“Which teacher did you get?” L practically shouted down the hall at me. It was “Meet the Teacher” day back in August 2004 (3rd Grade). I had attended the same school since Kindergarten and had known most of my classmates (including L) since then. We were sort of friends… but then again, everybody was friends back then. If he had asked me this question a year prior, I probably would have smiled, shouted, “Mrs. S!” back at him, and we would have cheered upon realizing we were in the same class.
But this was third grade. This was 2004.
I don’t know what changed, but I remember, very clearly, stopping in my tracks and staring at him, trying to move my mouth. All I had to tell him was that Mrs. W was my teacher. The phrase was all prepared, ready to be proclaimed… but I just stood there next to my parents, begging my mouth to move. I was ushered away – my parents had places to be – and I remember L’s head as he tilted it to the side, a look of hurt and confusion clouding his face.
I would dwell on this memory for over a decade.
This was the first time in three years of memories that I remember something like this happening to me. For a long time, I thought this was when my silence began. 2004. The year the Summer Olympics were held in Greece. Or the year Facebook first launched. Or the year my favorite quarterback, Peyton Manning, was signed to the Indianapolis Colts. Or the year Friends aired its final season. Or the year the third Harry Potter and the second Spider-Man movies came out. Or the year former president, Ronald Reagan, died. Or the year the base of the Statue of Liberty re-opened for the first time since 9/11. Or the year George W. Bush was re-elected president. Or the year an earthquake-tsunami killed 230,000 people. 2004 was a big year.
I was pulled out of class a lot that school year (2004-2005). I kept failing the school’s hearing tests and since my speaking tapered off during that time, the school nurse, Mrs. Shef, was especially worried. Looking back, I think I was failing those tests on purpose because it was the only way I could think of to cry for help… for attention… for somebody to notice that something was definitely wrong with me. I remember keeping my hand rested on the table as I listened to a few of the high-pitched tones. I had convinced myself that maybe I was just hallucinating the sounds… that the pitchiness was causing my ears to ring. But in reality, eight-year-old-me just wanted somebody to care.
I remember that I stopped doing my homework that year. Not all the time, but at least one fourth of the time. I remember one instance in particular in which I was speaking to my friend, J, before class, knowing that both of us had accomplished nothing over the weekend. I smiled at him, preparing to put on the act of a lifetime, “Watch this.” Mrs. W called my name as she took roll and checked for homework. I burst into tears, sobbing. It wasn’t difficult to make myself cry for real. I was an emotional kid. My friend, K, guided me to the bathroom to dry my tears, “You know it’s not healthy to cry all the time,” she said, “My mom is always crying…”
K’s mom was a single mother. L’s parents were deaf. J lived with his dad and step-mom, who were suspected of abuse. I wasn’t exactly raised in a family like theirs. My parents were together, healthy, and communicative. The five of us lived in a three-bedroom duplex. We went to church across town every Sunday where my dad led worship and my mom worked. My baby brother liked to ram himself into walls and I liked to chase neighborhood adventures. There were no warning signs… nothing that suggested that I would suddenly be “shy” or unusually silent in 2004. But that was the year my silence reminded me of its existence and never left.
According to my mother, my teachers always remarked on my silence before this age, but I hold no memories of severe “shyness” at school between (and including) Kindergarten and 2nd Grade. Perhaps I was quiet all this time but was too young to notice… especially since I seemed to be friends with everybody. Or maybe it’s because my memories of those grades are dominated by memories of rebellion… rebellion from my silence. Whatever the case, it was eight-year-old-me who was shocked into the reality of my condition. It was eight-year-old-me who was given a self-help book by my third grade teacher. It was eight-year-old-me who garnered the most attention from her silence, her failed hearing tests, and her waning giftedness. Eight-year-old-me who was stuck with the burden of knowledge that something just wasn’t right. Something was very wrong.