Hearing Things Differently by Terry Thompson

I’m hearing impaired.

But you might not know it if you met me. It’s really not something I like to highlight. Most people who know me don’t even realize I wear a hearing aid. I hide it fairly well. In fact, I can get pretty stealthy with it. I watch your lips (Stop covering your mouth, please!) and think about the context of what you’re saying (Don’t change the subject in mid-sentence.). I park myself in the middle seat at meetings (It’s easier to hear the cross talk.). I avoid important conversations over meals (I can’t hear a thing when I chew.). I nod in agreement when you whisper to me (Even if I have NO clue what you just said, which is most of the time.). And when it’s especially bad, I fake a head cold and ask you to speak up (Mighty useful at parent conferences!). But even with all my clandestine efforts, compensating for my hearing loss has always been a struggle.

And last week I found out it’s getting worse.

Oh, I knew it was coming. I have what’s called a chronological hearing loss, the kind that gets worse over time. It started in infancy and has slowly deteriorated since then – so when the doctor presented yet another dipping audiogram, it wasn’t a surprise.

But still, I was devastated.

I’m not deaf, but even a moderate to severe hearing loss like mine can be incredibly frustrating, and I didn’t want to admit it was getting worse. I hated facing the truth that I was slipping further into the uninvited quietness that comes with being hearing impaired. And, I felt gut punched when the audiologist announced that it was finally time for me to start wearing two hearing aids instead of one – something I’ve been resisting for several years now.

el deafo cover

This discouraging cloud was still hanging over me when I arrived home a few days later, to find Cece Bell’s new graphic novel, El Deafo, waiting in my mailbox. Isn’t it always amazing the way the right book finds you at just the right time? El Deafo tells the story of a young Cece, whose severe hearing loss reminded me so much of my own that it caught me off guard. With unexpected tears, I connected to the gentle way Cece’s fading (and eventually empty) speech bubbles illustrated something I’ve never quite found words to describe. As her story unfolded, it tapped into and released a sadness I’d long since forgotten was there, and I kept saying to myself: This is it – this is exactly how it feels.

el deafo #1

And just as unexpectedly, despite my grief, an odd sense of relief came over me as well. Someone is telling my story. Someone gets it. And I was reminded that I’m not alone. With adept charm and striking humor, Cece shares her own struggles, and in doing so shares the struggles of countless hearing impaired individuals the world over. Things like waiting until the commercials for someone to catch us up on the parts of the show we missed, trouble with team sports because we can’t hear the call, being miserable at sleep overs after the lights go out and we can’t see anyone’s lips, and even making sure we always have batteries on hand because you just never know when your hearing aid battery will bail on you.

el deafo 2

Setbacks? Sure. Embarrassment? You bet. Well-meaning friends and family who just don’t understand? Par for the course. But if so many of Cece’s experiences mirrored my own, it was her resiliency that spoke to me the most. And it was in her bravery that I found my own again. Cece reminded me that the strength to endure – to excel, even – is in every one of us. We all have what it takes to ride the ups and downs of life with confidence and gusto. We all have, it turns out, our own El Deafo inside us, waiting to burst onto the scene.

But even more than that, Cece reminded me that, despite our individual difficulties, obstacles and struggles, we all have a universal story. Just like her, we all deal with the embarrassment of first love and the pain of lost relationships. We all struggle to find our place in life, make lasting friendships and fit in. We all want to be normal. We all want to be understood.

And you really don’t need a hearing aid for that.

This is what, in the end, makes El Deafo a perfect book. At once a story of a hearing impaired little girl and at the same time a commentary on the universal truths that affect us all, El Deafo is a perfect demonstration of the capacity graphic novels have to illustrate what words struggle to describe and the power of storytelling to connect us to one another, unite our journeys and ultimately heal our wounds.

And with that, my outlook shifted. I got over my momentary crisis of self-pity, put on my two (Yes, two!) brand new hearing aids, and got ready to face the world again. All thanks to a courageous young girl and a graphic novel.

A graphic novel with a super hero punch.


Terry Thompson is an avid reader, literacy intervention teacher, writer, and consultant living in San Antonio, Texas. With his new hearing aids, he’s excited to admit that he can now hear carrots snapping, blinkers blinking, and keyboards tapping. He’s the author of Adventures in Graphica: Using Comics and Graphic Novels to Teach Comprehension and is finishing up his next book, Construction Zone: Building Scaffolds that Empower Readers and Writers. Follow Terry on twitter at @terrytreads.