Hear Our Voices by Evan Mercer

A Feeling I Never Want to Lose

I was born with severe hearing loss but did not receive a conclusive diagnosis until age 3, when I was fitted with hearing aids.

After spending the first three years of my life in a world of silence, my mother recalls that I smiled the most beautiful smile she had ever seen after I heard sound for the first time.

Unfortunately, I had missed those critical early years of language development. I was so far behind kids my age in language development that there seemed to be no way to catch up.

At age 3, I started communicating by gestures. At age 4, I started making letter sounds.  At age 5, my first words finally arrived.  

Around the Clock Education

I had a secret weapon-my mother and her unrelenting push for education. She enrolled me in a school that focused on listening and spoken language where I studied for three years.

My education did not stop at 3 o'clock each afternoon. While I had my after-school snack, my mom served up flashcards alongside cheese and crackers. She labeled nearly every item in our house with a sticky note. As I walked by the sticky notes, I had to read the word aloud. Sometimes she mixed them up, like switching the one for the refrigerator and the toaster, just to see if I really knew the words. She kept books everywhere, constantly reading to me or having me read to her. Most of all, she talked to me about the importance of education and how deafness was no excuse for not achieving my full academic potential.

As time passed, her efforts paid off. As I enter my final year of high school, I am the only student with hearing loss in my class and am ranked #1 out of 500 students. I have experienced, firsthand, the transforming power of education. 

Being an Eagle Scout

I am now an Eagle Scout, the highest rank attainable in the Boy Scouting program of the Boy Scouts of America, beginning that journey in first grade as a Cub Scout.

Part of becoming an Eagle Scout is planning and executing a community service project. I always knew my project would focus on education.  I thought about all the knowledge I had gained during my scouting adventures-such as identifying plant life, caring for the environment, or even using math to figure out how much food was needed to feed my troops during a weekend backpacking trip. The outdoors had taught me practical applications of textbook lessons.

When I found a local elementary school that wanted an outdoor classroom, I knew I had found the perfect project. It combined my love of the outdoors with my love of learning. I set to work. 

There was an existing pergola near the playground of the school, so I used it as my base, adding a roof so that weather would not be a deterrent from holding lessons outside. I completed the now-covered classroom by adding a whiteboard and a podium. Next, I built and installed six benches, sized for elementary students. Finally, I landscaped the surrounding area.

Having a classroom outdoors reinforced that learning new things does not have to be confined to a traditional classroom, but can be done anywhere. The principal later told me how much the students look forward to classes outside.

The Mercer Maniacs

While I was looking for a potential Eagle Project, the disabilities coordinator at my school district heard about my search. She told me about a group of 4th and 5th grade boys with hearing loss at a nearby elementary school.

Although technology had granted them the gift of hearing, they were still academically and socially behind their peers with typical hearing. They did not possess the self-assurance to envision themselves thriving with hearing loss in the mainstream. They needed to be around a role model-someone who had persevered through difficulties of his own and understood their path.

While I had already committed to the outdoor classroom for my project, I knew I had to help. So the Mercer Maniacs mentoring group came to life. 

The Mercer Maniacs meet each week, and I focus on teaching these boys new skills and the vocabulary to describe them. I work hard on making our time together fun so they will never want to miss a meeting. I recruited my two brothers to help so each student receives individual attention. It is important that each of the boys feels special and knows that someone is there just for him.

Starting each meeting with a special "Maniac" handshake, I lead the boys in confidence-building activities, such as knot-tying, setting up tents, or geocaching, an outdoor recreational activity, in which the participants use a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver or mobile device and other navigational techniques to hide and seek containers.

A favorite of the group is doing science experiments. Anything that bubbles, fizzes or explodes is always a big hit. For one project, I armed them with hammers and nails, and we built birdhouses. None of them had ever done woodwork before so they had a blast.

Their teacher told me later they did a great job telling their classmates with typical hearing about the birdhouses. They explained to them why the entrance holes were of different sizes, how the inside was arranged so the baby birds could climb out, and why they need to be mounted on a certain side of the tree. They did all that using words that were new to them and they did it with great confidence. One of the 4th graders said he found a friend that likes birds, too. Now, they're sitting together at lunch. I believe I was happier than he was when I heard that. 

One Word at a Time

My goal is that these boys are not defined as teens who are deaf, but as teens who are successful. I want them to understand that while they may always have challenges, these challenges do not have to be limitations, but rather opportunities in disguise. Seeing them conquer their problems constantly reminds me of what can be achieved-one step, or rather, one word at a time.

College applications will fill my next few months. I am not sure where I will go to college or even what I will study. But I do know that wherever I go and whatever I study, community service will be a big part of my college years. The funny thing is, I feel as if I receive far more benefit from my work for others than they ever do.

That is a feeling I never want to lose.

Evan Mercer Presents Valedictorian Speech

Evan Mercer provided an inspirational speech as the valedictorian of Harrison High School in Kennesaw, Ga.