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THE TEACHER WHO MADE A DIFFERENCE

June 2, 1999

I'm convinced that we can have a profound effect on anyone with whom we come into contact. Some act that we deem totally insignificant can literally shape someone else's future. The right words at just the right time could totally change someone's life.

Years ago, that's what happened to me. My life was dramatically transformed because a simple three-word phrase was delivered at the right time in just the right way.

When I was three years old, my parents discovered I was totally deaf, a situation which forced them to make crucial decisions about my education. After consulting with numerous educational specialists, doctors, psychologists and parents of other deaf children, they made a decision that would forever alter my future. Instead of sending me to a private school for the deaf, they decided to "mainstream" me. All of my peers and teachers would have normal hearing.

Since I started going there in 3rd grade, I was the only deaf child at Blue Creek Elementary School in the small, quiet town of Latham, New York. From almost the first day there, the other kids taunted me and called me names mainly because of my hearing aid and the way I talked. I remember thinking, "What have I done wrong?"

My hearing aid was a rectangular box that was harnessed to my shoulders and hung from my neck like an albatross. It created a big lump on my chest with wires running from the box to my ears. Actually, the hearing aid was a miraculous little device that allowed me to pick up slight sounds and noises around me by enhancing my "residual" hearing.

I experienced great anxiety throughout Elementary school because, in addition to the problems of "fitting in" with the other students, I also struggled mightily with most of my school work. I seemed to spend every spare moment doing homework just so I could keep up. I was convinced that my parents and teachers were deeply disappointed in me because of my academic struggles. The teachers didn't know what to do with me nor did they show much interest in any of my rare accomplishments.

My hearing disability required me to constantly ask everyone, "What did he/she say?" I worried that everyone would soon grow tired of repeating everything back to me. Fitting in was so important to me that every time people around me laughed or smiled, I did the same even though I usually had no idea what was going on. This was repeated at the dinner table at home. Whenever my family had company, I felt left out because I missed the secrets, stories and punch lines. To cope with this, I always volunteered to do the dishes so that I could be excused from participating in the discussions. No wonder my hands were so soft all these years!

When the kids made fun of me, I internalized all of it. I was sure that I was a bad person; I felt I deserved their sneers. Although on the surface, I was gregarious, outgoing and "happy-go-lucky," in reality, my self-esteem was quite low. I saw myself as an ugly buck-toothed kid wearing a weird-looking box around his neck who wasn't even smart enough to keep up with the rest of the other kids. Mrs. Jordan, my 5th grade teacher, changed all of that with a simple three-word phrase. A large woman with salt and pepper hair, and twinkling brown eyes, Mrs. Jordan had a voice that boomeranged off the walls of her tiny classroom. One morning, she asked the class a question.

I read her lips from my front-row seat and immediately raised my hand. I couldn't believe it - for once I knew the answer. But, when she called on me, I was afraid. Here was an opportunity to impress the powerful teacher and show her I was worthy of her love. Maybe even impress my classmates a little. I didn't want to blow it. Despite my fears, I felt uncharacteristically confident because - for once - I was sure I had the right answer. I took a deep breath and nervously answered Mrs. Jordan's question.

I will never forget what happened next.

Her response was explosive. It startled all of us. Mrs. Jordan enthusiastically slammed her right foot on the floor and whirled her right finger in a full circle until it pointed directly at me. With sparkling eyes and a wide smile she cried, "THAT'S RIGHT STEPHEN!"

For the first time in my young life, I was an instant star. My heart burst with pride as an ear-to-ear grin filled my face. I sat a little taller in my chair and puffed out my chest. My confidence soared like never before.

I decided right then and there that I would make a place for myself in this world. No matter how many obstacles I might encounter in life, I knew I could overcome them. A simple three-word phrase delivered with incredible enthusiasm had totally transformed my young life. "THAT'S RIGHT STEPHEN!"

"From that day forward, my grades and speech improved dramatically. My popularity among my peers increased and my outlook on life did a complete turnabout. It was all because Mrs. Jordan believed in me and wasn't afraid to express it. "THAT'S RIGHT STEPHEN!"

--- Copyright 1998 --- Stephen J. Hopson --- Michigan