By Thomas Sellers Jr.
Tonight all the 2018 Millington Central High School graduates will hear words of praise, sentiments of congratulations and deep reflections.
Prior to the 7 p.m. start time at the Millington Football Stadium, the students will listen to the directions of faculty and administrators like Principal Dr. Clint Durley and Senior Counselor Georgette Farmer. Then the traditional commencement song of Pomp and Circumstances will echo through the Millington sky as the students march.
The first member of the Class of 2018 to enter the field will be Valedictorian Jennifer McCullough. Humbled by her top ranking, McCullough won’t take any part of the 2018 MCHS Commencement for granted — especially the sounds.
“It took a lot of hard work,” she said. “I was diagnosed with hearing lost at 18 months. I didn’t get to wear my hearing aid during my first Kindergarten year. I had so much ear infection. During that time frame I learned sign language.
“At the same time I was going to Memphis Oral School where they force you to talk,” McCullough continued. “It was tough. So when I finally got to wear my hearing aids, nobody could understand me. I had to retake my Kindergarten year to relearn my speech. I’ve been doing speech from then on all the way up to being a freshman. I finally finished it.”
Now McCullough will give the final speech from a student on the biggest stage of the year for MCHS. There to support her will be mom and stepfather Rebecca and Michael Brice, and dad and stepmom Jason and April McCullough.
Back when Jennifer was diagnosed with hearing loss, Jason and Rebecca made sure their daughter received the best treatment for her condition.
By the time Jennifer was 8, the couple divorced allowing Jennifer’s family a chance to expand over time to five siblings and four loving parents.
As her support system grew, McCullough faced a familiar foe.
“Throughout my whole life, I struggled with speech,” she recalled. “People will pick on you.
“I wanted to prove somebody wrong,” McCullough said. “One of the best ways to do that was be Valedictorian. Make straight A’s all four years. It was pretty tough.”
Born in Memphis, McCullough’s academic career began at White Station elementary and middle schools. As she adjusted to her hearing aids and worked on her speech, she also learned not to worry about naysayers and those mocking her condition.
“You get to the point where people are like, ‘Hey, what’s that in your ear?’ ‘None of your business,’” she recalled. “Since I was in the deaf community at White Station, here nobody knows that I’m deaf. It was sort of a restart for me. I realized all that speech work paid off. I told them, ‘Oh I’m deaf.’ ‘Oh really?’
The Millington community welcomed Jennifer in with open arms. Her new classmates, teachers, faculty and staff just saw a bright and involved student.
McCullough wears Cochlear Implants inside her ears that act as speakers to allow her to hear all the sounds of the world.
One sound McCullough is truly grateful to hear on a regular basis is music.
“My Mother and my Dad put me into piano lessons when I was in the first grade,” she said. “People thought they were crazy since I was deaf. I started to like it because it helps you with Math and to comprehend better. I learned how to play piano from then on.
“I enjoy hearing music,” McCullough continued. “I love the piano and violin. It helps me relax. I listen to music all the time.”
Music helped Jennifer relax dealing with her disability. It was also a comfort when studies got tough or witnessing her support system come through for her well-being.
“It took a lot, you have four parents at one time,” she noted. “They all sacrifice a lot for me. My Dad was working two jobs. My Mom worked at day care and I was at day care with her. They have helped me a lot.
“My Dad and April have sacrificed a lot to make sure I’ve enjoyed my senior year,” McCullough added. “I got a chance to go to New York for my senior trip. It was really fun with all the subways.”
McCullough’s hopes her next stop at Mississippi State University will be just as enjoyable as Millington. Being MCHS’ valedictorian has inspired McCullough to be a trailblazer once again.
“It shows them you can do this,” she said. “Just because you’re deaf doesn’t mean you can’t be valedictorian. I want to be an Army veterinarian. In the Army you can’t come in as a deaf person. I’m hearing loss, so I’m going to fight that so I can get in.
“I want the same opportunity as the people who wear glasses have,” McCullough continued. “I want to be an Army veterinarian. I want to show them that they’re wrong. I want others to follow in my steps.”
For now, McCullough will follow in the steps of past MCHS top scholars and walk to the stage to address her class.
“I will feel relief,” she said. “I was feel joy and happy. I will look forward to moving on with the rest of my life. I’m looking forward to moving on to Mississippi State.”
While McCullough soaks in the sounds of graduation night, she will take full advantage of another sense to fully capture the moment.
“I’m just ready to see everybody with a smile on their face,” she said. “I’m just ready to walk out on that stage, all that work paid off. I just want to be on top of the world for a moment. Then off to Mississippi State.
“With me the sense that got stronger, it was my eyes,” McCullough concluded. “I relied on my eyes in order to read lips. As a deaf person you read lips a lot like Helen Keller. She was blind and deaf, and she still understood a lot. She’s one of my role models.”
By Thomas Sellers Jr.