Can You Hear Me?
I’ve noticed that in life, especially in the middle school hallways, there are two kinds of people. There’s the people who ignore you, pretend that you are invisible. With them, It’s always the same. Glance, don’t meet the eyes, look away. Step aside. Ignore. And then there’s the people who acknowledge you too much. “Hey, mute boy!” One of the people who see me too well jeered. “What’s the matter, cat got your tongue?” They all laughed meanly, and let me pass through them. Of course the people who don’t see me don’t notice the jeering, but they know enough to part down the walk in front of me. I leave a wake behind me. Everyone shifting back to their original positions. Tears burn behind my blank eyes. This happens everyday. Why do I feel like this now? So, I know that I’m different. It’s not like it’s contagious. I’m not a bad cold, a fever, the chills. I’m a person.
“A special person.” “they” said when “they” pulled me out of 1st grade. With their glasses, black slacks, cardigans, and doctor’s office smell. Their big, complicated words that they murmured over my head. Words like “social anxiety” and“selective mutism”. Smiling in a sweet, sickly way, trying to cover it up. I’m not dumb. I know what’s going on. They don’t have to hide it. I could tell them all of this. What happens on the bus on the way to school. Eating lunch under the school’s musty basement stairs. Spending recess in the bathroom, sitting on the stall floor. Even walking down the hallway, pretending that I don’t notice them, just as they don’t notice me. But I choose not to. I don’t like to talk to others. Actually, I haven’t talked to anyone in eight years.
It’s not like I don’t want to talk to people, (I don’t), but every fiber in my being is against my speaking. Sometimes, when I'm all alone in my room, I try to make a sound. But I've found out everytime that it isn't time yet. This is a constant struggle that makes people give me weird looks in the halls, and make fun of me, knowing that I won’t be able to have a comeback. I get taken advantage of, played, and am always the butt of jokes. But I know I can't change. Not yet.
The bell rings as I slide into my seat, silently. The loud chatter dies down, as the most respected teacher, Mr. Smith walks in with a smile. This is the only class where I don’t get laughed at in my face. Not with Mr. Smith watching. I let the lump in my throat be swallowed. I will my eyes to stop burning. This is my favorite class, one where I feel like I can. I can be heard. I can live the life I was supposed to live. I’m not a mistake my parents made. I am the perfect student, child, friend. “Ok class! Let’s get started!” Everyone pulls out their colored pencils. I pull out my chunky crayons that “they” gave me. It annoys me that every single aspect of my life is controlled by “them”. But I don’t want to think about that now. Now is my favorite time. The one time I can express myself without having laughter follow.
“Alright everybody! Today, your focus is, drumroll please... famous paintings! I want you to create an artistic representation of yourself that will let me get to know you, as a person, not a student, better. So take a walk around the room, where I have set out examples of famous artwork, where the artist created it in representation of themselves.” I read the puzzled looks on my peers. They wouldn’t understand it. They represent themselves with every word they say.
I wait for a few others to stand up, then I begin to walk around. I stop for a while at an abandoned flower painting. I admire the unique brush strokes that we had studied earlier this year. It spiked my interest because I liked how all the strokes connected, forming a connected, flowing feel. It felt leisurely, soothing. I ran my finger along a line, seeing it connected to the painting. Mr. Smith walked over to me and saw my eyes drawn to the picture.
“I thought that you might like this one.”He said, snapping me out of my trance. I stiffened, at the presence of another person, but then quickly relaxed. I felt like Mr. Smith was someone I didn’t have to completely shut out. I wanted to impress him. I wanted to say something so badly. To tell him how the lines flowed like a story. How I could hear the artist, telling his life sruggles through the brushstrokes. The words almost flowed right out of me. I was surprised, I had never been so compelled to talk before. I had to clamp my mouth shut so I wouldn’t tell him what I could hear. Mr. Smith didn’t seem to notice my internal war.
