I still remember the sound of the rope slapping the flagpole outside Mrs. Majewski’s classroom at St. Louise. All spring, while we diagrammed sentences, practiced spelling bee words, and solved for x, it clanged stability, longing, and the lengthening lure of the sun.
Seventh grade was the year the flagpole was closest to my classroom and the year the orthodontist cemented a bar between my top teeth and gave me a speech impediment. Each evening my father had to insert a tiny key into the metal bar that spanned the roof of my mouth and crank it open half a turn. The goal was to make extra room for my teeth by widening my jaw. (I remember a lot of joking about the irony: I wasn’t exactly a kid who needed a bigger mouth.) My father and I both dreaded this ritual; it hurt me to have my mouth cranked open, and it hurt my father to reach his hand into my mouth and cause pain.
I remember sitting in class that year, not raising my hand because I hated the way my voice sounded. You can’t pronounce words right when your tongue can’t hit the roof of your mouth. Words were my thing; I didn’t understand this new fear of speaking.
I’ve wandered into this memory unexpectedly this morning, and now I’m picking at it, trying to figure out why it’s here. Lately I’ve been talking to teenagers about what it means to have a voice. I love talking to them; they reach deep when they aren’t pretending. Those who have found their voices claim them passionately; those who are still looking bare their yearning so intimately that sometimes I have to catch my breath and look away. Can a government have a right to privacy? Is Wiki-Leaks going to save our democracy or doom it? What sorts of things silence a person? Can an individual person change the world or does change come from a group? Why would anyone be that mean? These are the sorts of questions they lob like innocent bombs around the room, and the answers matter. “How do you live in the world?” is an urgent question when you are seventeen.
Yesterday when the students’ conversation ebbed, we read the first chapter of Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. She writes of her childhood silences, “It was when I found out I had to talk that school became a misery, that the silence became a misery. I did not speak and felt bad each time that I did not speak.” She remembers her “broken voice skittering out into the open” when she had to “perform.”
I thought again of the bar that used to keep my tongue from reaching the roof of my mouth. One day after school that year, some of the boys in my class were dropping pens onto pictures of tanks. They were making the noises some boys make when they bomb things, a dramatic descending whistle followed by a long, sputtering, guttural explosion when the pen hits the tank on the floor.
At one point, John started telling a story about “this crazy guy” who lived next door to him. The man had been torturing a cat in his yard. John went into graphic detail, but I won’t. Suffice it to say it was horrific, and the other boys laughed.
I don’t remember that many specific moments from seventh grade. I remember the position of the classroom in the building (upstairs, on the McMurray Road side), and the direction our desks faced (toward the office and the church, away from the library), and writing an essay on autism that my older brother showed to one of his friends. I’m not even sure I’ve gotten the teacher’s name right, but I remember exactly what the boy said his neighbor did to the cat.
As I walk deeper into this memory, trying to figure out why it stayed intact, I feel the present, with all its confidence and bravado, falling off the horizon behind me. I see my hair grow longer. I’m wearing knee socks. My tongue twists around uncomfortable metal in my mouth. I walk up the stairs from the playground, turn left past the principal’s office, and take a quick right into the classroom. I see where I’m sitting in the fourth row of desks toward the windows, three chairs from the back of the room. I see the moment I’m avoiding slide into focus.
The boy who is speaking aligns his aim, lobs his weapon out of the launcher on his desk, and whistles as it arcs beautifully and falls toward its target on the floor. The listening boys are laughing. From this distance I can see that I am measuring my reaction against their potential judgment of it in real time. Seventh grade: calibrating, revising, reacting.
Suddenly, though, the story changes. I realize I know the man John is talking about, and that he could draw a line that reached right from that cat torturer to me. Worse, I know that John knows, and I am terrified that he is about to draw that line.
It must have been tempting. It would have transformed his story into a weapon. It might even have been the reason he began telling the story in the first place. “Isn’t he the guy who…?” was the question I dreaded to hear whistling toward me.
The way I remember this story now may not be the way it happened; it could be that John drew that line, and I lied. It could be that I was wrong: maybe he didn’t know the line existed, and I didn’t have to be afraid. But the way I remember it now, he looked at the girl with the long hair and knee socks, and he knew she was afraid, and she knew he knew, and he didn’t draw that line. The way I remember it now, a little girl was given a gift from a boy who was bombing a sheet of loose-leaf paper with a pen that was about to explode.
I let the horizon roll itself up like a yoga mat behind me and leave that little girl back in Pennsylvania to fend for herself. I look around the classroom I’m in today and wonder if they still crank kids’ mouths open with little keys. I’m thinking about all the voices speaking this morning, and the voices not speaking, and I’m wondering about all of our heavy words and silences. I’m wondering if there is a student in the room who is terrified that her secret will be said.
They must make either ropes or flagpoles out of something different now, because, although I’ve listened for it on windy days, I’ve never heard this flagpole slap that same hopeful, melancholy sound. When my palatal expander was removed, I lost my speech impediment. I resumed raising my hand to answer questions and read out loud. But there were still things I didn’t say.