You Belong Here: An Essay by Philosophy & Religion Instructor Jason Larson
You Belong Here: An Essay by Philosophy & Religion Instructor Jason Larson

By Jason Larson

This really isn't the best career choice. This strikes me as an exercise in futility and frustration. I would not recommend this. You should try something that works within your limitations. You're deaf. You'll be much better off if you do something that works better for what you are.

I really should not be here.

I've heard these words throughout my life. No one expected that I would become a teacher of religion, philosophy, and history, or be fortunate to live and work in a community like Hotchkiss.

I was born with congenital hearing loss, and my deafness was gradual. My parents didn't notice until I was about three years old. One night, I heard my mother say: "Hey, Jason, it's time to start getting ready for bed. It is time to go your ... eet. " Most children probably would have realized that she'd said, "Brush your teeth." That's how language works; our ability to comprehend doesn't always require us to hear every word perfectly. But a three-year old probably hasn't heard that combination of words often enough to understand the implicit meaning of " your ...eet." So I took a guess: I got into the bathtub, turned on the water, and washed my feet like nobody's business.

Growing up, I felt like I couldn't meet my parents' expectations. I equated deafness with not being able to please people or do the things most kids did. I was, in effect, creating a scapegoat.

In ancient Hebrew religion, scapegoats were actual goats upon which priests transferred the sins of Israel. The animal would be led into the wilderness, never to return. But my scapegoat, my deafness, was not wandering off into the wilderness. It kept coming back. By the time I was in high school, that goat had moved into the backyard of my consciousness. Deafness became a convenient excuse for my insecurities, and I grew adept at devising excuses for anything I was afraid of trying.

My doctors steered me toward activities that didn't depend on being able to hear. There's a perception that the deaf cannot enjoy things that auditory folks take for granted. Deaf kids don't go to movies. Deaf kids don't play instruments. Deaf kids don't play sports. I allowed myself to believe those stereotypes. As a result, I became an avid reader, and I learned to value quiet. I came to enjoy being alone. But in other situations, I thought: "I should not be here." I didn't have a lot of friends, didn't play any sports, didn't go to dances, didn't go to movies or other social events. I came to believe in the lie: To be important, you had to do those things, and I convinced myself that I couldn't.

But my parents, teachers, and church leaders knew that I didn't really believe the lie. At age six, three years after I got my first hearing aid, I asked my parents if I could take piano lessons. I was still too young to be aware of the stereotype that deaf kids don't play music. I played the piano for the next 13 years; I performed in choirs, church groups, and bands, wrote a lot of truly awful music, and entered college as a music major. When I changed my major to history, it wasn't because I couldn't hear a thing in music theory class. It was because, for the first time, I believed I could do something: teach.

After graduating from college, my hearing worsened. I was down to 10 percent hearing capacity in the right ear and two percent in the left. Yet I went on to grad school at Miami University, where I found a mentor, Dr. Edwin Yamauchi, who believed in me. While in grad school, I went to an audiologist who told me that my hearing loss was progressing faster than could be accommodated with hearing aids.

"What do you want to do in life?" he asked.

"I'm a grad student, and I plan to earn my doctoral degree and to teach," I said.

"You're deaf," he said."You'll be much better off if you do something that works better for

what you are."

I did not take his advice. I completed my master's degree, then earned a second in library and information studies at the University of Kentucky. Eventually, I earned my Ph.D. in religion from Syracuse University. I went on to teach at eight different colleges and universities before finally ending up here, at Hotchkiss. I should be here. I belong here.

We are not the sum of our weaknesses, insecurities, and vulnerabilities. We need others to help us realize this, to look us in the eye and say to us: "You can do this. You should be here. You belong here."

This essay appeared in the winter/spring 2016 issue of Hotchkiss Magazine.