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In Pursuit of a Voice

by RJ 9 months ago in student

A Teen With Cerebral Palsy Finds a Way to Communicate With the World for The First Time.

In Pursuit of a Voice
Photo by Gritte on Unsplash

The classroom felt alive. The other kids radiated the warm afterglow of an exciting weekend. I admired how easy it was for them to send messages with just a flick of an eyebrow or the curve of a smile.

Mom tamed my envy by explaining that kids just don't understand, but it feels like they're scared of me. I can't assure them I'm normal. I can't speak, walk, or even eat by myself. My limbs are stiff and immobile. My legs look small and frail because they've never bared any weight, and occasionally, my mouth droops open, allowing the slightest bit of drool to pool on my shirt. It's safe to say my outer appearance doesn't scream "talk to me!" But I wish someone would try.

If they tried, they'd notice chocolate brown eyes that are alert and curious; they'd learn I love music and that my name is Tiffany. Maybe they assume since my outer body is broken that my brain is too. But I have so many thoughts, so many memories, and stories to tell. I'm a 16-year-old prisoner confined to her mind.

I live with my Mom, and puppy Bently, a brown terrier who follows behind my baby blue wheelchair wherever I go, nipping at my heels. Mom was born in the late 70s; she loves alternative rock, regularly sending me to school in Pearl Jam memorabilia. She complains that the current generation stole her generation's style. Mom always knows what I'm thinking, even if I can't tell her.

Mrs. Wilson stood from her cherry oak desk and cleared her throat loud enough to quiet the room. "Okay, students, We're going to get started; today, before we dive into the curriculum, I'm going to announce the winner of our writing competition!"

Six Weeks Prior

The entire school filed into the auditorium. The old stage was decorated with a ribbon banner hanging from each end of the ceiling, reading, "Hundred Year Celebration." A table with three balloons sat center stage, and check, for 20,000 dollars, leaned against the splintering wood.

While the crowd hummed with anticipation, Principal Lockbright, a jaded, overweight, and underpaid man, waddled out onto the stage with red cheeks and sweat droplets collecting on his brow. "Quiet! Quiet everyone!"

I bit my lower lip to suppress my anxiety; the check seemed to represent a chance at a life I always wanted but never thought possible. I'm sure the stakes are too high; I probably couldn't even participate.

"Now students, you know Stone Academy is breaching a major landmark. A hundred years of educating the future innovators and leaders of tomorrow. Well, to celebrate. We wanted to give back and reward your creativity. To make it possible for the majority of our students to participate, I am proud to announce that we will be hosting a writing competition! Tell us how you would spend 20 thousand dollars! For a chance to win that amount. Six weeks from now, one of you may be living a very different life." Principal Lockbright said, jealously rolling off his tongue with the last sentence.

The crowd of baby faces cheered, excited for the chance to escape our little town, where nothing ever happened, and no one noteworthy was made. Dreams of the future danced in my vision; I could taste a new life.

That night and every night after, I typed my essay on our old Dell desktop computer. With only two fingers to work with, I had to stab at each key. Single paragraphs took me hours. But I pecked away, determined to see it through.

"If I had 20,000 dollars, I would buy the ability to speak. I know it can't be purchased the way it appears naturally. I'll never be able to make my vocal cords vibrate, but I could get close with a machine.

Imagine never having the ability to tell someone about your day or if something is bothering you. When you open your mouth to speak, inaudible sounds fall out, and others look at you like you're crazy. They treat you like you're crazy too. As if no one is behind your eyes, others look at you like a mistake and a burden.

I can't tell my crush I like them. I can't even tell my mother thank you. My relationships are only surface level, and the other kids are scared of me. With 20,000, I would buy the "The Communicator." A small black box of a machine that operates like a tablet, with a screen for typing messages and a speaker for broadcasting them. I'm tired of letting cerebral palsy define me. I could tell jokes and ask questions, maybe even begin to make friends. I could be seen. I could have a voice..."

The challenge consumed me; when I slept, I dreamt of the freedom money affords you. When I was awake, I chased it with everything I had. I developed cramps in my hands that left me in crippling pain and unable to move them for hours.

Yet, I kept writing; I wrote and wrote and found joy in letting out emotions I had buried. I gave everything I could, placing my soul in ink on the page. And in giving, I found peace.

Current Day

“Is she even allowed to compete?"

I wanted to disappear. The question had come from Bryce, a lanky boy with cystic acne who prided himself on his academic prowess. He hadn't even looked in my direction.