“Did you know that the artist, Vincent Van Gogh, wasn’t recognized as a painter until he was dead? His life was thought to have no worth, and his paintings, a waste, but years later, we know him as one of the most famous painters of all time!” He stopped, letting it sink in. I stared at the simple vase, holding the flowers high, giving them water and a spot to spend their hours in before they wilt, die, and are forgotten. I won’t let this painting be forgotten.
I began to gather my chunky, bright primary colored crayons, and head back to my seat to work on my art project, but then the painting suddenly began to go out of focus. The colors blurred together, spinning, spinning. The shapes melted together. I could no longer make out the fantastic sunflowers. The painting began to darken. Not again! I thought, desperately fighting against it, clawing inside my mind, desperately trying to hold on to reality, but my efforts were in vain because everything went black.
When everything cleared out, I could see myself standing at the edge of the road, next to my grandparents in NYC, on the corner of Broadway and Times Square. I wasn’t surprised at this out of body experience. This has happened a lot in the past, but lately, it’s been a lot more frequent. I absolutely hate this moment. My brain seems to torment me, making me relive it again and again. I look back at me and my grandparents, laughing at a joke I had just told them. My grandpa smiles his real, not photo smile, with his eyes crinkled around the edges, and deep wrinkles around his cheekbones. We wait on one side of the crosswalk for the walk symbol to light up.
“You better hold onto your hat there, boy!” Grandpa says to me, as a strong gust of wind russels through his gray hair. I smile and adjust my hat. The walk symbol lights up, and the crowd of people around us rushes across the busy road. From afar, I see myself grab my grandma’s hand, and watch us fall back into the crowd of people to get a little more space.
Once we get to the end of the crosswalk. I stop, letting my grandparents catch their breath. “Thanks sonny. We’re not as young as we used to be.” My grandma said, wheezing. We’re about to continue on, when a gust of wind makes my hat sail off my head, and behind me onto the road, where cars have begun to move again. I cry out, turning back to see my hat land on the street.
I close my eyes. This part is the hardest part to watch. But even with my eyes squished tight, the rest of the scene burns on the back of my eyelids. I hear a “I’ll get it!” From my grandpa. And a “No, stop!” From my grandma. The screeching of cars, honks fill the air. A sickening thud, crash, whine. Gasps, cries, a vibe of dread intoxicates the once, clean, breezy air. I try to will myself out. Come on, you are back at art class, and just doing your work like a normal person. LEAVE! LEAVE! I tell myself. But I know that I can’t. I never can leave before I see the damage I have done.
I open my eyes and see the terrible sight of my loving grandpa, holding my hat, laying in the middle of the busy NYC traffic. Cars screech to a stop. People pull out their phones, desperately trying to get a hold of 911. But as always, all of that is background noise, barely heard over the terrible fast beating of my heart. All I can see is my dead grandpa, holding my hat.
I start to fade out of the trance, but I don’t notice. All of my focus is on my grandpa. The loving look on his eyes. Not a hint of knowing what was coming. My grandma pulls young me away, tears streaming from her glasses. She tries to talk to me, to grieve in me, but I stood there, tearless, and silent.
A few seconds later, I’m in the bright, happy art room again. No time has passed at all. I abruptly turn on my heels, and walk away from the painting, and grab a bathroom pass. And that is how I spend the rest of the hour, staring at the graffiti in the bathroom.
The bell rings, and I get out of the bathroom as fast as I can to avoid the herd of people that rush to the bathroom in between classes. I toss the pass in Mr. Smith’s room, and hurry to math. Walking down the hallway, I turn on my autotune eyes, and ignore all the usual glances. But I stop however, when a glance turns into a look, and a look turns into a studying gaze, and that turns into the worst thing possible. EYE CONTACT! I stare this new person down back. They’ll find out that I’m weird at some point. No reason avoiding it. But then the most surprising thing happens. Words come out of the new kid’s mouth, and they’re directed at me.
