When my student finally spoke

Published on: November 23, 2022 6:00 AM EST

Illustration of one red bird taking flight from leafless trees full of brown sparrows

The first and only time she volunteers to read in class, I almost forget to hide my surprise. Looking at her hunched shoulders and burrowed chin, I wish again that something would uncoil, smooth, soothe her.

Until now, she’s only let me hear her say a handful of words. “Hi” every morning — from the floor, sitting pressed against the lockers — and only because I greet her first. Even though I don’t believe it, “fine,” each time I ask about her day as she pulls out her chair. And, if I’m lucky, “bye” when her back is already turned.

Never has she raised her voice above a grumble, including now, as she reads the first paragraph of our next chapter. Even though they can barely hear her, my other students are just as surprised. They never knew she could speak.

Listening to her read the words someone else has written, I think only of her journal, the books I ask them all to keep, creating sentences, telling true stories that they don’t mind sharing with me. Hers is full of words that pierce the pages:

This means nothing to me.

Imaginations suck.

I just don’t care.

This world needs to burn in hell like the rest of us in this shit hole.

There’s been no hope.

Words so heavy, I worry that only her demons help carry them. I wish, always and again, that she’d let me look her in the eye.

A few days later, the morning before Thanksgiving, I stand alone in my dark classroom. Today, unlike others, I don’t turn on the radio. The falling rain is song enough. When she walks in, hours before I expect to see her, I don’t hide my surprise.

“I’m not staying,” she says. I nod — classes are always small before holidays — and gaze at her. Does it hurt her neck to hang her head so low? “I came to give you this.”

Even with her arm extended, I must fully reach for the paper she grips. On it — as if she were eight, ten, 12 years younger than she is — she’d traced her hand, drawing feathers along four fingers, a beak on her thumb. In the middle of her palm, she’d given the turkey a wing, tucking a book underneath. My eyes widen at the thoughtfulness of this detail. To the side, between red leaves, orange, yellow, in handwriting I usually see give shape to hurt, are the words, “I am grateful to have you as a teacher.”

My tears go unseen. As a teacher, I’m trained to anticipate the needs of my students, my lovelies. What content might confuse them, which skills will require extra practice. But I never would have expected this; even now, her face reveals no emotion, let alone affection.

I want to hug her, but I think of how she waves — both arms stiff by her sides, one wrist pivoting left and right — so I try to embrace her with words instead. Standing still and at a slight distance, I thank her in as many ways as I can.

In response, and without words, she steps close. When she touches her palms to my shoulder blades, I swear she gives me wings. It’s fleeting, as the most beautiful things are, and before she even lets go, I know: I’ll never find enough ways to tell her thank you.