the first boy i kissed (not counting the boy i kissed under the table in kindergarten!) was andrew. our families were friends and we went to the same youth group at church, and we were crushing hard on each other in a write-notes-to-and-about-each-other-and-talk-through-your-friends-kind-of-way. i thought he was misunderstood in his angst-y moodiness, and that he was so cute with swoopy skater bangs. he loved the band erasure, and taped me copies of every one of their albums, with each song carefully written on the cassette liner. we wrote each other poems and so many notes on torn out spiral bound paper. did i mention that i thought he was just so cute?
he had been born in southeast asia, and adopted by his parents when he was really young. his parents were white, and he was definitely not. his skin was the color of milk chocolate, and his eyes were deep brown, almost black. some kids at school called me "chink lover" (which was the first time i think i'd ever heard that word before) or used their fingers to stretch their eyes into slits. it hurt so much, and it was embarrassing, so i never said anything to him about it.
he was wrestling a lot with being different - different ethnicity from almost everyone in his world, and different way of coming to his family through adoption. as much i as could understand having identity issues as an 8th grade girl (without knowing what to call them), i knew he had them. i think i probably liked the drama of it all, but even deeper, i was worried that he felt so adrift. it made me sad. i knew he felt on the outside of most everything. he kept trying to figure out who he was and where he belonged. there were plenty of times that i felt different, from the rules my parents made for me, to my clothes, to my body type, to my janky haircut in 7th grade, to always being the new kid at schools. but andrew's issues of feeling other were so much more at the root of who he was at birth.
it stuck with me, those conversations- that which was said and unsaid. it shaped my awareness and sensitivity to otherness. i am a white, college educated, middle class american female. for as many identity issues as i've had? i'm pretty firmly in majority culture by the nature of the parents to whom i was born.
then, i had a deaf baby in april 2008. a beautiful, perfect, deaf baby girl.
from the first time we heard profound hearing loss and cochlear implant i began to think about identity. how would getting implants shape her identity? should we talk about her deafness? her implants? her otherness? or not? i imagined her coming to be at 18 and saying, "you never accepted me as being Deaf. i didn't want implants and i'm going to stop wearing them." or "i was always the only deaf person. why didn't you make sure i had deaf friends? or friends with implants? all i ever wanted was to be like someone else." who knows, maybe we will hear those words one day.
but i couldn't get andrew (and many other scenarios since) out of my head.
i decided i had to just talk about identity from day one.
embrace deafness, embrace implants, embrace all the other parts that make my child who she is. but i had to talk about her being deaf. with pride, in offhand comments, with joy, with matter-of-factness.
i make it a point to have playdates with her friends from deaf school even though we've all scattered to more local schools. i make a big deal about when we hang out with her friends who have hearing loss, so that she knows that if she wants them to be an important part of her life that they can be.
i show m videos that show up in my facebook feed of another kid with implants or of justin, the designer on project runway who is deaf with implants.
i made her a book about her hearing loss journey with pictures from her surgery and her deaf school and her hearing aids when she was itty bitty.
i talk to her a lot about her teacher of the deaf and her therapist and her audiologist to make it simultaneously normal and special.
maybe i post about it a lot on social media like instagram or facebook or my blog. maybe i talk about it too much. sometimes i wonder. maybe vocalizing it is overkill. after all, she is so so much more than deaf. but it is also impossible for me to separate the fact that she also is deaf, even though she talks and sings and shouts and presents as a hearing child.
am i doing it "right"? who knows. but for now, i err on the side of talking about identity early and often. on celebrating the way god created my daughter and letting her know that i love her just the way she is.
i posted this on facebook, but i was amazed at what m came up with for her weekly writing assignment last week for kindergarten. they can write stories and pick from topics. i read through a bunch of them, and then she said "i want to write about 'what i like about me'!" then she drew this self portrait with one of her implants and dictated the following to me:
"I like having cochlear implants. Everybody's different. I have a magnet in my head which is special. When I was born I had a big surgery. First I was deaf when I was born. First they said I couldn't have a surgery then they said I could and that made daddy very excited. I'm born deaf and you're just the way you're supposedly to be. I like being deaf and my implants."
wow. that's all. wow.
last year i went to an alumni panel from m's deaf school. an 11 year old deaf, bilaterally implanted little girl was talking about herself and life, and it was all very normal- school, sports, family, friends. she is completely mainstreamed in her classroom and thriving. and then at one point she said, "but i'm deaf on the inside."
hoping my girl can know who she is inside and out, and that matt and i can know how to celebrate and support her as she figures that all out. isn't that what we all need to have a strong identity? validation that it's ok to be who we are from the top layer al the way down?