We shuffled along the winding road kicking gravel into the woods and listening to the pebbles ping off the trees. When the other kids started catching up to us we ran ahead of the group until we lost sight of them. Huffing, puffing, and sweating, we welcomed the cool breeze offered by the trees because we knew as soon as we hit the ball field it would be nothing but the sweltering sun. We complained amongst ourselves how we disliked playing baseball and thought it was unfair the teachers made us play….but the walk through the woods to and from the field made getting dusty and sweaty worth it. Birds sang as they fluttered from tree to tree while squirrels rustled through the underbrush. Walking alone made us feel grown up except when we heard noises which we couldn’t identify the source. We’d look at one another and glance through the trees to make sure no one was stalking us.
When we reached the clearing we let out hoots and hollers and raced for the red dirt. We ran around the bases, sliding into home. By the time the other kids and the teachers and aides got to the diamond we were already dirty and tired. We just wanted to sit on the wooden benches and watch. The teachers wouldn’t let us out of playing; after all, we had to get our physical education hours in for the week. What we really wanted was a drink of water. No chance of that. No one dared cart water all the way from the school to the ball diamond. Gee, it had to be at least a mile. In reality, maybe a half a mile. Anyway, we were stuck there for an hour or two without anything to drink. We gathered our change among us and threw about the idea of one of use walking across the road to the store for a soda. We knew that was out of the question. None of us was that daring. Then we saw a girl from our school walking down the road. We called her over and handed her our coins. We knew we’d get caught if we got a drink, so we had her buy us candy.
I was playing first base when I noticed the older boy sitting by himself on the bench. In our little town, all the kids knew one another no matter the age. This kid definitely did not go to our school. In fact, I’d never seen him before. It was even stranger there wasn’t an adult sitting with him. Though he was older than us, he didn’t look as old as the teen boys who hung around when they skipped school. I watched him a bit in between plays. When we rolled in to bat, Sunny motioned to him with her hands and he flashed his hands about in return and smiled at her. I walked up and watched them.
Sunny was a few years younger than us, but much wiser in some ways. She was the little sister we all wished for but none had. I asked her what she was doing and she told me she was talking to him. Well, I hadn’t heard her say a word.
I asked him his name and he pointed his fingers out, curled them in a ball, and made some other gestures that resembled an “o” and an “l”. I arched my eyes at Sunny for an explanation.
“He said his name is Harold.” I nodded at him while Sunny told him my name was Susan.
He smiled a lopsided grin and pulled a pack of juicy fruit out of the pouch of his overalls and pushed it towards us. We each grabbed a stick and handed back what was left.
I told him thank you, and he pulled a card out of his pocket and handed it to me. “Sign language” It had every letter of the alphabet with its equivalent is sign language. He respelled his named giving me time to look up each letter. Then I looked up my name. I slowly and meticulously formed each letter. He shook his head and smiled and signed it back to me, but much faster than I did it.
I stuck the card in the front pocket of my shorts. When we got back to school I showed it to Robin, Nan, and Cindy. We asked Sunny why he didn’t just talk to us. She told us he couldn’t speak with his mouth so he used his hands. We practiced the chart all afternoon with Sunny coaching us along.
When I got home I told my parents about the kid who talked with his hands. My mom looked up from where she was pulling something from the lower cabinet, “Oh, he’s deaf and dumb.”
“Well, that’s a mean thing to say.” I was shocked to hear my mother, the epitome of grace, speak badly of someone. My father started laughing as soon as the words slipped from my mouth.
“Deaf means he can’t hear you. And dumb means he can’t talk.”
“I still think it’s stupid to call someone dumb just because they can’t talk. Besides, he can hear. He signed his name when I asked him what it was.”
Mama rolled her eyes at Daddy who just grinned.
“He read your lips.” Mama explained.
What do you mean he read my lips?”
“He knows what you’re saying by the way your lips move.” Sign language and lip reading…I was introduced to two new ways of communicating in one day, and I was intrigued by them both.
My parents told me I didn’t know Harold because he and his sister went to a special school that taught children like them. I didn’t understand why they didn’t go to my school since they lived down the street. They explained the public school system wasn’t equipped to teach children with certain impairments. I sort of understood, but didn’t totally get it.
After dinner I sat on the bathroom counter and talked to myself in the mirror. I watched every tug, twitch, pull, and pucker as I formed the words. I crouched on my knees with my face inches from the mirror and slowly mouthed my words. (Visualize Dory from Nemo here!)
Cindy and I practiced the chart on the bus and after school each day. We communicated as much as we could by signing, but there was no doubt it slowed us down considerably. Still, we remembered the basics and were able to carry on conversations with Harold on the days he showed up to watch us play ball.
That was the only school year Harold came to watch us play ball. Shortly after we moved up to Junior High and only on rare occasions did we see him sitting on the front porch or in his yard as we rode by on the school bus.
****I was probably in fourth grade that year. In all honesty, I hadn’t thought about Harold in years. In fact, I couldn’t even remember his name though I can clearly recall him signing it to me. I called my parents who remember him but couldn’t recall his name. I texted my friend, Robin, to see if she remembered him. She did but not his name. However, she made several calls, and they in turn made calls until they found someone who remembered his name. I love my hometown friends!
American Sign Language Chart (This is like the one I used.)