Stories From the Heart: Sensitivity Training 101

“I want to audition for the news show!” Christina said to me in a tone that could not disguise the fact that she had some sort of speech impediment. “I have an idea for the show. I’d like to do special announcements for the band. I play the drums.” She continued in an excited fast paced voice, as I struggled to comprehend every word.

I gave her some papers outlining the requirements for the anchor positions on our daily news show that I was in charge of at the high school. I told her I would notify her of her scheduled audition time. I then related the story of Christina to some co-workers.

I truly did not know how I was going to handle what I anticipated to be a very sensitive situation. My co-workers advised me that although admirable she couldn’t possibly do the job. Little did I know that later I was to have a crash course in sensitivity training that would guide me to a decision that would ultimately change not only my mind, but my life.

That weekend at a family party, my two brothers were trying to have a conversation. It was becoming quite heated because of the fact that one brother, John, has only ten percent hearing left, as a result of the explosion of the bombs from his days as a Green Beret in Vietnam. John is very special to me and has been through a lot in his lifetime.

John was trying very hard to hear his brother Larry above the music and other people talking. He kept asking Larry to repeat himself. Larry got agitated and made some comments about John not being able to hear.

John got up from the table and went outside. I went after him and found him standing by a small creek rolling some seeds around in his hand that he had just pulled off a bush. He was lost in deep thought. Are you all right? I asked.  “I’m tired of everyone telling me that I can’t hear every day of my life. I thought my own family would be a little more sensitive.”

“It`s only Larry, don’t worry about him”, I said. “I’m not mad at Larry. I am mad at myself for being like this” he said sadly.  I reassured him he had been through a lot, and that it wasn’t his fault. We didn’t say another word, but just walked back into the building and rejoined the party.

He has accomplished many things in his career and life and I look up to him as a strong role model. He has never once complained about any hardship life has dealt him. So, I felt that we had shared a special moment that afternoon and that a far greater power was teaching me something I needed to hear.

The next day Christina was scheduled to audition, but she never came in. The crew and I finished with the other students who had auditioned and turned the cameras and other equipment off. As I walked out of the studio I saw Christina.

“Why didn’t you come in for your audition?” I asked. She told me she never got my e-mails. I told her I felt really bad that the auditions were over but she’d have to come back next week.

She asked if she could just sit in front of the camera and see how it felt. “Sure” I said. As I watched, she sat there beaming. Then she said “I wish I could do it now”. “OK,” I said impulsively, “Let’s do it!”

After about four takes of reading from the papers that I had given to all the students for their auditions, she looked at me and said, “I’ll never make it, will I?” All of a sudden I felt an urge to get to know this ninth grader better. We started talking and I found out that Christina like my brother John had overcome many obstacles in her life.

She was born with a hearing impairment and she could only hear certain levels. She compensated for the rest by lip-reading. Had it not been for her working all summer with a speech therapist she wouldn’t have had the courage to try this. I was in awe of this girl. She had so much confidence, pride, and courage; I just knew that somehow I had to get her on the show.

I told Christina that I didn’t want to sound mean, but some students can be cruel and I wanted her to realize what she might be setting herself up for. We talked a while longer and after some consideration I told Christina that I would try out her original suggestion of doing a special announcement for the band.

I asked if she would take a few minutes and write a synopsis about the homecoming parade that the band had participated in that past weekend. I told her that I noticed that when she spoke to me in her own words I understood her better than when she was reading from the papers I had given her. I suggested that she practice it for a while until she felt comfortable. I told her “You`ll do fine.”

I gave her some time to write her story and to memorize it and then I came back to tape her. She had asked if she could get her drumsticks and incorporate them into her audition. Christina looked directly at the camera and performed flawlessly. She took her drumsticks and did a drum roll on the desk and flipped the drums at the camera. She said her closing statement. She was fantastic! I scheduled her for the following Monday morning show.

That weekend the band was going to play at Giant’s stadium. I told Christina to write her story, practice it until she really felt confident in saying it, get it approved by the principal and I’d put her on the show.  She was so excited. She asked if that meant that she had the job. I had previously shared my concerns about putting Christina on the air with the principal. We had pretty much decided that it would be difficult for her to do the show.

I called him after her audition and told him that I had decided to put her on the show. I briefly explained why I had come to my decision and I also mentioned that it was time to challenge our school’s theme, which is “Mutual Respect.” I told him how impressive she was and that he could see for himself because she was in the office waiting to speak to him. As I expected, she won him over.

On Monday, the principal escorted her to the studio and as he walked away just before airtime, he gave Christina thumbs up sign. Christina did her special announcement live throughout the school. The students were so attentive.

That day is one that will stay with me forever. The other members of the news crew were so supportive of Christina and cheered her on with smiles and thumbs up.  I had purposely not told them anything about Christina before hand, only that a member of the band was doing a special announcement. I was pleasingly surprised by their support and their reaction to her.

That week was filled with positive comments from staff and administrators, telling me what a nice thing I had done. My response was that I hadn’t done anything Christina deserved all the credit.

Shortly after Christina’s debut, she came to see me with a chocolate cornucopia filled with cookies and candy. She told me that it was a thank you from her mother for allowing her to be on the show.  I was touched beyond words. As I thanked her we hugged and tears welled up. In that moment I felt that my whole career in education had been worthwhile.

In the back of my mind, however, I knew that one other person deserved a hug – my brother, Johnny. He was the one who opened my eyes to Christina’s predicament. Christina is now our official anchor for the marching band and everyone looks forward to her next announcement. As for me, I can hear a little more clearly now.

By Angelina S. Wicks

* Stories From the Heart is an ongoing series of user contributed heart warming stories, that shine light on the Autism experience.

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