Being Heard

This is a follow-up to a post I wrote a while back, called Pulling You Out of the Shadows. I was caught off guard by the outpouring of responses to that post, which made me feel, perhaps more than I have before or since, profoundly connected to you, readers.  

At the end of her fifth grade year, Kali learned from her language arts teacher about a city-wide essay writing competition for DC students. Kali decided to enter. The subject of the competition that year was to write about “something unfair that has happened to you.” Kali’s essay was called “Being Heard.” Here’s how it starts:


My unfair experience has gone on my whole life, even before I was born. It has to do with something that wasn’t anyone’s fault, and no one could’ve seen it coming. My unfair experience is having a deaf sister, Grace.

Toward the end of her essay, she writes:


…she gets all the attention. For instance, my mom is writing a blog, and a story about her. When I first heard about this, I was pretty angry- what, nothing about the girl with the deaf sister? What about me? Aren’t I just as important? I thought.


Those words could have upset me a lot, but they didn’t. Maybe it was knowing she had found her own outlet for expressing her feeling of being a little bit forgotten. Or her acknowledging that things were a sometimes unfair for Grace, too: But then there’s the fact that Grace will never hear the beautiful sound of water rushing past you in the pool, or bubbles hitting the surface of the water. Or the fact that she also talked about coming to the point of acceptance: “…until I actually read some of the blog, and realized that it was about my sister, mom, dad, and me…Overall, having a deaf sister is tough, but it doesn’t affect our relationship and that’s all that matters to me.”


About a month after the submission date, Kali’s language arts teacher forwarded the email with the list of winners to me, and wrote: “Honorable Mention!! I am so, so proud of you, Kali!”


We were all invited to a ceremony to join the winners and their families. Kali got to miss school that day so that she could attend this incredible event, in which each of the students who had placed in the competition read their essays to the audience. Many of them shared deeply painful stories, and I was awed by their bravery. Excerpts from each of the honorable mentions were read as well. This is the part of Kali’s piece that was chosen by the panel to be read aloud:


Since my sister is still brilliant, even without CIs, everybody expects a ton from me. Grace gets all straight A’s, and, if anything, always goes above and beyond in school, but mostly just in life. The truth is, I’m not only scared to go to middle school because of the independence, but I’m also afraid I’ll be looked down on by teachers because I might not be as brilliant as her.


All of the winners and honorable mentions received a packet containing a certificate, a cash prize, and letters of congratulations from an impressive list of politicians, activists and writers. Lunch was served, and there was a giant cake with each of the winners’ names iced onto it. Kali got to eat her own slice. The whole event was an amazing recognition of the writers’ personal achievements. But, I couldn’t ignore the irony of it: It was Kali’s Great Moment, and it was based upon the experience of being Grace’s Sister.

As if to underline this fact, the woman who founded this competition – a good, sweet, truly humanitarian lady who devotes her time year after year to show dozens of children the power and importance of their words – warmly greeted Kali and congratulated her. And then immediately asked her if her sister Grace was here at the ceremony as well, saying how much she’d love to meet her.


Oh well.


As she neared the end of fifth grade, Kali’s teachers shared with me how important a person she was in class. Her math and social studies teacher explained that she had a knack for being a strong leader, without ever becoming dictatorial. That Kali was her go-to-girl whenever group work needed doing; that she built the table assignments around Kali and her skills at quietly helping everyone Get Stuff Done. I could feel an air of confidence building in this kid who once had been too terrified to even approach a salesperson at the register.


She was so excited to start middle school, and so nervous. There would be more kids in 6th grade than there were in her entire elementary school. And, she was worried about the expectations everyone would have of her, being Grace’s sister. Here’s the thing though: one often-overlooked benefit of a large school is that every grade needs tons of teachers. Not one of Kali’s (excellent) 6th grade teachers had taught her older sister. None of them knew Grace as a student. At the first parent-teacher conference of the year, Kali’s middle school teachers made similar observations to me about her quiet confidence and tendency toward subtle leadership. They think she is terrific.


The other day, she and I were talking about different personality types. I remarked that Kali had a rare combination of quietness and sociability. Her quietness has always been one of my favorite things about her. Her presence is calming. It can be frustrating for her, in a house full of first-born loud-mouths, trying to get a word in edgewise. But she is strong, and she has learned how to make herself be heard.