The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

Follow us on:
Share Youth Communication Follow Represent on Facebook Follow Represent on YouTube Follow Represent on Twitter
Follow Represent on Facebook Follow Represent on YouTube Follow Represent on Twitter
Deaf but Not Dumb
Oni Nicolarakis

For 11 years I went to the Lexington School for the Deaf, but when I was 14 I decided I wanted to leave and go to a mainstream school. My biggest fear was that no one would ever be able to understand me when I talked and that I wouldn't be able to understand anyone either.

At Lexington, I felt safe and secure. I had a lot of friends and I'd known my teachers since pre-school. I knew sign language so it was easy for me to communicate with the other deaf students.

The Promise of Independence

But I also began to feel controlled and dependent, and I felt isolated from the hearing world. Though I am the only deaf person in my family, I didn't have that many hearing friends, and I wanted some. And I knew I needed to get better at speaking and reading lips in order to communicate with hearing people.

The fact is that in this world hearing people are in the majority. I knew that in the future I would have to adapt to a hearing world, and I was afraid that the longer I stayed at Lexington, the harder it would be for me to learn to speak and read lips well and to survive on my own. I was also afraid it would make it more difficult for me to get into a good college. At Lexington I felt dependent, but when I get older I want to be independent.

Still, leaving wasn't an easy decision to make. A lot of deaf people tend to want to hang only with other deaf people, and sometimes they feel that hearing people think they are not just deaf but "deaf and dumb."

Getting Taunted

I'd also had some bad experiences with hearing people in the past. When I was 10, for instance, my best friend (who is hearing) and I went to a candy store in my old neighborhood. I wanted to buy the candy lipstick, but the old man behind the counter didn't understand me and kept saying "What? We don't have peanuts." Because I am deaf, I speak with an accent and sometimes people have trouble understanding me.

I kept repeating that I wanted the candy lipstick, but he just kept saying that he didn't have any peanuts, again and again. I got really mad when he started taunting me, making fun of my speech. My friend told me that after I left he laughed and told other people that I was stupid.

I've had other experiences, too, when I've been unable to understand people or they haven't understood me. But I still wanted to go to a mainstream school.

My Mother Was Afraid

I got the idea from a friend who had left Lexington several years earlier because she wanted a better education than she felt she was getting. I felt that way too, but I didn't do anything until two years later when I was in the eighth grade. Then I asked my mom if I could go to a hearing high school.

She didn't want me to go. She liked the close environment at Lexington where she knew all of my teachers and friends. She also feared that I wouldn't have any friends at a mainstream school and that students would make fun of me. She told me to think about it for a while before I made my decision. She didn't want me to make a mistake.

I Wanted To Go For It

I thought about it for a couple of months, both about what I would gain and what I would lose. I was afraid of losing all of my old friends and of not being able to make any new ones.

But I believed that if I stayed at Lexington I wouldn't get the opportunity to get into a good college, and that this would hold me back in life. In the end, I decided I wanted to go, and my mother agreed.

I went to my guidance counselor and she helped me identify schools with resources for deaf students.

I visited two. At the first one, Martin Van Buren HS, all of the students who had hearing loss stayed in one classroom all day long with a teacher who knew sign language. I wanted to be mainstreamed, not isolated.

So I visited the second school, Middle College HS, and I liked what I saw. Deaf students were in the same classes with hearing students, and I decided that's where I'd go.

Crowded Hallways

The first day at Middle College HS, I was adamant that I wanted to be independent. I wanted to prove to others that I was capable of taking care of myself. I didn't want anyone to think that I was helpless or an invalid just because I'm deaf. I wanted to be the kind of person who could help others.

But when I walked through the doors of Middle College HS, I felt scared and nervous. The first thing I saw were lots of students scrambling around the hallways. I couldn't find the room I was supposed to be in and I didn't want to ask anyone for help. I was afraid that people would ask me to repeat myself over and over or give me special treatment like taking me to my classroom instead of pointing the way.

