As the school year begins, I’m feeling nostalgic for some of my former students. I’ll be writing student stories for awhile.
My first year teaching in the US was rough. the school was in a high poverty area, and my classroom, while spacious with a beautiful view of the mountains, was virtually empty, and I had no money. I bought some nature calendars at the dollar store and spent hours cutting out glossy photos of butterflies, laminating them, and sticking them up around the room.
Jackie was a shy girl with dark, cropped hair and dark eyes. She came into my classroom on the first day and slumped down at her desk, dropping her head into her arms. Her mother patted her and pulled me aside. “Jackie hates school,” she said. “I’m sorry. She’s not happy to be here.”
“Oh,” I said with my usual first-day-of-school cheerfulness, “I’m sure she’ll be fine shortly.”
She was not. The previous years in school had been a struggle for her, and teachers had been frustrated. So had she. And, I discovered, with good reason. Jackie had a cleft palate, so severe that she had no hard palate in her mouth at all. All she could hear was the air rushing through her head when she took a breath. As such, her speech was a series of gasps and huffs; she tried to speak by watching others’ mouths, but her sounds were badly scrambled. Reading was torture for her. The other children teased her about her face, and though she tried to play, her disability prevented her from engaging very deeply. She was lucky to have siblings who adored her and advocated for her, but I could quickly see why school was one of her least favorite things.
As the year began, I spent as much time as I could kneeling by her desk, communicating initially by drawing pictures. Eventually, I learned which sounds were which for her, and could transpose them to understand what she said, most of the time. She loved the butterflies on the walls and drew them on her papers when she was struggling, which was often. There was a very smart little girl trapped in there.
As winter came, Jackie and I could talk easily, and she did try very hard to learn. She watched my mouth closely, so I made sure to stand where she could see me. When we worked one-on-one together, she’s wedge her way under my arm so I could hug her. “Just keep trying,” I said. “I know you’ll get it.”
“Hi ‘ry,” she’d gasp. “Hi ‘ry.” (I’ll try.)
She told me how much she loved butterflies. They fly, she said, and they’re free. They don’t have to worry about talking or about how they look, because all butterflies are beautiful. “No one cries when they see butterflies,” she added. “But my mother cries when she sees me. She loves me even though I’m ugly, but I know she cries about it. She wishes I was different. I wish I was different.”
Days wore on and we kept trying. Around Christmas time, she showed up with a little box, holding a butterfly pin. Her mother said, “She saw it in the store and said you had to have it, because you have the room with the butterflies. And when she grows up, she’ll be a teacher with a room full of butterflies, too.”
It was one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received.
In the spring, my aunt suggested we contact Smile Train to see if they could fix Jackie’s palate. In order to do so, her family had to fill out some government paperwork. In the process, Jackie’s predicament caught the eye of a European doctor, who was using laser surgery to fix cleft palates. He wanted to bring his technique to the US, and offered the family treatment if he was allowed to use her as a prototype.
She had the first of her surgeries, to fuse her sinuses together and close the passages in her nose. “I blew my nose for the first time ever!” she laughed when she got back to school. “It’s so weird!”
Over the years, they grafted her face back together, built her a new palate, and restructured her face. She learned to hear, speak, to read, and everything was coming together for her.
I moved to a new school, but came back to visit from time to time. One day, I ran into Jackie outside. She was nearly as tall as I was by then. She flung her arms around me immediately. “Hi, Jackie!” I exclaimed. “I’m so happy to see you! How are you?”
Jackie promptly burst into tears.
“What is it?”
She leaned back from me, eyes shining. “Your voice!” she cried, tears streaming down her face. “I used sit in your room and imagine what your voice sounded like. Oh, it’s so beautiful!”
We talked for a long time, and it was strange and wondrous to hear her speak fluidly. She’s gone with her life now, just as beautiful and amazing as the butterflies she loved.