encouraged me to turn around and look at them. The grades on my third grade report card, tucked in with my Valentines and Mother's Day Cards, stacked with the rest of my family's memorbilia in the top drawer of the dining room china closet, were As and Bs.

My third grade teacher saved my life.

I understand now my need  for quiet. I had battles, at times, with some of Jim's middle school and high school teachers who refused to believe that he couldn't hear them because their classrooms were chaotic or their gym echoed their instructions. We both realize that we do a kind of lip reading in loud rooms or we simply back off to a quieter space.

For myself and all those others who share my way of hearing the world, Mother Theresa's quote rings true: "We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature - trees, flowers, grass - grow in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence....We need silence to touch souls."

Copyright (c) 2011 by James Hugh Comey

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