From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

A Child’s Voice

When a man is singing and cannot lift his voice, and another comes and sings with him, another who can lift his voice, the first will be able to lift his voice, too. That is the secret of the bond between spirits.

Josh Hinds

“Sss-uue,” four-year-old Karen says as I hold up a flash card showing a shoe.

“Good,” I respond. Placing my hand in front of my mouth, I enunciate and say the word loudly: “Shoe!” Frustration in her eyes, Karen silently pleads with me not to make her say the word again. But I do it to help her learn. With my hand blocking my mouth, I pronounce, “Shoe,” emphasizing the “sh.”

Karen gazes down at the floor and whispers, “Sss-uu.” Lifting her soft chin with my fingers, I look her in the eyes and smile. “Good girl,” I encourage, but tears of frustration are ready to spill out from her tiny blue eyes. Four years old and words are still so difficult for her.

Along with four other children in my class at the Speech School, Karen is deaf. At age two, she had a cochlear implant surgically placed behind her ear. Through magnets and a processor, electrodes passing through tiny wires restore part of Karen’s hearing. Even today’s highest-powered hearing aids can’t deliver more than that implant.

Yet Karen is savvy, more so than the other children with implants at the school. For a year and a half after the surgery, Karen figured out how to hide her processor. Ashamed and embarrassed by the little square computer she had to wear under her clothes, Karen adamantly refused to wear it. Even at the age of two, she was clever enough to tuck it away by moving it around her room so her mother could never find it.

After three and a half years of silence, Karen came to learn how to hear with her implant. As soon as she learned other children were wearing the same processor she loathed, Karen relaxed and felt more comfortable. Unfortunately, she was already behind the others. Not only was Karen learning how to hear, but she was also learning how to speak—and I was her teacher.

Inspired by two camp counselors who were majoring in deaf education, I was motivated to teach deaf children.

After volunteering in my sophomore year of high school by teaching reading and phonic skills to five- and six-year-olds, I was eagerly anticipating a greater challenge in my junior year. But it was one that I had never imagined: teaching speech.

Wiping away tears and pulling Karen close to me for a hug, I notice Molly, the head teacher, walking by. “Keep working with her,” she advised with a knowing smile.

“She’ll come around with time.”

Yeah, right. How much time? I’m used to teaching kids how to read not how to speak!

On one occasion, as I enter the classroom, Karen pops out of her chair and runs to me. Screeching to a halt just in front of my legs, she arches her back and gazes up at me with a smile. “Ready, Miss Karen?” I ask as I take her hand and walk toward the table in the corner.

We begin as I hold up a flashcard with a fish. “Fissss,” Karen responds. I block my mouth and make the “sh” noise, hoping she will imitate me. “Sss,” she replies.

At the end of the day, I look right at Karen and ask her, “What’s my name?” I point to myself, and say, “Sarah.” Karen looks at me silently and just sighs. I repeat, “Sarahh,” in a sing-songy voice. She nods in more silence. I wish she were able to say my name, but in the back of my mind, I know it will never happen.

Every Monday and Wednesday during the next year, I go to the school and work with the class, but I spend most of my time with Karen. Week by week, she inches forward, but the improvements seem so minimal. One day, as we play a computer game together, Karen points to herself and proudly says, “Kawen!” I smile excitedly at her. Then, pointing to the screen, she calls out, “Fisshh!” Out of the corner of my eye, I see Molly’s head perk up.

“Molly, did you hear that?” I shout. She comes over. With a Cheshire grin, Karen points to the fish on the screen and yells, “Fisshh!” Molly smiles taking note of the progress.

I begin to keep a journal, my Karen logbook of learning. Her cognitive abilities are already outstanding, and her speaking skills are rapidly improving. Although she advances to pronouncing “nose” and “Karen,” she still is having trouble with my name. Nevertheless she continues and says “snow” as snowflakes start to fall on the computer screen. Moving on to opposites and mastering the letter “O,” Karen is talking more than ever in just a little over a month of practice.

Then, I write a journal entry I never thought I’d make.

Leaving at the end of the day, the kids shout good-bye.

Right before I shut the door, I hear one little voice cry out, “Bye, Sa-wah!” I swing the door wide open and scan the room to pinpoint the voice. Karen stands up and says it again, “Bye, Sa-wah!” I rush over and give her a huge bear hug. “Bye, Karen.” Backing up toward the door, I feel a rush of tears welling up in my eyes. After two years of teaching, I have learned how to relish each small victory, how to value the simplest words and half-words, and to find the greatest reward in a little girl’s voice.

Sarah Hawkins

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