This was originally published by Birdee Mag in 2014. I am republishing it here because March 3rd is World Hearing Day.
I still remember the name of the girl who called me ‘Picasso’. It started one morning, as I was walking in to school. ‘Hey Picasso!’ she shouted, and she laughed. I didn’t get it. I wondered if it was a nod to my artistic ability. That couldn’t be it, since I didn’t have any. Hm. She did this a few more times, and I till didn’t understand, until she asked ‘What’s wrong with your ear?’ Finally, I got it. She was thinking of Vincent van Gogh, the painter who cut his ear off. I was four years younger than her, in year six, and I knew she had the wrong painter. I didn’t correct her.
I was born with just one ear. My left ear looks normal, and then my right looks weird. Odd. Different. We call it my ‘little ear’. As a kid, it was a lot more visible, I guess. Your head is smaller, and your ears are more noticeable. Kids mentioned it a lot. ‘What’s wrong with your ear?’, ‘Did your parents cut it off?’, and ‘How did you lose it?’ were asked with increasing frequency as kids became older and bolder. I answered their questions — most were only asking out of curiosity. Some were mean. The ‘Picasso’ girl sticks out in my mind, however. She was four years older than me, well into high school, and for some reason felt the need to mock me for something far beyond my control. I still remember her name. I wonder if she remembers mine. Did she ever even know it?
My hair grew, and kids grew tired of asking. Since I remained at the same school my entire life, most of them knew. It was nice to not have to repeatedly explain things. At first, classes were difficult — my parents explained to every teacher I had that I needed to sit at the front of the class to hear properly. It was embarrassing. I just wanted to sit where my friends sat! My first grade teacher was so helpful, and so understanding — she even gave me extra assignments to do that taught me more about sounds and hearing. I’ve never had another teacher quite like her.
After I’d started to grasp the basics of the English language, my good ear filled with fluid and I spent a year unable to hear anything at all. My vocabulary disappeared. I could say the words properly before, but being unable to hear myself say them, I stopped being able to do so. My mum’s favourite example of this change is when I started referring to spoons as ‘pooch’. Luckily, after several operations, I was able to hear out of my left ear again. By the time I started school, I could speak and hear as well as ever.
I don’t think my story is particularly sad; there are children, and adults, with hearing loss far worse than mine. I have Goldenhar Syndrome, which manifests as my only having one ear and one kidney. Google results show that some children with this Syndrome don’t get off as easily as I do, so I know that compared to many, I’m fortunate. But for a long time at school, my little ear was the strangest thing those kids had been exposed to, and nobody had taught them how to deal with people who were out of the ordinary. Some people never learned how.
This has all been at the front of my mind because it came up in a tutorial at university last week. We had to introduce ourselves, and amongst other things, share an interesting fact about ourselves. I never know what to say when asked questions like this, so my interesting fact was my one ear. Nobody notices it now, whether it’s because they aren’t looking, or because it’s small compared to the rest of my head, I don’t know. People not noticing can be just as annoying as being asked about it in a way, because people whisper into that ear, or talk into it, and then get frustrated when I have to ask them to repeat themselves. When walking or sitting with friends, I always position myself to their right, and even with friends I’ve known for years have I had to ask them to switch places so I could hear them properly. Aside from small annoyances, my little ear doesn’t really create many problems for me anymore. There are concerns about further hearing loss as I age, especially after all of the concerts I’ve been to, but Middle Aged Cathy can deal with that. My single kidney hasn’t yet malfunctioned, and I’m hoping it stays that way. The best reaction I’ve ever had was when the ultrasound technician panicked and said ‘I’m sorry, but I can only find one kidney!’ while I just laughed and explained that that was to be expected.
Funnily enough, Vincent van Gogh turned out to be my favourite artist.