Astoundingly, I graduate college in less than two weeks, and along with that milestone I've been spending some time reflecting on my undergraduate years. It's just that time again, with sunshine and final papers and another year ending. College has been quite the ride, and in many ways it's been far better than I could have imagined. When I came to Stanford, I really could not have conceived of all the places I would go, classes I would take, things I would see, and people I would meet. I couldn't have imagined myself taking on some of the challenges of the last four years, much less experiencing some of the joys I have encountered. (Hearing among them!)
Yet, at the same time, I reflect on the last four years and get a disturbing, bittersweet feeling of missed opportunities and not-quite-fulfilled desires. College has been more than I could have imagined, but in some ways it has been different. As a deaf person who grew up completely immersed in the hearing world and who was mainstreamed since kindergarten, I always knew I would go to an all-hearing university. Enrolling somewhere else like Gallaudet, or not going to college at all, were not options. Yet I've found that facing the success-driven world of Stanford, as a person with a disability, has been challenging in ways that I, at eighteen, did not fully anticipate. Stanford students speak of a campus culture characterized by "Stanford duck syndrome," in which sunny facades of achievement and, yes, effortlessness mask the constantly paddling feet of hard work and even private turmoil. It's a campus where it can be difficult not to want to appear perfect, casual, and at ease.
Being deaf at Stanford has been hard. I'll be blunt: at certain times, it's been lonely. The overall experience has gotten far better than during my freshman year, as I've learned more about myself and developed strategies to navigate an all-hearing world. Doubtlessly the CI has contributed to that rising self-confidence: the conviction it took to want to hear, and to begin to hear more than ever before, has encouraged me to open up to my world, to take risks, and not to discount myself based on longstanding notions of what I can and cannot do. It's made several things in my life much easier, and some of the experiences I've had have been so empowering. But, as I knew when I started this journey two years ago, having a cochlear implant has not made me a hearing person. It never will. It has not made me one of those socially easeful, communicative, listening and talking and wisecracking and responding people that I feel like I see on campus every day. In some ways (despite all of the soaring highs), college has not been what I wanted. And most of that has to do with not being able to engage with my peers and friend groups and teammates and acquaintances in the way I wanted.
It's difficult to describe the experience of being surrounded by such bright and amazing people and feeling unable to communicate fully with them. Lipreading is truly a lifesaver. Listening has made lipreading far easier. I've surprised myself by how skillfully I can handle one-on-one interactions in particular, by cherry-picking friends who are easy to lipread and often going all day in bliss and without much feeling of inherent limitation. But those strategies don't conquer all. What about the group dinners, where I'm always several beats behind if I understand at all? What about the interesting people I've met whose accents make them nearly impossible to talk with? The on-campus speaker events and plays and panel discussions that friends invite me to at the last minute, where I must decline because I cannot request an interpreter? The parties in dark rooms with blaring music where communication is impossible and all I want to do is melt into the floor? The dorm spirit and camaraderie, which some part of me has irrationally resented only because I've felt excluded? All of these are parts of college life. They're parts that, to some extent, I've missed. I've seen them happen around me, but for four years I've felt like I've been spectating on forms shrouded by an opaque curtain. While I will graduate in two weeks with an immense sense of pride, joy, and accomplishment, I'm also a little haunted by things like this, things that embody what Stanford means to other people that it has never meant to me.
Part of this bittersweet feeling, I won't deny, might be my fault. I tend to be shy, reticent, and even aloof. Too often I retreat and "suck it up" rather than confront. I do want my friends to sign (sometimes desperately), but I rarely sign myself, and I'm not very good at flaunting my cultural Deafness, whatever there is of it. I haven't always made myself crystal clear on what I need and want. That is not necessarily the best way to deal with deafness, which is often such an invisible disability in any case -- so much so, that it really might take an exuberant personality to jump up and down with neon lights flashing and sign language guns ablaze in order to prompt the hearing world to engage and "get it." I'm not that person, or at least I haven't been.
Regardless, life is what it is, and I'm doing my best to let this troubled feeling go, of exclusion and of having passed through my undergrad years at Stanford while letting (or watching) so much of it slip through the cracks. I love Stanford, and I couldn't say enough about the things I love about Stanford -- I'm more than thrilled to be coterming at the Farm next year. And sometimes a dose of perspective, and not comparing directly to hearing people, is in order. I was in a cafe three days ago, studying with a friend, when a stranger approached the table where we sat. Being me, I think I noticed as soon as I saw him that he had hearing aids. My chest rose slightly. He didn't speak, but placed an index card down on the table before us. "I am hearing impaired and out of work..." I read, but didn't need to see any more. I understood what was happening here, or part of it. And I was excited to sign, here in Palo Alto where it felt so unexpected. You're deaf? I signed to him.
He took a step back. My friend and I had been chatting enthusiastically five seconds earlier; my hair was down and my CI was out of sight; I realized I must have looked just like a hearing person. Yes, I'm deaf, he signed back, his eyes widening as he looked at me. You too?
Yes, me too.
Not hard-of-hearing? And you speak well, like a hearing person? He looked at my friend, as if wanting her to pass judgment. Are you in school?
I answered yes; yes, for the most part; and that I went to Stanford. We chatted a little more. Throughout, I could see that part of him didn't believe me -- didn't believe that I was deaf. I was on the verge of taking my CI off and showing him. After getting a bit of his life story and exchanging a few parting pleasantries, he told me, Stanford. My deepest congratulations. When you graduate, Deaf people all around will give you their respect, for doing something like that. (This is a rough translation.) I felt like protesting, saying that Stanford wasn't all that out of reach, or at least shouldn't be, but in reality I was floored. And the encounter, so close to my graduation, made me pause and reflect.
As ill-at-ease as I've been feeling about some aspects of the last four years, I can't call myself anything but blessed. Unexpectedly so. Yes, college has been hard, and of course the hearing world doesn't stop after Stanford. The challenges of living with a hearing loss, as diverse as they are, will go on. But, those aside, I'm just so, so fortunate to have had the opportunities that I've had. From supportive parents to speech therapists and audiologists, to wonderful interpreters and engaging teachers and professors, to amazing close friends... the list goes on. May I never lose that perspective, even when I'm left wanting more.
Also, may the next four years be even better than the last.