Olive Howden, 16, is the only deaf student at her high school. Howden wears bilateral cochlear implants to help her hear. Sruti Mamidanna/KQED
Olive Howden, 16, is the only deaf student at her high school. Howden wears bilateral cochlear implants to help her hear. (Sruti Mamidanna/KQED)

Part of the Conversation: How One Deaf 16-Year-Old Navigates High School

Part of the Conversation: How One Deaf 16-Year-Old Navigates High School

5 min

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When the morning announcements pipe through the walls of Santa Clara High School, students pause, look up for a minute, and listen to what the day has in store for them. But to 16-year-old sophomore Olive Howden, the morning announcements are a daily nuisance. That’s because she’s deaf and uses cochlear implants to help her hear. Olive tells us what it’s like to navigate a full day of high school while struggling to be part of the conversation.

I’m heading to my first class of the day, journalism. There’s so much happening as I’m walking through the hallways.

Simply talking to more than one person at a time is a struggle for me. If you asked me what word I use most often, I would say, "What?" As in, "Can you repeat that?" Because I am constantly missing half of every conversation.

It's difficult for Howden to hear in crowded, noisy spaces. She prefers to spend time in the quiet, where she can hear the people around her more clearly. (Sruti Mamidanna/KQED)

I was born deaf, but I can still hear. Just not the same way as the other 2,000 kids at my high school.


When I was 18 months old, surgeons implanted tiny computers in my cochlea, my inner ears. The cochlear implants work with processors to do my hearing for me. Basically, I have bionic ears. But apparently the things I hear sound "tinny," like listening to something on the other end of a metal tunnel.

At lunch, it's hard to find a quiet place to eat. My friends and I usually sit outside, in the quad. It's still noisy out there, but it's better than the cafeteria. My peers speak at what seems like the speed of light. Somehow, they pick up on things I didn't even realize the person next to me was saying. But my friends are amazing people. They seem to know exactly when to repeat what I didn’t hear.

Howden, a sophomore, takes AP European History at Santa Clara High School. (Sruti Mamidanna/KQED)

After lunch, I have AP European History. Some of my teachers—especially the quiet, mumbly ones—wear a microphone I carry around with me. No matter which way they’re facing I can still hear them, because the microphone streams directly to my processors. I couldn’t ignore them if I tried.

But I can't have everyone around me use a microphone. Last year I went to see the school play, and about five minutes in, I realized that I wasn't going to understand a thing. The actors didn't have microphones. So this year I looked up the script online and read the entire thing beforehand.

Freshman year I decided to try something I've always wanted to do. I joined my school’s swim team.

The issue was that my processors aren't waterproof. So I made sure to tell the coach, "Hey, I'm deaf," and she said, "No problem." But there was one small hiccup: I missed one of my very first races. The pool deck was loud and it was cold and rainy, and I didn’t have my processors on.

This wasn't a super tragic moment for me, since I wasn't that invested in the race. But it did remind me that I need to make one thing clear: Cochlear implants are not the same as real hearing.

Howden no longer swims on Santa Clara High School's swim team. Now, she's an avid runner on her school's track team. (Sruti Mamidanna/KQED)

After a busy day at school, and what feels like an endless amount of "Whats?" and "I can’t hear yous," I come home and I turn my processors off.

In the silence, sound seems imaginary — it's not real. The absence of sound leaves a void. It's so quiet, I can hear it screaming. Without my processors, I can't hear myself breathing or the keyboard clicking as I type. When I speak, I can feel the vibrations in my throat, but I can't hear my voice. It's gone.

Deafness is part of what defines me. I am compensating for my lack of hearing in every interaction of every day. When I'm too tired to focus and feel like I'm missing everything, I want to cry. But, as lonely as it seems, most of the time I forget I'm deaf.

During the day I’m surrounded by noise. At home, I can let the silence drown out the sound. Because silence is a comfort. It's the other half of my world.

Asal Ehsanipour produced this story. For more stories about high school student journalists, tune into our Youth Takeover show on May 3.