The words bounced off the spines of books carefully shelved in our school library. I stood frozen, considering how the year had led up to this exact moment.
My classroom had a small hole in one of the windows. In the span of years I taught in that room, it was never repaired. The winter wind whistled through that hole, a faint sound I only heard during moments of peace before school or after I’d zipped my little ones into their jackets and sent them home for the day.
That year my students were particularly noisy, there was not a timid voice in the whole bunch. They were hard workers, but in their work they were noisy, talking aloud to themselves, reading with enthusiasm, counting in booming rhythms. Even their whispers were deep and throaty. The constancy of their voices was the running monologue of our classroom. And it was loud.
Clyde was six years old and his legs grew quickly, stretching out his kindergarten belly, inching his pants up above his ankles. He face was milky pale, with only a hint of color gathering in the hollows under his eyes. His brown eyes were wide and his forehead wrinkled into folds under his shaved head whenever he asked a question, which was all of the time.
Clyde’s mother was deaf and his primary language was sign language. In class he constantly searched for the words to voice the thoughts he could so fluidly convey with his hands. When he heard a new word, he snatched it up and added it to his vocabulary regardless if he knew the meaning.
It was this voracious hoarding of words that brought Clyde to words like sh*t, holy sh*t, to be exact. When he was excited about something, that pair of pungent words flew out of his mouth. The first time I heard him curse, my mouth fell open. His face belied the fact that he didn’t know what the words meant. I pulled him aside and explained their meaning and we came up with a list of phrases he could say instead like “Oh, boy!” or “Wow!” To his credit, Clyde did his best to use the substitutions and only slipped up now and again.
Clyde was a meticulous artist. He could draw anything and everything in exquisite detail, but most of all he loved to draw cars. He drew convertibles with sleek lines and monster trucks ready to rumble off the page.
Every week our class went to the library to check out books and each week the librarian handed out library awards. There were two things a class had to do to earn a library award; keep the library clean and remain quiet. My class excelled in keeping the library tidy, but we’d never earned a library award, because try as they might, my little guys just couldn’t keep their voices under wraps.
That is until one particular trip to the library. Every child was quietly checking out books, quietly reading them at tables, quietly poring over the pictures. I grinned as I watched the librarian pen an award for us. I pictured it hanging front and center in our classroom, a monument to the day we’d finally, finally quieted ourselves.
The librarian mentioned that there were some new drawing books over in the corner. Clyde’s ears perked up and he walked over the corner. The new drawing books were on display on top of a bookshelf. There were books with sketches of horses, cats, dogs, and carton characters. And there was a shiny new book about drawing cars.
I watched Clyde flip to a page demonstrating how to draw a race car. I watched his eyebrows shoot up. I watched as he hoisted the book above his head like a trophy. And I watched him search for the words to describe his jubilation. I waited for one of the phrases he’d been practicing in class. As I walked over to share in his excitement, he let fly.
My entire class, my entire formerly quiet class, let out a collective gasp followed by an explosion of voices all calling out.
“Mrs. McCauley, Clyde said a BAD WORD!”
Realizing what he’d done, Clyde quickly plugged in one of his substitute phrases, stammering out an embarrassed, “I meant, ‘Oh boy!’”
But it was too late. I smiled at his effort, smiled at his enthusiasm over a book. I even smiled at the librarian who tore our library award right down the middle before throwing it in the trash can.
A day or two before Christmas vacation, I sat at my desk after school scrawling lesson plans. The Good News Club was meeting in my room and I listened as they sang Christmas songs. Clyde was a regular member and he sang along happily with the CD of carols. When Silent Night came on, he excitedly told the club leader he knew how to sing this song in sign language. I put my pen down and watched as Clyde stood in front of thirty or so other kids, signing each word, each verse with small hands still dirty from the playground. The other children began to sign with him, copying his motions with their own hands.
I was captivated. Clyde’s version of Silent Night was so beautiful that it both broke my heart and filled it at the same time. His hands moved through the air, telling the story of Christ come to Earth, telling it in a way that brought me to tears. The stunning story of the holiest of nights as told through the hands of a six year old was breathtaking. After the song, Clyde sat back down on the carpet without ceremony. I sat dabbing my eyes. For a moment there wasn’t another sound in the room.
We never did get a library award that year. And that’s okay. On the last day of school, I fingered the hole in the window, feeling the hot breath of summer leak into my classroom. There was no wind to blow through and in the silence of my empty classroom I found myself wishing for the voices of my students.
As I think about the most profound thing I’ve heard a student say, I think of that loud group of children. But mostly I think of Clyde. I love knowing that the kid who peppered the year with profanity was also the child who used his hands to speak what words cannot.