Teens Turn Up the Volume on Life with Hearing Loss #YOLO
The surfer. Floating on his board, he watches the ocean and sees the perfect wave forming. The other surfers begin to position themselves. He is closest to the curl, so this should be his ride. He looks to see if anyone else is going to go. Dropping in on someone else’s wave is just. not. cool.
The pitcher. He stands on the mound, keeping an eye on the runner at first base, and then serves up a fastball. The guy at first takes off for second, and the shortstop yells, “He’s going!” The crack of the bat announces the batter’s solid connection with the ball. The high school coach yells directions from the dugout.
The musician. She’s a fierce competitor who lives and breathes music. Her goal is to maintain her position as first-chair violinist in the high school orchestra. Her fingering is impeccable, her sound remarkable. She wants to inspire the rest of the performers to work hard, so that the music they present is the best it can be.
These may be typical situations for some teens, but what happens when the pitcher, the violinist, and the surfer have hearing loss? When there is no crack of a bat, no way to assess the pitch of a note, or total silence when it’s time to negotiate a wave with other surfers? Hearing loss doesn’t have to stop a teen from finding success—both inside and outside of school—but could very well call for hard work, bulldog-like persistence, and creative problem-solving.
The sounds of success
Until Cason Sherrod’s sophomore year in high school, the sounds he heard from the pitching mound were muffled. Born more than two months premature with a 50 percent hearing loss, Sherrod tried to compensate on the baseball field by being alert to every visual cue available, and reading lips when possible. Without access to sound, however, it was hard.
For example, Sherrod says pitchers need to hear the team chatter to know what’s happening on the field. Pitchers also pick up important information from the sound of a bat hitting the ball. “If the ball was hit off the bat hard, it’s a little louder than if it was hit off the bat kind of soft,” the 6’ 4” athlete says. That audio information, Sherrod says, helps a pitcher’s performance.
That is an understatement in the case of this Dallas native. When he started wearing a new pair of powerful hearing aids, his high school game went from average to extraordinary. Finally able to hear the coach, the team, and the crack of the bat, Sherrod’s mechanics began falling into place. “Everything started clicking,” Sherrod says. “I could hear everything that was going on around me. It made me settle down and focus on my pitching.” By the time the boy was a senior in high school, his 96 MPH fastball was drawing the attention of major league scouts. Sherrod turned down several offers from professional ball clubs, including the Mets and Royals, before heading to college at Texas A&M.
Practice, practice, practice
Navigating the teen years, with their challenging academics, extra-curricular activities, and a sometimes-brutal social pecking order, can be tough. Add hearing loss to that mix, and Herculean efforts may be in order. That’s exactly what Hope Robbins, 15, employs in her pursuit of music.
All that extra work pays off. During a recent adjudication, Robbins’ two pieces, which she memorized completely, garnered high marks. In fact, she received 60 out of 60 for one of the songs she performed. “After that happened, it was worth all that hard effort and time, Robbins says. “I beat someone else who bet that he would get higher points than I did. He was older than me, by like 6 or 7 years!”As a violinist, Robbins sits first chair in her high school orchestra, despite the fact that she has profound hearing loss in her left ear, and moderate to severe loss in her right ear. “Even if I can’t hear, I should still be able to play the violin, because you can see what you are playing,” says the JV cheerleader, adding, “I memorize each exact position where my fingers go on the fingerboard.” The freshman also relies on four, strategically placed stickers to know where her fingers belong; and when she is learning a new piece, her mom plays it on the piano, to help keep the rhythm steady.
Finding the stroke
When Theo Hirschfield is bobbing in the ocean, waiting with a dozen other surfers for the next great wave, he can’t hear a thing. That’s because his cochlear implant and hearing aid are both back on the beach, safe from the water. The 14-year-old shrugs off the notion that hearing loss affects his surfing. “The only scenario that is affected, is that I can’t have a normal conversation with somebody in the water,” says the California high school freshman.
Like Sherrod for baseball, and Robbins for music, Hirschfield has a deep-seated passion for surfing, which keeps him returning to the sun and surf as often as his schedule allows. He admits that when he was younger, and like so many other newbies on a board, he did get in the way of other surfers. He paid attention, however, and learned how to wait, watch and pounce when the wave was his. Now he’s just another surfer in the line-up. “I’m like anybody else out there,” Hirschfield says, “and most people don’t even know I can’t hear.”
The art of fitting in
Whether it’s in the classroom, on the bus, or at the school dance, sometimes the most challenging part of being a teen is figuring out how to fit in. Audrey Quinn, an outgoing 15-year-old from Cleveland, Ohio, says that her hearing loss definitely affects her social life. “I don’t walk down the hallway with people because it gets so loud. It’s hard to carry on a conversation,” says the freshman. Quinn overcame lunchroom loudness—a real problem in her school’s noisy cafeteria—with a simple, but strategic, move. “There is a performing arts center nearby, with tables set up in it. The group of kids I eat lunch with migrated to that spot, and it’s so much better now!” Quinn says.
Sherrod faced similar issues when he was in high school, before receiving his hearing aids. “I couldn’t carry on a conversation with someone, when 50 percent of the time I would give them the wrong answer,” Sherrod remembers. “A lot of times people would say, ‘What’s your name?’ and I would say ‘yes,’ or ‘what?’”
To sidestep those kinds of embarrassing situations, Sherrod avoided conversations and didn’t go out much. “A lot of people thought I was being arrogant, you know? But I was just a kid who was minding his own business,” the Texas A & M student recalls. Sherrod originally resisted wearing his new hearing aids. Finally, however, with the encouragement of family, friends and his baseball coach, he donned the new technology. “I was so insecure about my hearing. I didn’t want anyone to know,” Sherrod says. “Over time, I’ve come to realize that you are who you are. You can’t change it and, really, it’s what makes you special.”