After spending a year at a casual little place called The Red Feather School, I was sent off to public shool for second grade.
It didn’t take long for the grown-ups at the school to take note of the kid who was always a couple of beats off, looked confused and offered answers that were wildly off topic. It didn’t help that I leaned over and took a bite of some kid’s donut while we were waiting in the lunch line. Or that in the first week of school I told everyone that I had gone to Kentucky for my summer vacation. I kept to that story even when the principal brought my parents in to figure out what was going on.
Eventually, someone thought to take me out of class and run me through their battery of tests to separate the ‘special’ kids from the rest. I can’t remember what these mid-1960’s tests were, but even now I can figure out that the deck was stacked against me: I couldn’t hear, I had a retarded sister and, I discovered, I had a lisp.
A lisp. The by-product of a lazy tongue and a bunch of auditory nerves that couldn’t register the particular pitch of the ‘S’ hiss. I could figure out how to pronounce a word by watching other people’s lips. But those ‘S’ sounds are buried, hidden away, a lingual codex that only the hearing knew about. I couldn’t hear.
A note went home to my mom. Daniel is going to move into a group of classes better suited to his particular skills. I don’t think the word remediation was in play yet — remember, this was the decade when you sent violent wack jobs like Boston Strangler to prisons for the criminally insane.
It didn’t matter what the words were. That letter basically said, Hey, lady, you’re two for two — one certified retard and another slow problem kid who sounds dumb.
My mom marched into school to set them straight. They took her through the test results, the patterns of behavior, and arrived at their recommendation: We’ll put him in a program that helps slow children like him catch up.
“You know he’s deaf, right?” my mom asked.
That was new information. I was allowed back to the classroom. But, they weren’t going to let me get away with that lisp.
My memory now of that time crystalizes into a single image. A few times a week I leave the classroom and go down the big hall to a room that’s near the nurse’s office. The room doesn’t have any windows. The walls are painted yellow. There’s a desk against one side, an examination table on the other side and a couple of chairs and a table in the middle. A woman sits at the table with a stack of flash cards. She holds them up and I read the word off: “Soft,” “Fish,” “Saturday,” “Mass.” She opens her mouth, shows me her tongue, tucks it up behind her teeth on the roof of her mouth. I imitate her. She speaks a word. I watch her lips go slack and imagine her tongue pushing up against the back of her teeth like a heel digging against a bench seat. I didn’t know that’s what happened inside your mouth. I do it. Sometimes she smiles, sometimes she frowns. We try the word again.
I knew what the score was: Getting rid of the lisp would make me smarter.
That lisp still lingers at the fringe of my words. You can hear it when I get tired, or if I’m trying to enunciate clearly. My tongue gets thick and drops down, knocks against my lower teeth. Sometimes I’ll check myself, touch my tongue to my top teeth, pull the sides of my mouth back and whisper the word, ‘Hiss.’ You never really lose a lisp. You never really lose a memory. You never really lose that sense of who you are when you’re sitting in a second grade classroom, looking around, wondering what is going on, not sure who to ask, retreating into yourself, knowing that you’ve got to figure it out and swearing to yourself you will.