So I started looking for the classroom myself. I noticed that I was the only one who didn't know anyone in the school. Everyone seemed to know everyone else, and I saw a lot of students kissing each other on the cheek or hugging. No one noticed me.

image by William Pope

For 25 minutes I walked in circles trying to find the room. I went into three wrong classrooms and had to say "Oops, I'm sorry," each time. During those 25 minutes I felt scared that I might never find the room. But finally I did.

Sharing My Experiences

That was the first challenge I overcame at Middle College, but there have been others.

For one thing, after that first day, I was given an interpreter who accompanied me in my new school. She translated what the teacher said into sign language, and helped me communicate with people one on one when I had trouble on my own. Although I felt annoyed when people talked to her instead of to me directly, as if I couldn't read lips at all, for the most part, she helped a lot.

But even with her there, at first I was shy and I didn't talk to that many people. It seemed like people were afraid to talk to me too because I was deaf.

After a while, though, I started to make more friends. Most of my friends were from American Sign Language class. Some hearing students take it as a foreign language, just like Spanish. In the class I shared my experiences as a deaf teenager.

And I also explained that, like them, I like to do a lot of other stuff other teenagers like to do, like watch movies and videos, shop and hang out.

No Longer a Stranger

They learned how to talk to me the way I want to be talked to, face to face, slowly and clearly, and I felt more confident making friends with them. Because they knew about me and my culture, they didn't treat me like I was strange.

Now I have a lot of hearing friends in Middle College HS, but sometimes I still get frustrated. When my friends talk too fast or all at the same time, for example, I don't always understand them. Occasionally I ask them to repeat what they've said and they say, "Never mind."

I'd Rather Know the Joke Than Just Pretend

When someone tells a joke I didn't understand and everyone starts laughing, sometimes I just laugh along with them, pretending I know what they're laughing about. I don't want to be a bother and ask them to repeat it. But I'd rather know the joke than just pretend.

Going to Middle College HS has changed a lot for me. I have lost the close connections I had with my friends from Lexington. Now instead of seeing them every day, I only get to see them a few times a year. And I don't get to sign that much like I used to. At Lexington, signing was a language we all shared.

But I've gained the experience of making new friends, writing for the school newspaper and choosing my own classes.

Still I wanted to be more independent, and when I think of this, I feel good about myself and my decision to switch schools. When people look at me and are surprised that I am so capable, I feel that I've succeeded.

After my year at Middle College HS, I felt confident enough to join the staff of New Youth Connections and take part in the meetings and discussions without the help of an interpreter.

At first, because I was on own, I was scared to speak out during meetings. Lots of times I didn't understand everything that people said and I worried that by the time I got my chance to speak, they would have changed the topic and my comment would seem out of place.

But later on I became more assertive and involved. I didn't care so much if what I said was stupid or if I said it at the wrong time. I just wanted to get it over with and say what I had to say.

'I'm Beautiful, I'm Smart, I'm Capable'

I know I've grown stronger from my experiences in Middle College HS and in the hearing world. Before, when people didn't accept me because I was deaf, I would feel like I wasn't good enough or that there was something wrong with me. When someone made fun of me, it hurt like I had been punched in the stomach.

But there were so many new challenges and struggles at Middle College HS, being surrounded by hearing people all the time, that I couldn't let myself get down. At first I would think, "Maybe I can't." But then I would tell myself, "I'm beautiful, I'm smart, I'm capable," over and over again, until finally I could believe it.

In the past I was afraid of going off to college with a lot of hearing people and of choosing a career where I would have to work with hearing people. Now I'm more afraid of whether I'll be able to pay for college or if I'll know what career to choose.

My experiences at Middle College HS have made me more confident about myself and more willing to speak out among hearing people and get involved. Maybe the most important thing it's helped me learn, though, is not to be afraid of being independent.

horizontal rule