Julie Muhlstein / Herald Columnist
Nathan Underwood’s eyes were what I noticed first. They’re friendly. They’re quick, darting from his speech therapist to picture cards on a table, and from his mother’s signing fingers back to me. Nathan’s eyes catch every nuance.
At 15, he is catching up on a world that’s all new to him – the world of sound.
“Nathan has spent a long time listening with his eyes,” said Maura Berndsen, who works with the Sultan teenager at Listen and Talk in Bothell. The nonprofit program teaches hearing-impaired children to listen and speak.
At Listen and Talk, most children are under age 3.
“Nathan is very atypical,” said Berndsen, the clinic’s educational director. “After 15 years, this takes a lot of motivation. Because of his age, he has to want to do this.”
He wants to. It shows in his eyes, his smile and his struggle to find his voice.
At Listen and Talk, Berndsen began her weekly session with Nathan by checking his sounds. She wears a lapel microphone that sends a signal directly to the boy’s FM hearing aid system. “I’m the radio tower and Nathan’s hearing aids are the car radio,” Berndsen said.
Because Nathan reads lips, she hides her face behind a cloth screen.
“Ah,” she said. “Ah,” he answered. She continued asking him to mimic her – “shhh” and “mmm” and “oooh.” Nathan answered “ee” to her “oooh.” Those tones sound similar to him.
Born with severe hearing loss, Nathan has communicated by American Sign Language most of his life. He started school in the Edmonds district, then spent fifth through seventh grades at the Washington School for the Deaf in Vancouver. He lived in the deaf community.
Technology and tenacity have broken the long silence.
With his digital hearing aids, Nathan can hear far more than anyone suspected he could as a child. An audiology test found that, aided by technology, his hearing loss is only mild to moderate.
“He can hear clocks ticking,” said Eva Harris, a speech pathologist with the Sultan School District. Harris also meets weekly with Nathan, who is now a freshman at Sultan High School. Nathan said music, not ticking clocks, has been the best sound he’s heard.
With his mother as his sign language interpreter, he takes regular classes and gets all A’s. He’s also a shot-putter on the track team.
Nathan’s mother, Sherry Knox, said when the family sent him to the school for the deaf, they made the best decision at the time. He did well.
“He learned to like himself,” Knox said. “He learned that deafness is OK. He had leads in school plays and was involved in student government.”
But Nathan, realizing his hearing potential, was driven to take another step.
After seventh grade, he knew he wanted to go to college someday. He believed a mainstream education was the best way to get there. His mother and her new husband, Jerry Knox, were settling in Sultan, and the family asked the Sultan School District for services.
“When he came to our school, we decided it was better that he not only see me, but an outside therapist,” Harris said. The Sultan district funds the Listen and Talk sessions, and also paid for his hearing aids.
“The Sultan district has really gone to bat for this,” said Berndsen, who shares her skills with Harris.
Mainstreaming students with special needs has its detractors, but one Sultan teacher said having the bright, can-do kid in class is a win-win arrangement.
“I’ve watched the way students interact with him,” said Michael Bowie, a Sultan reading and special education teacher. “He’s overcoming such a huge obstacle, it shows other kids that they can overcome anything. He has a wonderful sense of humor. He has focus and goals.
“And he does it with such grace,” Bowie said.
He does it with courage, too. The decision to leave the school for the deaf is in some ways a political one.
Since the 1980s, some members of the deaf community have embraced deafness not as a medical disability but as a cultural identity, with American Sign Language as a unifying, empowering force.
“He’ll always be most comfortable with ASL, it’s his first language,” Berndsen said. “In the beginning, he was very shy. He was afraid his voice sounded stupid. It’s a slow process. But he knew if he could talk, he’d do better in the wider world.”
Now Nathan and his mom sometimes talk without signing. Knox, who will teach American Sign Language at Sultan High next year, used sign language to ask a question Friday: “Is there anything you want to tell Julie?”
Nathan, with a killer grin and those smiling eyes, looked at me and signed, “I have a good life.”