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One of the greatest experiences of my life has been to be given the opportunity to teach college-level courses to young adults and returning adult learners.

I went to college late in life, at the age of 48 after working as a secretary for almost 30 years. Facing the blackboard for the first time in three decades was both scary and thrilling. It was scary because it had been a long time since I was in a classroom setting. I was returning to school with an FM system in hand due to a progressive hearing loss. It was thrilling because going to college was one of the greatest opportunities experienced in my lifetime. It helped me to view life through a wider lens. It also gave me the courage to believe I was up for the challenge as my world slowly became more silent.

After completing my M.S., I now had my back to the blackboard, facing a large classroom full of eager students. Never in my earlier life did I ever think I would be teaching.

For the last twelve years, I have taught students about James Joyce, Maya Angelou, Henry David Thoreau and many other great writers. Patiently, I have helped them navigate their way through MLA research methods. I have also had the honor of helping adult learners compile their portfolio for credit for life experience, understand learning theories and apply them through practice.

These students from adolescence to retirement age have seen me scout around the classroom with an FM system in hand pointing the microphone in the direction of the student speaking. I always told them on the first day of class to just think of me as a talk-show host. It was inspiring and heartwarming to see how supportive these young people and adult learners were of my hearing loss.

Over the years, many students in crisis reached out to me, and I was honored they entrusted their confidence in my judgment to direct them to resources that could assist them. I was also honored that years after being in my classroom many students continue to contact me just to say hello, or “Happy Thanksgiving” or “thanks for everything.”

We are so attuned to being conscious of the student in the classroom who may have special needs, but sometimes it is the instructor. But, I learned a lot from my students. One of the most profound moments for me was my experience with a young man who openly discussed his autism with the class. On the last day of class he waited until everyone left the classroom and he asked me, “What does it feel like to be deaf?” I was touched by his sensitivity.

My teaching experience has always been a very positive one. So, when I started to lose more of my hearing this past spring, it was a difficult question to ponder. Should I continue on in the classroom? Don’t get me wrong. Over the last 30 years, I have done headstands to assert my place in the workplace. But life changes.

One day, across the room I read the lips of a young man who without any intended malice lamented to a student next to him, “She can’t hear.” At that moment, I knew I had crossed a threshold, and my sense of integrity forced me to ask myself if it would be a disservice to the students to continue on if I was struggling to communicate with them.

Then there was the day we were discussing wellness in one of my classes. I thought a student said something about how wheat affects us. I went through this whole rant about gluten and how the students could research how wheat has been modified over the years. The student gently told me she wasn’t commenting on wheat, she was speaking about weed. Well so, there is a lighter side to these things sometimes. We all shared a laugh about that.

It is always hard to say goodbye to a good thing. But I’m glad I recognize when it is time to go. I have many warm and wonderful memories. In the classroom, I always tried to treat students the way I would want someone to treat my own children. Let them know you believe in them. Let them know it’s okay if they don’t understand something. None of us are perfect.

I think the kids thought I was cool because I was open about my hearing loss, and it was okay to be something less than perfect. Maybe too, they will remember me as someone who had her own struggles and made it to the finish line in her education and life goals. If that inspires them to continue on with their own roadblocks, something good has come out of my own personal loss. So the positive side of the coin is that I will have more time for another passion, writing. But I will surely miss them. MGW

Copyright © Mary Grace Whalen 2014. All Rights Reserved.