Pat Mirza

The Weight of their words … Elizabeth Alexander.

September 1973

I saw the notice on the gym bulletin board: “Cheerleading tryouts!” I loved to watch those limber girls in their lettered sweaters and flouncy skirts run, leap and cheer those boys into victory. I couldn’t imagine anything more worthwhile. I could run, I could jump and I sure could yell.

I rarely strove for anything that involved hearing well. I simply couldn’t hear well. Hearing aids in the ‘70s merely amplified sounds but did not make them any clearer – to me, they did not sound like words unless they were accompanied by lips. And these lips, unbeknownst to most speakers, should not be contorted into exaggerated movements, believed by the speaker to be the visual equivalent of shouting. It’s not. It’s distracting and inaccurate, so that by the time I was a teenager, I’d long given up trying to engage in situations where hearing was challenged.

Now I was willing to leave my self-imposed exile, and I signed up to try out.

There were going to be three tryout sessions, two days apart, in two weeks. Monday. Wednesday. Friday. The first week was learning the time-worn cheers. A few of my friends were also trying out so we arranged to meet at each other’s home to rehearse. I practiced at home also, hours and hours in front of the garage, facing the road at the end of our long rural driveway. No one could see me and I didn’t shout loud enough to disturb the neighbors. My parents knew what I was doing but no one else. No one else knew the prize I sought – popularity, belonging and visibility.

I didn’t see myself as striving to break any barriers. I just wanted to achieve this coveted spot in school.
When the first try out day came, I sailed through. I was confident and most of all, I enjoyed myself. When I found out I made the first cut, I was ecstatic. Nothing could stop me now.

There were fewer girls at the second tryout. None of my friends had made the first cut so my rehearsals were solo. I performed the cheers, and the judges, pretty girls with impossibly clear skin and perfect hair, applauded my leap and only suggested that I not grunt while I did it. We all had a good laugh about that. And I made the second cut. I was in the finals.

Acing the final became the only focus in my life. For two days I barely connected with family, hardly ate, and rarely thought of anything but the big day.

When Friday arrived, I wish the school day over so I could get my try-out out of the way. I loved the fact that every Friday, School Spirit Day, I would know exactly what I was going to wear: a classy green sweater with the yellow letter R on the front, for Roosevelt, a pleated skirt of green and yellow, white crew socks and green Keds. Every Friday. And best of all, I would belong somewhere.

As we assembled in the gym after school, a much smaller group than when we first started, one of the teacher coaches, Miss Marble, approached me. She pulled me aside and said, “The girls tell me you have a hearing loss. Don’t you think that will be a problem if you make the team?”

Her flippant words crushed all the air out of my lungs. “The girls tell me.” “The girls tell me.”

And just like that, it was over.

I went through the motions of the cheers, forgot words, forgot leaps, and ran out of the gym. No one followed me. No one comforted me.

A few years later, Miss Marble was a contestant on Jeopardy!. I hoped someone had said to her, before she went on, that she didn’t belong on the show. She lost and I felt some small spark of vindication. But to this day, I have never forgotten the weighty feeling of betrayal and exclusion of a few words: “The girls tell me.”

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About the Author

Patricia Mirza is a 64-year-old woman with severe to profound hearing loss. She’s had hearing loss since birth and was mainstreamed through public schools. Patricia had a year or two of speech therapy in the early school elementary years; she managed to thrive and do well, thanks to wonderful parents and a few very special and forward-thinking educators. As she notes, she deserves some credit, too! Pat has a BA in English, worked for the federal government for 32 years, and is now retired. Pat is the primary caregiver for her husband, who has early dementia. Her writing often features her experiences with hearing loss.