Hear with Your Heart

They can’t hear, but these friends really know how to listen—and understand.

Jennifer Alleman loves to read. “In a book, I’m not left out,” she says. Jennifer appears to be an average, 16-year-old high school student. She laughs frequently, loves talking to friends, and rolls her eyes expertly when her dad teases her about “being the only kid who likes to read too much.” With her long brown hair, twinkling eyes, and easy smile, Jennifer is like most everyone else in every way. But one.

Jennifer is deaf—she is completely unable to hear—but she and her friends are learning to listen to voices that are heard, not with the ears, but with the heart.

Jennifer and her classmates at the Idaho School for the Deaf and Blind face all of the normal challenges and fun of growing up—dating, driving, family and church responsibilities, sports and clubs, just to name a few. But due to injury, illness, and other circumstances, they have all of these experiences in a world of near silence.

Still, with a lot of help from each other, and a little help from Jennifer’s family, these youth are learning to love the Savior and the gospel in big and little ways.

“We meet for family home evening at the Alleman’s every Monday. We have games and spend time with each other, just like regular family home evening,” says Leann Larson of Preston, Idaho.

Since students come from all over the state to go to ISDB, leaving family, friends, and many of their gospel ties behind, their connections at school and church become even more important than usual. Since it is too far to travel home each day, a majority of students live in dormitories during the week, visiting home only on the weekend.

“It’s hard because you have to be so independent. There are all these other girls, and they all have the same problems as you. So I would just have to put up with it and then wait until Friday to talk to my parents about that week,” says Jennifer, who also lived at the school until her family moved to Gooding, Idaho, where the school is located.

Many of the students say they rely on scriptures to bolster their spirits when they are sad or homesick.

“Once in a while it just gets so tense that I think I can’t handle it. So I read my scriptures and they give me peace,” says Jill Henderson, an ISDB student from Blackfoot, Idaho.

That reliance on scripture study is remarkable given the fact that reading presents problems for many deaf people, since American Sign language (a language many deaf people use to converse) differs from written English.

“You have to have the desire to read. You have to sit down and try to understand what it is that you are reading. For deaf students it can be harder because they don’t know the vocabulary in the first place, or they might take it literally, because that is how they have been taught,” says Jennifer.

A person who has never heard spoken English may misunderstand a phrase like “Suffer the little children,” to mean “make the little children suffer,” or “and it came to pass” to mean “something passed by.” It doesn’t make much sense, does it? To study the scriptures, this small group has to have great dedication. They also rely on each other for help in understanding.

Attending early-morning seminary every day before school starts is another way for the students to gain gospel and scriptural knowledge. Most of the students get up on their own, using alarm clocks that flash a bright light in their faces, since their parents aren’t around to coax them out of bed.

When he’s home in Ashton, Idaho, Jared Hilliam is the only deaf member of his ward. Often, he has no one to interpret for him in his church meetings.

“It’s hard to go to my ward because when I go to church there’s really nothing I can hear for three hours. I try to go anyway to feel the Spirit, but seminary is my source of information about the gospel. I learn a lot from seminary.”

Friendships with other deaf youth through family home evening and school activities are often a fuming point in the lives of these students. Many of them grew up in worlds where their deafness made them feel that they were not as good as others. Through their interactions with others who face the same problems, they learn to take their deafness in stride and face other challenges life sends their way.

“I like being different. Also, I think deafness is part of our test; it can make us stronger, and through our trials we can help others,” says Tara Rodgers of Boise, Idaho.

Mostly though, the LDS students at ISDB are typical teenagers who like to hang out with friends, go to parties and dances, and participate in sports and church activities. Many in the group have funny stories about losing their hearing aids, making embarrassing lip-reading mistakes, and coping with their hearing loss. All of them seem to agree that having a sense of humor is an important ingredient for being happy as a deaf person.

“Lips are hard to read, and they’re not always accurate,” says Jennifer.

Others joke about the merits and advantages of being deaf.

“The thing I like most about being deaf is always being able to get a good night’s sleep, even if it’s noisy,” says J. R. Goff.

When asked about hearing the still small voice, Don Wilding quips, “We can hear him because he speaks louder for us.”

The group recently participated in a service project they called a “heart attack.” The group chose three people at their school, including the principal, to “attack” with large paper hearts, a Book of Mormon, and a plate of cookies. One evening after they had eaten dinner, the students tiptoed out of their dorms to the homes of the people they had chosen. Although it was cold and the ground was icy, the group was able to tape several red paper hearts to the outside of their “victims’” homes, set the cookies and the Book of Mormon on the doorstep, and leave undetected.

“It was during the winter and it was hard because there was snow on the ground which made it slippery, so most of us fell, but it was fun,” says Jill Henderson.

“All of us tried to come quietly out of the dorms, but we couldn’t hear ourselves, so we couldn’t tell if we were quiet or not,” says Jennifer.

With all of the joking it’s easy to forget that being deaf is not without its frustrations. But all of the youth in the group have found ways to deal with their unusual circumstances and are quick to point out that, in the most important ways, they are no different from anyone else.

“Just like hearing people, we are children of God,” says Brian Harper.

“My favorite quote is ‘Anything is possible.’ Communication is just something you have to work out,” says Jared.

The group from ISDB also understands the importance of temple work. They are looking forward to their first temple trip to do baptisms for the dead at the Boise Idaho Temple.

“I think temple work is important because there are people who don’t have the opportunities that we have. We as Latter-day Saints are given a lot of opportunities on earth,” says Brian.

Tara adds, “At the temple we feel closer to Heavenly Father.”

At ISDB, many faithful students have made friends, learned lessons, done missionary work, and grown in the gospel. That much seems clear as Jennifer signs along with a Young Women’s chorus during sacrament meeting on a cool spring morning. As the clear voices fade out behind her, Jennifer signs the final words to the song, “Those who have ears to hear will understand.”

Although their world is silent, Jennifer and her friends at ISDB work hard every day to help each other reach their ultimate goal to be able to hear the things that matter most.

[photos] Photography by Maren Younce

[photos] Ease of conversation with other deaf youth is one reason LDS students at ISDB like Jill Henderson (near left), Jennifer Alleman, and ISDB graduate Dennis Anderson (both above) enjoy being together.

[photos] Family night with the Allemans (above) and friendships with other LDS teens help students stay strong in the gospel, though many are far from home.

[photo] Jennifer and friend, J. C. Koyle (right), discuss an upcoming trip to the Boise Idaho Temple. “At the temple we feel closer to Heavenly Father,” says one student.