Nothing is more wonderful or worthy of celebration than something that will unlock your capacity to grow and think. In seventh grade, I had a pivotal experience that had nothing to do with a sensitive, knowing teacher who suddenly showed me the light. Quite the opposite.
Mr. Porter was the teacher, and at the end of the day in front of the entire class, he decided I needed some advice, which turned out to be a tongue-lashing.
“John,” he said, “I’m not sure if you’re just plain stupid or if you don’t care about your future in this school. I am certain of one thing; you will not make it past grade ten. In fact, if you keep going at this rate, you’ll be lucky to get that far.”
He had more to say in a loud, overbearing voice, but that was the gist of it.
This experience is imprinted indelibly on my mind. Here I was, severely hard of hearing, shy, not many friends, and school for me up until then was simply hell. My marks were very poor. I was barely passing. For some time, I had stopped asking questions in class, as my questions invariably caused quiet ridicule from teachers and students. I had begun to bluff my way, clapping when others clapped and laughing at jokes I did not understand. It was my way of coping with a situation I could not control. But here, for the first time, was an open insult, a blunt statement in front of the whole class; I was stupid and had no future. I was humiliated.
I struggled to hold back the tears until I was alone in my room. I would have felt less diminished if he had strapped me. I could not understand what was happening to me. I was disgusted and wanted to vomit. For the first time in my life, I was truly angry. I wanted a release for all this emotion – someone to punch. I did not tell my parents. Somehow, I sensed that this was my problem.
I sat for a long time, feeling waves of emotion wash over me, before settling into what I can only describe as stubborn rebellion. But it’s amazing how wise you can be at the age of twelve. I sensed I was at a serious crossroads. This was the first time I had to face a barrier alone. Apparently, my hearing loss was going to limit me to a life of mediocrity. Now I had a choice to make; either I could face up to my barriers and do something about them or, as I had done before, walk away in defeat.
I chose to act. It was almost as if I was changing skins; I felt a metamorphosis taking place within me. That night, I went deep, away from the turbulence and chatter on the surface, into some still part of my soul. There, I discovered two things: an inner voice that would speak to me loud and clear for the rest of my life, and a burning desire to beat the odds. I made a solemn vow; I would not settle for merely surviving. I was going to make it. Nothing was going to stop me. I would always be prepared. Never again would I be bullied into failure, even if it meant occasionally appearing foolish. It was a revelation to me. I do not know how else to put it.
If I could go back – and if my vocabulary had been better – I would’ve said, “To hell with you, Porter, you pompous ass. You’ll be eating your words – just watch me!” But if I had, I would have failed my year for such insolence.
Mr. Porter had actually done me a favour. He helped me grow up, making me stronger. He had administered a dose of reality and, even though the medicine was bitter, it was necessary. Changes had to be made that would prove significant to whatever future I might have. I suppose I was changing slowly from boy to man. Now I had a clearly defined goal. I would face my problems, and I would not complain. It was a catharsis.
I was a happy three-year-old, content to sit alone and play with my toys. My parents were beginning to suspect something was wrong because I was not progressing with my vocabulary growth. I was also becoming more difficult to manage. I was tested in the audiology clinic. The results of the hearing tests confirmed my parents’ worst fears; I had severe to profound sensorineural hearing loss. There was no family history to account for this. It was plain bad luck. I was fitted with an aid in my left ear. My right ear had no useful residual hearing. My parents were filled with guilt and worry about the future.
I was enrolled in a school for the deaf and hard of hearing. I began a long and difficult journey to acquire language. To learn a new word, I remember placing my hand on the teacher’s throat to feel the vibrations of sounds and then repeating the word back to her. I was taught the life-saving skill of lipreading and discovered that my eyes were to be the window to my world. At home, my mother arranged for light to fall on her face and carefully pronounced the words that I was learning one at a time. She had aids such as games and a blackboard, which was a constant fixture at our kitchen table for many years. I was supposed to watch her lips and try to “hear” what she said. But it was excruciatingly slow because I could not hear radio or television, nor could I pick up intelligent sounds from casual group conversations.
When I was five years old, I was a good candidate for public school. Hugh Beaton School and its long-suffering teachers saw me as something of an experiment because I was to be the first person in Ontario to be accepted with a severe hearing impairment. Most people are oblivious to and unconcerned about those who have hearing difficulties. Teachers in public schools are no exception, and it is hard to blame them. They have about thirty active, normal hearing children to move on to the next grade, and here I was causing problems and slowing them down. They were impatient at times, and some of them looked at me as if I were developmentally delayed.
Despite my parents’ intensive help at home, I was still struggling. There were so many things I did not understand. I was once told to put on my “thinking cap” by a teacher. I excused myself to go look in my locker for it. Can you believe it? As you might expect, my parents never built up the myths of Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, or the tooth fairy. They felt they would be too confusing for me given how difficult it was for me to understand everyday language.
The teacher in the second grade had two numbers on the blackboard, one larger than the other. She asked me to go to the front and show the class the larger number. I took a moment to consider the two figures, then used my finger as a measuring stick to determine which was larger. I had a tendency to take language literally. I struggled with linguistic nuances.
I dreaded June. It was finally time to find out whether you had passed or failed your year. Each class was to proceed to the gymnasium, take a seat, and wait for their names to be called. The principal would announce each student’s name in your class one by one. When you heard your name, you were supposed to stand up and go mill around your next year’s teacher to get your report card. If your name had not been called by the time the principal moved on to the next class, it meant you failed. As the principal went through the names, the number of students remaining in the class decreased. Then the real fear set in. I was always one of the three or four remaining students. I’m not sure why; perhaps they called the students according to their grades – high to low. In those few minutes, I was terrified. My heart would skip a beat if I saw my old teacher walking over to talk with the new teacher. I had a feeling they were discussing me and debating whether or not to pass me. My stomach would be in knots for the entire hour. It was a nightmare. This ritual was downright cruel.
The framework for success began to take shape after seventh grade. I started seeing the world in mini-cycles. Every situation would be examined and moved through a circular framework consisting of a dream, a barrier, and a transformation. I was determined to succeed in school. I expected many obstacles, and instead of denying them, I began to welcome each one that stood in the way of my dream. I realized they were the raw materials for my accomplishments. I was confident that I would be able to overcome each barrier and turn it into a positive action step by step.
The first major hurdle I had to overcome in eighth grade was figuring out how to understand the teacher in the classroom. I approached Mrs. Miller on my own and asked if I could sit right up front in the classroom. I also requested that she remain in front of my desk and not move around the room during the lessons. We agreed that if she turned her back to write on the blackboard and I missed what she said, I would raise my hand. She would say the same thing right in front of me. For the first time in my life, I felt optimistic about my chances of success.
About Dr John R Paterson
John is a retired pediatric dentist, insurance agent and professional speaker. He graduated with a Doctor of Dental Surgery degree from the University of Western Ontario’s Faculty of Dentistry in 1978 (Canada). He pursued post graduate training in pediatric dentistry at the University of Iowa, graduating with a Master of Science degree in 1980 (USA). His thesis was on the significance of facial expressions in pediatric dentistry. John wrote and published Russian Roulette – Gambling with Disability. He lives in Calgary, Canada.