II. Fearless Leader
When you’re a little kid, so many things can mean the world to you. You may be unable to explain why, but it can something, one thing, that you’ll want—nay, demand—more than anything else you’ll ever be able to get. It might not make sense. But you’ll want it anyways.
For me, at age 6, it was a badge that said “Fearless Leader.”
I thought my kindergarten teacher was the most beautiful and kindest person I’ve ever met. I didn’t speak. I didn’t hear. She understood me somehow. I knew this because she would calm me down when I would enclose myself in the corner of the classroom, lost in thoughts and tears streaming down my face, pretending to play with the toys in front of me or mindlessly flipping through the pages of a book. Nothing made sense in that classroom. She spoke, but I heard no words. I saw in her eyes what she was trying to say, her patience, and her struggle to make this little girl understand and feel belonged. There was no belonging in a classroom full of children who taunted and laughed, pointing fingers, and ignoring pleas to play.
I made up my own stories in my head, games to play with. Recess was me running after children who had no desire to engage in my game. Or sitting on the swings. Staring at the sky. Years later, I had a conversation with a friend about what it was like to grow up deaf in a hearing classroom. She told me the children were mean, bullying her for being a “freak,” for not speaking or listening, and especially for the days she sobbed uncontrollably in folded arms on her desk. “What about the teacher,” I asked, “didn’t she stop them? Didn’t she help you?”
“The teacher,” my friend replied, “was the worst of them. She had no patience for me, would scream and yell at me as if in the loudness, I would suddenly understand her. Of course, I never did. How could I? I’m sure she hated me, though I never knew why.”
My teacher was not like that. Her blue eyes, earnest, soft with sympathy, connected with mine. She stroked my hair one day, telling me how much she liked my braid. I turned away from her. The kids were still mean and I was still left out. Nothing she ever could do would make me feel like I had a place in the classroom, or that school was a place for me. My mind’s reality and the reality I lived in never matched up to me, so how could it for her?
Then she did the most astounding thing of all.
Every week a child was chosen to be the leader of the classroom. The child would lead storytime, choose what games to play, receive first dibs. You had to be smart, popular, and creative to be chosen the leader. And once you were chosen, you were bestowed a button that said “Fearless Leader,” and all the other children in the classroom were your friends, respected you, wanted to talk to you, and play with you.
I wanted to be the leader so badly. My heart soared and sunk week after week as I was cast aside and another child gasped and giggled, running to the front of the classroom to be pinned with this precious jewel. Some got to go up more than once. Each time I had to hold back tears. This was never going to be mine, no one could understand me, so I could never say how much I wanted to have this.
But she did. She knew I wanted it. She knew I had to have it. And perhaps most importantly, she knew it would make me feel the sense of belonging I always wanted to feel; that I was not alone, that I was not a “freak” or undeserving of friendship.
I raised my head one day when I felt her tapping on my shoulder. She smiled so warmly at me and I was momentarily distracted by her beauty that I didn’t realize she held in her hands the badge for me. That feeling stays with you. The kindness that breaks the dividing line between your mind’s reality and the reality of the world.
She gave me the badge on Picture Day, a permanent reminder that I was not alone.