“Hey1 I’m Sammy, and I’m new, and I was wondering if I could eat with you at lunch?” Sure. I think. They want to make fun of me to impress the cool kids. I’ve seen it all before. I look at his expression, and I see an unusual thing. Sincerity. I kind of want to tell them that people don’t eat with me, unless they fancy sharing their cheese with the mice in the old basement of the school. Then something weird happens. My chin lifts up, then bobs down, in a nod. Like, WHAT! The kid smiles, and says “Great, see you then!” and hurries down the hall. I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into while rushing off in the other direction to get to math on time, and not bring any more attention to myself.
Math goes by in a blur of equations and fractions. I practically run out of class at the bell. Lunch time! I think, with surprisingly mixed feelings. I was thinking of ditching the kid, but the look in his eyes stopped me. I decided with dread to eat in the cafeteria during a particularly boring math lesson, but dread wasn’t what I was feeling now! I felt excited, and curious. All I knew was, I couldn’t let down this new kid.
Once I walked into the cafeteria, the unfamiliar smell of pizza, chocolate milk, and stale cookies filled my nose. The bright lights, and all those people inside almost made me think about turning back, but I knew I couldn’t. I caught his eye, and moved to a table by the trashcans that was vacant, and seemed like it was going to stay that way.
It passed in a blur. He said some things to me, and I smiled, and almost laughed. He had discovered that I wasn’t one to talk a lot, but he made up for my silence. I couldn’t see how he even got a bite in without stopping his mouth. It didn’t bother me though. I have always had a fear of talking, but slowly I have been developing a fear of silence.
I left the cafeteria with a warm feeling. I no longer felt like the silence was eating me up inside, was finishing me from the inside out. It was like a friend was the medicine for my hurting throat. My throat that wanted to say things so badly. My throat that hadn’t spoken since the accident. My throat that wanted to yell, and hurt “them”, to tell them that I could hear their things “they” said behind my back. That thought gave me a kick start, and carried me through the rest of the day with a weird feeling on my face, an upturned, high cheekbones, crinkly eyes, teeth showing smile.
When I got home from the bus, my mom looked at me with a completely shocked look on her face. She blinked, as if she was still asleep, because she thought seeing me smile was a dream. She smiled back at me, not expecting me to tell her why I had smiled. Not yet, I thought. Not yet.
Days passed quickly by, in a fast blur of happy lunches and smiles. No matter what happened that day, I could always look forward to lunch, where I wasn’t trapped in a bubble of my own silence. A cage of my own creation. I felt like I was close to breaking out of my cage, popping my bubble.
One day, I was listening to Sammy talking about his family, and how he wasn’t going to be at school because he had to attend his grandpa’s funeral, and the strangest thing happened. I felt like my mouth was in a fight with me. I threw punches, and my mouth hit back. I took the blow and let it control me. I opened my mouth, and before I could stop myself, My lips moved in the first time in eight years. A sound came out, in kind of a squeak. It felt weird on my throat. Not a bad weird, but not comfortable either. I forced myself to power through the sound. “I’m sorry.” There was a silence, and I felt awkward, having my life exposed, but it also felt amazing. I wanted to do it again. “That must be really hard.” I said.
Sammy looked at me in amazement, studying me, trying to find out what had changed. The answer was simply, everything.
I felt like I had a voice. My voice was scratchy, and it hurt to talk. Not all my words even came out with the right sounds. I still had trouble with making my words not flow together, so it was understandable. Some people still laughed at my attempts at talking with Sammy in the halls, or when I asked a question in class. But I wouldn’t ever go back to being mute, ever.
I walked into Mr. Smith’s classroom. In his class, I didn’t feel like so much had changed, and it was nice once in a awhile. Mr. Smith treated me the same way he did when I was mute. He respected me, and knew that I was capable of more then I let on. Somehow, I could tell that under all his normality about the whole thing, I could see that somehow he knew that I had it in me. He knew that I wasn’t going to be forgotten. He knew that eventually, I would rise up in the world, and be known world wide. Like the sunflower painting, it might take a while, some bad days, some failure, and some pain. But you have to get a voice out there. You have to be known. You have to be heard.
Some people ask me what I’ve learned from the whole experience. My reply is always the same. “I’ve learned that there are more than two kinds of people in the world.”