The One Setback That Changed My Life

Nancy Grasmick
TU presidential scholar, former State Superintendent of Maryland Public Schools

nancy Grasmick doing sign language

When I was 16 years old I had strep throat. At that time doctors did not test you for allergic reactions to medication. I had a severe reaction to penicillin that affected my hearing and breathing. I got medical attention and the breathing part was fine, but it left me with middle ear damage.

It was very traumatic because I was a very extroverted person and I couldn’t understand any speech. I remember my parents taking me to a movie thinking that would make me feel better but it was horrible because I could only see the pictures, I could not interpret any of the sounds. I had a full hearing loss for conversational speech. Had it been a cannon I could have heard it. It improved incrementally, but it was eight or nine months until I felt comfortable in a communication situation.

I realized how unprepared the world was for people who couldn’t hear.

I had always been interested in pursuing a medical career, but I became fascinated by this world of the deaf. I was particularly obsessed with Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan. I decided that I was going to be the new Anne Sullivan. As Helen Keller said, ‘Blindness is an inconvenience, deafness separates you from the company of your fellow person.’

Once I decided to pursue something in teaching Towson was the ideal place to come and still be able to get medical intervention and fulfill my dream of working with the deaf population. But at that time there were no internship opportunities in special education. When I introduced the idea that I wanted to have an experience with deaf students in Baltimore City, the answer was no. I was quite persistent, and finally the dean conceded. I went to the William S. Baer School in Baltimore City, which is a school for children with disabilities, but at that time it had a very large program for deaf children. I fell in love with the deaf students with whom I worked, and with the teachers who worked with them.

At that time the students were not allowed to use sign language. The school system felt that the students were going to enter a hearing world, so they had to learn to speak. It was my responsibility to teach the students and lipread. As an example, I had the children feel where the sound was coming from by putting their hands on my chest or nose or feeling the air coming from my mouth. All of these students from my first class came to my retirement party. Their success has been amazing and most of them have intelligible speech.

After I graduated from TU, I went on to teach at the Baer School while I pursued my masters at Gallaudet University, where I learned sign language. Then I went on to Johns Hopkins and got my doctorate in communicative sciences, which included audiology, speech and language.

Because of my experience working with deaf students, as my career progressed into administration and leadership I thought more about the needs of the individual child. It wasn’t just deaf children, it was all children with disabilities that I felt this huge responsibility to advocate for.

I’m very grateful that this happened to me. It was a blessing that led me on this path, which has been so rewarding in my life.