"Of course she's allowed-"

"Mrs. Wilson, parents aren't supposed to help with the essays. I mean, it's obvious she can't write anything."

The other students began to chime in. Offering their reasoning why I couldn't and shouldn't have won the contest. My heart beat wildly in my chest, making my ears ring and pressure grow behind my eyes. I could feel my blood rushing to my cheeks in a mixture of embarrassment and anger. Tears streamed down, and my fists shook at my sides.

"Is this some kind of pitty award?" Stacy said, chuckling with a sly smile. The other kids erupted in laughter.

Everyone in the room began to blur; only their faces and sadistic smiles were in focus. Their laughter rang in my ears and made me lightheaded. I couldn't find any space in my mind for myself. I couldn't breathe, and black specs floated across my vision, threatening to make everything go dark.

My body tingled, and my head was cold as I was rolled to the front of the room. Mrs. Wilson moved to the side so I could pass and opened the door to let me out without speaking. Long after I left the room, the laughter still reverberated off the walls of my skull and tormented me. So much for making friends.

Accomplishments never feel like you expect them to. Mom picked up the check on a bone-chilling Tuesday morning. I watched from the window as she pulled into the driveway leaving tire marks and footprints in the untouched snow. She showed me her balance once the money settled in her account. Even seeing the little black digits didn't make it resonate for me.

After a week of painful waiting, a white box with a red ribbon tied around it showed up in our mailbox. Mom rushed in excitedly and ripped open the box, placing the small machine on my lap. While I stared in awe, she looked through the instruction book; she held it away from her with her arms extended, squinting at the small words on the glossy page.

"Everything goes when you hit forty Tiffany, let me tell you."

I smiled, tracing my fingertip along the smooth matte black edges, and found a button. I clicked it, and The Communicator rose to life. The screen lit up and welcomed me, asking me to pick a language to get started.

Mom kneeled next to me with silent tears finding their way down her cheeks and onto the paper, making them crinkle. She rubbed my back while I programmed a few basic responses. When I was ready, I turned to her and did my best to embrace her in a hug. Now I was crying, trying to swallow the knot in my throat. I leaned my face into the crook of her neck and let my tears dampen her skin.

"Thank you, mom."

Soon after returning to school, I was called into Principal Lockbright's office. He wasn't in there when the teacher's aide rolled me inside and left me across from his empty chair.

I tried to pass the time by finding a clean spot on his desk. Piles of paper rose above my head, bobbleheads bounced along the top of his computer, and fast food trash coated his keyboard. The grease glinted under the fluorescent light.

On his bookshelf, a little black notebook caught my eye; it was stuffed and overflowing, with withered pages and a wrinkled, deteriating spine. It seemed to hold a version of Mr. Lockbright that I would never know; I wondered if anyone knew.

As if he could sense my thoughts, Mr. Lockbright showed up and plopped down across from me. His once white button-up now a dingy yellow. "Hi, Tiffany."

"Hi, Mr. Lockbright," The Communicator replied.

"I'd like to invite you to share a little about yourself at the Stone Academy Aniversary Carnival. Students from other districts will be attending and I think everyone is really excited to learn more about you. You are one of our most special students." He smiled and extended his arms as if introducing me to someone.

"I'm not sure."

"Not sure? care to elaborate?"

Silence hung in the room while I programmed a response into The Communicator.

"No one cared to learn about me before; why should I share anything with them? Or you?" The machine released the words, and I felt their weight, watching the guilt settle on Mr. Lockbright's shoulders.

"It would mean a lot if you allowed everyone to begin to make up for that, Tiffany. Just think about it."

Th vibration from the crowd beyond the stage room made the floorboards rattle. I was already shaking from my anxiety anyway. The pancakes I had that morning threatened to make a cameo during my speech. But I was ready, the words were prepared, and it was time to speak.

I rolled onto the wooden stage, the crowd fell silent, and I felt thousands of eyeballs settle onto me. My heart began to pound in my chest, and I wanted to turn back.

The walls were caving in on me, and I almost did turn back. But I wanted to do this; I needed to. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath to settle my nerves. When I opened them again, looking below, right in front of the stage, catching the glow from the spotlights. I saw a little girl in a wheelchair with big curious brown eyes and a Nirvana t-shirt on her small frame. She sat attentively with a warm smile on her lips and hope in her eyes. I found my strength.

I wasn't scared anymore.

student

RJ

Aspiring storyteller, and sometimes other things

Find me on Instagram at @awriterwhodraws

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