When I was in sixth grade, my school friends and I had a clever way to communicate in class. We did not pass notes under Mr. Flint's watchful eyes. We signed the alphabet to each other instead. We'd spell out messages, our hands hidden at our sides, below our desks, out of the teacher's sight. We would do a slashing movement to indicate a break between words. I can't remember what we had to discuss in sixth grade that couldn't just wait until recess, but I remember signing things like m-e-e-t/m-e/b-y/t-h-e/t-r-e-e. We did it so much that I could write with my right hand while I signed important messages to friends with my left. I would subconsciously sign while I was talking sometimes, as well.
At that time I wanted to be my new best friend, Shannon Weaver. She was perfect. She was pretty, she took ballet. She played the flute. She had a pink bedroom with a theme and matching everything. Curtains and bedding and wall paper border with ballet pointe shoes on it. Her little brother was cute and they playfully teased each other. Her parents were still married, and at her birthday party they came into the living room and did swing dancing in front of all of us. Shannon was lucky enough to be embarrassed; I knew she took her wonderful life for granted. When my mom's best friend got pregnant, I suggested "Shannon Marie" for a name. I thought it was beautiful, just like Shannon herself.
The one thing that Shannon did that I could do with her was choir. It was free through the school, and I could even go with her. I asked my mom and she said yes. I was thrilled. That was the last time I can remember being thrilled about having to be at school an hour early.
That year we had just moved to Fresno from Michigan, so in the mornings my throat was froggy. I was not accustomed to the valley smog. On my first day of choir, I had to keep clearing my throat. Great for singing, I thought. We walked into the choir room and Shannon introduced me to the choir teacher. I forget his name. He smiled and shook my hand and asked me what my name was. My voice came out in a small croak and I said "Rachel." He kept shaking my hand and asked me again. I said "Rachel" again, still barely able to get my voice out, and this time my left hand came up and signed R-a-c-h-e-l. I took my hand out of his and pointed to my throat, and cleared it. I was mortified at this awkward meeting. The teacher watched me sign my name and then gave me a huge smile. He bent forward to be closer to my height and said very clearly, "Welcome.... Rachel!" It's... nice... to... meet... you. Would... you... like... to... stand... by ... Shannon?"
Would I ever! What a nice guy! I turned and followed Shannon to her spot and thought how great it was to be part of her world. Shannon's place to stand in the singing arrangement was on the teacher's far left, as he faced us, right in front. I stood next to her and learned "Big Rock Candy Mountain." He passed out the lyrics on mimeographed pages and I followed along quietly, still self conscious about my voice. Whenever I looked up and made eye contact with the teacher, he would open his eyes really wide and lean towards me, moving his mouth in an exaggerated way to enunciate the words while he sang, nodding at me enthusiastically. He was so nice and supportive, I loved this guy. I loved choir!
Between songs, Shannon would talk to me, and I would just nod and listen. I was in awe of this new wonderful life I was having. All because of Shannon. So this is what it's like to be her. I could get used to this. I started thinking about asking my mom if we could paint my room pink, and debated asking for ballet lessons when all of a sudden choir was over. My greatest morning before sixth grade ever. The start to my new awesome life.
The choir teacher came over to say goodbye to me and asked if I had fun. I nodded. he asked if I would be returning with my friend. I nodded again with excitement and a big smile. "Great!" he laughed. "Now, before you go, can you tell me how to say your name?" and he held up his hand in front of me. For a second I thought he was going for an awkward high-five. Then I realized he wanted me to sign it for him. I signed my name and he followed along letter by letter. "I'll practice that, Rachel!" He said with a giant smile and wide eyes, nodding at me encouragingly. I smiled back and walked out to meet Shannon. I wasn't sure what had just happened, but I was pretty sure I had missed something.
And that's how I became the deaf kid in choir.