In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt, Silence.
I watched my teacher save someone in third grade. I did not know it then but I know now. I watched this with eyes that were just beginning to see invisible things like compassion and grace. My third-grader eyes saw friends, Barbies, pizza, roller skates with sparkly purple wheels, Beverly Cleary books and my fuzzy brown and white dog, Candy, licking the window when she saw me walking up the drive.
I did not, at all, like seeing my classmate, David. He sat next to me at the end of the front row of those marvelous elementary school desks that had grooves for giant graphite pencils with no erasers and tops that lifted off magic compartments storing important supplies, like erasers. David was unpredictable. He was quiet until he was loud. He was turned off or turned way on, no middle volume. He screeched and clapped and screamed so suddenly I bit my tongue from fright so hard I was sent to the school nurse. David was different. David was scary.
I told my mom I didn’t like David; he was weird and frightening and I did not want to sit by him anymore. I don’t remember what she said but I do remember her hugging me longer and tighter than regular. When she did not ask the teacher to move me, I started resenting David. I think he felt that. He had episodes more often and I scooted further away from him, nearly onto my friend Lisa’s lap.
The second week of school my teacher did something strange. When David was winding up, she put his hand on top of his head and she did the same. She asked the rest of us to do it, too, and put her other hand to her lips for the “quiet” sign. Some kids laughed but not for long for reasons unexplained. There was something special about a whole classroom of kids being silent for one child who could not choose to do so. I couldn’t articulate that then but I knew what we were doing was important. I saw David look at us as his screams got shorter. I saw him pat his head and notice we patted ours, too. Maybe he saw himself in us at that moment and did not feel so different, for once.
Very soon the hand on the head ritual became like a game, a cool game, for our little class. And I got to be the leader. My teacher noticed David would usually snap or run his fingers back and forth in the pencil groove before having an episode. She asked me to watch for that and put my hand on my head when it started. The rest of the class would follow.
I took my job very seriously. At some point, it became more than just a reaction; I wanted to help him. I went from being scared to wanting him to feel safe, like I did. This is one of my first memories of feeling empathy. I treasure that I learned it in complete silence with a room full of amazing kids with our hands on our heads. The whole thing is largely still a mystery to me. I make sense of it by thinking David just needed some time to change gears, like releasing the clutch of a stick shift in a classroom of automatics.
Years later, my mom told me the teacher asked my parents if she could seat me by David and try this. I am so very proud of them, and not surprised, that they agreed.
David and I remained friends through high school and had you not attended grade school with him, you’d not suspect he once had a very hard time. I don’t know exactly what condition he suffered from and how it might affect his life now but to me he was just a shy, smart, awkward teenager. Who isn’t?