Monday, January 28, 2013
My Tormentor, My Friend
I was in my twelfth year, attending summer school at my parents' insistence. I endured the classes as well as I could, and at their conclusion, relished my emergence into the sunshine, and the ultimate reward to myself: a chocolate eclair at a nearby bakery.
Being hearing impaired, and quite severely at that, I missed much, if not all of what went on in class. Usually the teachers became aware of this, or semi-aware. They were busy people with jobs to do, and many other students to consider. One of the classes that summer was in creative writing, where I was at more of an advantage; reading and writing had always been my strong suit, something that I actually enjoyed. I was more motivated to seek out the teacher's understanding and assistance. I would speak to him after class - one-to-one communications were always easier. One way or another I was able to find out our assignments - at least I remember a few poems put together with some pictures I cut out of magazines, and the teacher's scribbled comment: "You have a nice creative sense, Jenifer."
But there was a problem. Right behind me and giving no indication that he would go away, sat a boy who frequently and annoyingly would kick the back of my chair. I didn't know what to do about it. I didn't feel able to confront him, speak to the teacher about it, or even move to a different desk in that crowded classroom. I felt I was under the thumb of a malevolent boy out to get me, and all I could do was hunch in my seat and wish he would stop. It didn't help that he was black - I'd had just about zero contact with any blacks in my life up to that point. Our town and the schools I went to were overwhelmingly WASP.
Kick, kick, kick. I wondered if he considered me the enemy because I was white. I retreated even more within my shell.
Perhaps if I made myself small and hid out well enough, he'd lose interest in kicking my chair. There were lulls, but then it would start up again. Kick, kick, kick. Surely my hunched shoulders and palpable tension telegraphed to him the effect this had on me.
I finally got up the nerve to turn around in my chair and ask him to stop. To my surprise, he was not unfriendly, and he did stop. Well, mostly. Once in a while it seemed he would forget, the atavistic urge would kick in, and he'd kick away until I got up my nerve again, turned around and asked him to stop.
I still regarded him as a thorn in my side, someone I had to deal with in my beleaguered summer school life. But near the close of summer session, we actually conversed. I seem to recall I shared my poems with him - I would show my poems to anyone who would look at them. He glanced at them casually, and then he asked me a question: "How did you lose your hearing?"
My psyche did a double take. It was like I was seeing and understanding him for the first time. For one thing, no one - certainly no boy - outside of the hard of hearing world, had ever asked me that before. For another thing, there was a vulnerability and a depth of questioning in his face and eyes that told me this wasn't just idle curiosity.
I answered him as best I could: "We're not sure why. Maybe because I hit my head, or had a high fever." This was true. The onset of my deafness at age seven was shrouded in mystery. And I now understood that this boy had been a mystery to me, too. He was not at all the tormentor that I thought he was. He was someone who cared.
And perhaps this was why he kicked my chair. He was interested in knowing me and this was the only way he could think of to get me to turn around and speak to him.
We weren't meant to extend that moment. When class was over for the last time, we went our separate ways. But I was changed by the encounter. His sad, yearning eyes and question stayed with me, and as I ate my eclair, I mused on the surprises and sweetness of life. Today, I hope my friend is happy, wherever he is.