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Raising a Deaf Granddaughter and Learning the Internet at Age 85

Two women smiling and facing camera - grandmother on left and granddaughter on right - with a nature wallpaper behind them.

Many people have fond memories of their grandmothers – their delicious homemade food and lots of love. My grandmother was no exception. I wanted to share a story of the remarkable woman.

She was more than just my grandmother. I lived with her and grandpa during the early years of my education because a school for the deaf was closer to their home than to my parents whom I visited on weekends and during school breaks and spent summers with. My grandma and I walked together every day to the school for about 15 minutes each way.

As a former math teacher, my grandmother was instrumental in ensuring that I got a good education as a deaf person and also helped me get transferred from a school for the deaf to a regular school where I was the only deaf person – which was not common in Russia as deaf kids normally were not allowed to attend regular schools, let alone to get communication access services. My idea to attend a regular school and to do other things that hearing people do sounded a bit crazy back then, but she decided to support me regardless because she understood how much I wanted to get a better education and to try different things that deaf people were believed unable to accomplish. 

My family originally planned that I start education in a regular school, but then it was decided that I would go to a school for the deaf instead. I went to the first grade at age 7, a common age for Russian kids to start school. I was picking up things so fast during the first year to the point that it was decided that I could skip a year and move up to the second grade in January – after only 4 months in the first grade.

I have a hearing cousin who’s only 3 days older than me.  I loved competing with him in solving math problems. To my biggest surprise, he easily solved math problems from a grade above him that I tried to challenge him. So I asked my grandma how come he knew the solutions being a grade below me. She explained to me that kids in regular schools are two years ahead of kids in schools for the deaf. It shocked me further to learn that there was a low expectation from deaf kids, so it made me feel more determined to set the bar high for myself as a deaf person.

So I told my grandma that I wanted to get transferred to a regular school and to get the same education as hearing kids. She was concerned that I would have communication challenges. I told her that I could speak and lipread her and my other family members. She explained to me that lipreading teachers and kids (who talk so fast) wouldn’t be the same as lipreading family members who speak slower and clearer to me. I still didn’t want to give up on my dream. I also dreamed of learning English as a foreign language (that was not offered in the school for the deaf) and playing piano (it was unheard of deaf people to do so). My grandmother had a piano and noticed that I liked to open it and to try to learn to play it using an old piano book for kids. I also tried to learn English on my own at home. 

When I was in the fifth grade, my grandma and I attended a New Year party for deaf kids and their parents. She met moms of a hard of hearing girl and a hard of hearing boy, both of whom attended regular schools, took English classes, and played piano. I excitedly proved to my grandma that if they could do it so could I. She told me that they were hard of hearing and had more hearing than me. I was still so adamant and didn’t want to let my deafness get in the way of my dreams. My grandmother realized that she could not stop me, haha.

So the following summer my grandma made a big surprise for me. She informed me that I would be transferred to a regular school that was just right across the road from her home. I was so excited and thrilled not just to attend a regular school, but also to learn English as a foreign language officially in the school and to take piano classes from a music teacher who taught deaf kids. Needless to say, it was a huge adjustment for me being the only deaf person in a school where everyone was communicating verbally. It was a huge difference from the school for the deaf where I spent 4 years and could easily understand everyone in sign language.

When I was a student a regular school, my grandma and I were reading a book called “The Fourth Height” by Elena Ilyina. It was about a young Soviet girl who overcame major hurdles in her life. She was not deaf or otherwise disabled, but I clicked with her because we both were determined to pursue our goals and to reach new heights. The book inspired not only me, but even my grandmother who excitedly discussed with me what heights I had already reached and what new directions I had yet to forage.

Even after I moved with my family to USA, I still had support and encouragement from my grandmother over the distance. She kept reminding me via paper letters and in person (when I visited her during summer vacations) about that book and about new heights I had yet to reach – especially during some difficult periods in my life (as it happens to anyone) that made me feel discouraged. She encouraged not to give me up and asked me how many heights I had reached so far in my life. She laughed after I told her that I lost the count. She pointed to me that it was a proof that no matter what challenges I faced I could still overcome them and that she was quite confident that I could do it.

My grandmother also experienced challenges of her own. She survived the horrors of the World War II. After the war she married a man whom I proud to call my grandfather. He also survived the war – he almost got killed when fighting in combat as a tankman. My grandfather did his part in raising me, too. Some of many fond memories of him are playing chess and badminton with him – he taught me both games. He was great at chess and won many tournaments. I admit that I’m nowhere near as good as him at chess, haha.

In addition to being a talented school teacher, a university professor, and a math expert, my grandma was also good at many other things. She was a skilled seamstress and made many clothes for her family from patterns that she designed herself. I remember her making me beautiful costumes for plays that I participated in at school. She cooked and baked a lot. Her waffles were my favorite – they could be rolled to form a cone. Every time I order ice cream in a waffle cone, it always reminds me of her.

Another amazing thing about my grandmother is that she learned to use the internet when she was 85 years old. I was very impressed that she tried to keep up with the times. She had a cell phone for many years that she used for voice calls and knew how SMS worked, but never owned a computer. When my parents bought her a laptop for her 85th birthday and taught her to use the internet, to send and receive emails, and to communicate via Skype, my grandma said it was a great gift – especially Skype. Thanks to that technology, she could finally see us via video on Skype as if we were in the same room.

I was very thrilled as well because before then I could communicate with my grandmother only via paper letters (that took a while to wait for) or in person when visiting her during summer vacations. When talking with her on phone, only she could hear what I said to her and I was not able to hear back what she wanted to say to me, so my mother had to interpret her voice messages for me. Seeing her via video on Skype made me feel as if I communicated with her in person. I could finally see her face and lipread her. We also exchanged text messages via Skype. She enjoyed seeing pictures I sent to her. I loved seeing Skype emojis that she was playing with and sent to me. It was so amazing to be able to communicate with her any time and anywhere – even from my smart phone! I kept telling her that she was a really cool and modern grandma and that I hoped to be like her at her age to be open to learning new things.

Sadly my grandma is no longer with us, but I cherish my memories with her. She was the best grandma I could ask for. When doing a deep clean at home recently as I usually do in the end of every year, I found old letters from my grandmother and in one of them she was reminding me about that book and reaching the new heights. It was an amazing woman who had no formal experience working with deaf kids as a teacher but did an amazing job raising a deaf granddaughter, granted some of her crazy wishes, and supported all of her dreams. If for not her support and encouragement during all those years, I would not be where I am now. And she reached a new height of her own when learning the internet at such an advanced age.

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