Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Life Lesson from the Past

I have decided I need to stop researching and making such complete posts and just get some of my thoughts out here in small pieces. So I am going to try to start making typing posts a priority, with less researched content, and publish them, from start to last edit, in under an hour.

I have several pieces planed, but they are all "educational". I haven't shared much about myself lately, so today you get a story from my life. When people ask if having a hearing disability has changed the course of my life in any meaningful way, I answer "yes" and recall these events. I have been able to do a lot of things I have wanted to do and after the fact, they have obviously been God's plan for me. I have no complaints. However, as nice as the "you can accomplish anything you put your mind to" philosophy is, it isn't actually truthful. I have to accept that there are things I simply can't do or won't be allowed to do and it isn't healthy to gloss over that.

When I was in high school I was pretty active. I should mention that I did wear hearing aides in HS, but at the time my hearing was better than it is now, so there were a lot more things that I could do, including socialize. I was in marching band, several clubs, the advanced academic curriculum, and the Navy Junior ROTC program. This story is about my experiences with the ROTC program. I liked it and excelled in the "psudo-military" environment and ended up as one of the top "student officers" in JROTC. I wore a uniform once a week (I would eventually have 4 different ones), kept my hair short, had officer like responsibilities, had to stay in shape, learned military drill, and was in charge of most of the other JROTC students at one point or another. I was the captain of the rifle team and had a dozen shooting awards to my name and had a really good time doing things like rappelling, orienteering, and dozens of other things. I was sent to several "leadership training weeks" where I got to learn all kinds of interesting skills and got to tour ships, stay on-board a Navy Cruiser, and even at an Air Force base more than once. It was really a great experience.

This is a "picture of a picture" I snapped with my phone on a recent trip.
I am on the right in the dress uniform. 
When it came time to start deciding what to do after HS, I decided I wanted to go to college and pursue a technical degree of some kind. This was complicated by the fact that my parent's divorced when I was a junior and so if I wanted to go to college, I had to find my own way through grants, and scholarships. I had good grades, but not enough to stand out from the top 10% and earn those full-ride academic scholarships to the big universities. The college ROTC program was very enticing. A fully paid education followed by a commitment to be an officer in the US military for several years. Something I was not opposed to doing and with my JROTC experience already had a pretty good idea of what was involved.

I applied for Navy and Air Force ROTC scholarships first (Marines and Army being my second choice) and had some great support from teachers and administrators for letters of recommendation and the like. Then I waited. The Air Force called up and wanted to take the application process to the next step. This meant interviews, more application paperwork, psych exams, and physical fitness tests. I also had to apply and be accepted to the schools I wanted to go to that had the ROTC programs. I went through all the tests and I was awarded an Air Force ROTC scholarship to cover all of the school costs (worth maybe $100K on paper I think). I was going to become an Air Force officer, probably not a pilot, but an officer just the same. I was excited about that.

The last thing I had to do was pass a full medical, so I went to an army base about an hour away and that had a large VA hospital. I distinctly remember the audiologist frowning through the little glass window while I sat in the sound booth taking the hearing exam. They knew I had a hearing loss, but I didn't pass that test (and it wasn't worth appealing). I thought I might have a chance despite the disability I was born with. I had little problem in HS and lots of people said, apply anyway. All of the encouragement and Oralist tools I had been using all my life had given me confidence that I could interact like a non-impaired person even up to the military's standards, but no, I was out. Based on my medical exam, no branch of the military would accept me even if I wanted to enlist (although there was a very slim chance they could still draft me). I would never serve my country in that way.

I remember in the HS assembly at the end of the year they recognized scholarships and awards that each senior had earned. I stood up for what seemed like ages while they read off a long list of scholarships and awards. It sounded like I had earned more than most of the other seniors in scholarships (excepting the girl who got a full ride into Juliard in NY) and there was a bit of a collective surprise from people actually listening. My guidance councilor took the stance that, "You earned the scholarship so you deserve to be recognized, you just can't use it." I felt it was a bit misleading though.

This was the first time in my life that a serious decision had been made for me, not because of who I was, what I did, and the choices I made, but because of what I was. I sympathized with all the Americans who historically had been denied military service due to their race or color. I know a lot of people are denied by the military for various health reasons, like I was, and I understand this. I wouldn't want to risk anyone's life because of my disability, but it was sobering for me, as a teenager, to realize the implications.

I graduated a few weeks later and had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I couldn't afford any major university. My only option seemed to be "stay and work".

My parent's divorce did come back to aid me though, I only had to base financial aid on one set of income taxes. My disability did too. The state Vocational Rehabilitation office would also help cover education costs. I found out a few weeks after graduation that a good university on the other side of the country (that I applied to on a whim) was willing to offer me the equivalent of in-state tuition, to be supplemented with a few grants, work study, Voc Rehab, and loans. This was my only good option and I took it. It seemed to be the direction I was supposed to go.

A few weeks later I was on a plane, with an overstuffed suitcase, on my way to college to study computer science. Not until Facebook was popular did I even learn what had happened to most of the people I was friends with in HS. I would never come back home in any meaningful way. I grew my hair long and forgot all about the military.

Oh, and the first day of class (8:30am math, ugh) I plopped down next to a cute girl and tried to pay attention. I would marry her 4 years later.

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