Christopher Lehfeldt graduated from Georgetown University last Sunday with a bachelor's degree in chemistry and a 3.2 grade point average. In the fall, he will begin dental school at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.
Lehfeldt, 22, an engaging and outgoing young man, takes a low-key approach to his accomplishments, just as his parents, obviously proud of him, are not effusive. But he is very happy with his grades, he said, calling them "fantastic" for a person who has been almost completely deaf since birth.
He has learned to speak and read lips and converses as well as a hearing person if he is able to face the person he is talking to.
"He's worked hard, and it is a product of hard work. He's bright, too, but that isn't enough," said his father William Lehfeldt, a former foreign service officer.
The Lehfeldts, who live in Bethesda, said they have never had to push their son to succeed in the world of the hearing. His mother recalled that he wanted to attend nursery school with hearing children so he could watch them talk.
"The first day, all the kids were screaming and crying because they didn't want their mothers to leave. Christopher made me wait in the car," Mary Ellen Lehfeldt said.
When he was 5, Lehfeldt's parents enrolled him in a boarding school in England that taught deaf children to speak and read lips. He finished high school in England before entering Georgetown four years ago.
"We were dedicated to the oral method," his mother said. When her son was enrolled as a preschooler at Kendall Demonstration Elementary School at Gallaudet College, she said, "I remember seeing the kids come out . . . and thinking how sad it was that they were shut off from the world not using their voices. But not every deaf person can speak ."
Although his grades would have qualified him to attend Oxford or Cambridge University, Lehfeldt decided to leave England because he wanted an American education. He said he found the switch from a small, sheltered secondary school to a large university shattering.
"I was alone. I didn't know what to do," he said. But he decided he had to be aggressive and introduce himself to his fellow students. "I knew no one would go up to someone in a corner and say 'hi.' I would have to go forward and meet them," he said. He said his fellow students treated him like any other person.
On the first day of classes, he discovered that lip reading would not work in the lecture halls. "The professors talk to the blackboard, or they mumble and move back and forth," Lehfeldt said. He soon worked out a system to copy his classmates' notes as they took them. He rarely told a professor he was deaf unless he needed special help.
"It's remarkable that someone with a handicap like that could be so at ease," remarked Richard Sullivan, an associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Georgetown, one of Lehfeldt's faculty advisers.
"He always made my secretary laugh a little bit when he came in and let her know he appreciated the effort she went to," Sullivan said. "Under the circumstances, it's a lot of effort for someone like that to come in and communicate, and he always did."
Lehfeldt's sense of humor extends even to his choice of profession, his mother said.
"He says dentistry is the perfect profession for a deaf person. When you get a person's mouth loaded up with all that equipment, they can't talk anyway," she said.