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The high school hall pass hijinks that helped me discover my hearing loss

Updated: Sep 17, 2021

How a hard of hearing millennial survived Kindergarten through 11th grade undiagnosed.


It all started at my three-year-old checkup in the late 1980s. According to my parents, the pediatrician noticed something was off with my hearing, but didn't think it required further investigation. Unless, of course, I one day wanted to pursue a career where hearing precision would be essential.

"But what would that be? A piano tuner?!" the doctor joked. Never mind that hearing is fundamental to many jobs involving communication, including the one I chose. Needless to say, hearing aids were not discussed at that fateful checkup.

This set the trajectory for my entire personality. My learning. My mental functioning. How I moved through the world. How I related to others. My auditory nerve worked so hard to hear, it literally sucked electricity away from other parts of my brain. I understand now how powerful my mind is. But for much of my life, it felt like a Ferrari in quicksand after each long day of listening.

Portrait of Hearing Habits founder Erica Jansen with a red pendant necklace and red jacket
My first day of high school, 2001

I sailed through elementary and middle school with no academic issues. I even wound up in a few advanced English and math classes. But something was wrong. Some nameless, lurking tension, like I wasn't being a person the way people expected me to be. I now know I wasn't alone.

And neither were YOU! Maybe you grew up struggling with what sets you apart, be it your culture, identity, neurodiversity, or some other invisible quality. If you've ever felt burdened by a difference you've grown to celebrate, you can relate to my life with hearing loss!

Then came high school, in a Minneapolis suburb, where I felt all kinds of social pressure to take honors and AP classes, whether I was interested in the subject or not. I wanted to roll with the smart kids and ultimately wow everyone with my college plans. The more boring the class, the more I strained to listen.

Things unraveled my junior year, in AP US History. As I sank deeper into my listening fatigue quagmire, I formed a self-sabotaging hearing habit, allowing my brain to clock out entirely. I sat at my desk picking my nail polish, daydreaming, not hearing about the Articles of Confederation. Our highly disciplined, marathon-running teacher, who expected students to attend "optional" 6 a.m. review sessions, was not amused.

And that's the thing about being young with hearing loss. Nobody says, "Oh! She might be hard of hearing and must not have heard me." They think you're being disrespectful. Or they think you're stupid.

Let's just say I was not Mr. Finkle's* favorite student. He made it abundantly clear the day I took the hall pass during in-class study time. What followed fortuitously set me on a path to the life-changing, brain-restoring, self-esteem-healing supercomputers I wear in my ears today.

Out of nowhere, as I walked toward the girls room, Mr. Finkle cantered around the corner like an Olympic speedwalker, the hem of his khakis dragging on the floor.

"ERICA PATTERSON!" he belted, completely over the top. "WHERE DO YOU THINK YOU'RE GOING?"

"The bathroom?"

"NO!!! YOU DO NOT JUST LEAVE MY CLASS!"

"Sorry, I didn't know --" but Mr. Finkle, in his no-chill manner, had already scoffed and turned his back to me.

"YEAH? YOU DON'T KNOW A LOT OF THINGS, DO YOU? GET BACK TO YOUR DESK RIGHT NOW!"

That palpable white-hot teenage-girl embarrassment washed over me, alone in the high school hallway with rage-aholic Mr. Finkle. He was right. I didn't know anything. I didn't know about John Hancock or Patrick Henry or any of the dead white guys he was making us analyze. I was not smart enough to be in AP US History and all my classmates knew I didn't deserve to be there.

Those were the lies I told myself because I didn't know the truth: that I simply hadn't heard Mr. Finkle announce his supremely anal hall pass policy (which, for the record, was contrary to that of all my other teachers).

And that's the thing about being young with hearing loss. Nobody says, "Oh! She might be hard of hearing and must not have heard me." They think you're being disrespectful. Or they think you're stupid.

If you've ever felt burdened by a difference you've grown to celebrate, you can relate to my life with hearing loss!

Mr. Finkle dealt me my life's first bad parent-teacher conference, saying I seemed "disinterested," among other things. My formerly proud parents were not impressed.

"I can't hear him!" I insisted to my parents. "Like, he's talking in a normal voice, but I can't hear the words. I'm listening as hard as I can! And if someone near me makes noise, I miss some of what he said!"

It sounded like a bogus excuse from a kid with a bad grade. But my parents believed me. They told me about my three-year-old checkup with the piano-tuner nonsense, then made me an audiology appointment.

The clinic ran an audiogram and diagnosed me with bilateral mild-to-moderate sensorineural hearing loss, and suspected the cause was genetic. Hearing aids were still not discussed. But they wrote me a doctor's note for school explaining my diagnosis and recommending I sit in the front of every class, where I'd be closer to the teacher.

Hearing Habits Founder Erica Jansen wearing a white tank top, spiky leather choker, and hemp necklace with mushroom pendant
Age 17, when I got diagnosed and became a hipster

This accommodation helped more than I anticipated. I pulled it together for Mr. Finkle, who let me off with a generous B-. I took more honors and AP classes, but tried not to stress about grades. I performed with my flag corps and our marching band counterparts, went to the state tournament with my speech team, and battled some twisted teenage angst that I assume stemmed partially from a lifetime of listening fatigue.

I forged ahead to graduation with a bitter chip on my shoulder, determined to convince someone, anyone, that I was smart.

 

It would take five more years, a million hearing-obliterating choices, lots of intellectual insecurity, mistakes cringier than the hall pass, and another influential teacher, for me to get my first hearing aids. Follow Hearing Habits on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest to see when my next story drops!


Did you have a Mr. Finkle in your life, who was maybe a jerk but also led you to change a bad habit or two? Share your story in the Hearing Habits forum!


*This story is intended with no disrespect to Mr. Finkle (not his real name!) The exact words of our interaction are a paraphrase of a memory and may not be perfectly accurate. Mr. Finkle gave lots of kids a great education and ran a tight ship for a reason. My intent is to illustrate how untreated hearing loss, combined with a lack of awareness, can cause some big misunderstandings that may be traumatic for a kid!

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