Silent Communications

It was one of those perfect autumn mornings that you get sometimes in late September or early October, when you can’t believe that much color is produced by nature. The sky was a cloudless, vivid azure blue, the sunlight was just making its golden, warm presence known, and the trees seemed ablaze with all their beautiful, warm colors. Jimmy didn’t really notice all of that, though. He sat on his bed, in his room, feeling a vague apprehension about the day ahead. His class was going on a field trip.It wasn’t that Jimmy wasn’t excited, per se, but new places always made him feel vaguely uneasy. The school year had only begun a month earlier; he had had just enough time to get used to his new teacher and classmates. He actually quite liked his teacher, Ms. McCormick, and had liked her right from the first day of class. She had been wearing a white shirt and a black blazer, and she reminded him of a penguin. Jimmy had a picture of penguins on his wall, in his room. Large groups of penguins that just stood silently, some looking at each other, some looking away……Jimmy understood penguins. He felt life would be much less nerve wracking if he were allowed to behave like a penguin. He and his family and classmates could just stand around, sort of communicating through vibrations, if they communicated at all. It would be so much easier than trying to find words that expressed all the thoughts in his head. Jimmy often felt that there were no words designed for his specific needs, and that he would rather communicate like penguins did. That would upset his mother, though, and his father, and even Ms. McCormick. They all wanted so badly for him to talk and interact with them.He tried, he really did. However, on a day like today, with something new and different looming on the horizon and threatening to disrupt his routine, he felt comforted by gazing at the penguins in the picture on his wall, and imagining he was one of them.It was about noon, and Ms. McCormick was getting a headache.Her short, graying hair, normally so well-styled, was starting to stick out all to one side as she continually ran her hand through it out of nervous habit. Pain throbbed through her temples and behind her brown eyes. As she pinched the bridge of her nose, she found herself wondering why she had gone into teaching. If she had taken some sort of nice office job, this kind of stuff wouldn’t happen.It wasn’t that she didn’t like her job; quite the contrary, she loved each and every child that passed through her class, and felt she was doing very rewarding work. However, there were times that having an entire class of autistic children could be very stressful. As a whole, field trips could be described as “one of those times.”The day had started off well. The children were a bit excited, which had a tendency to manifest in rather strange ways in a special needs class. All in all, though, the bus trip to the aquarium had been uneventful, and the children seemed to be enjoying themselves. They had wandered from room to room in the aquarium as a group, staring in awe at the vast array of sea creatures swimming in the huge glass tanks. The sting rays had been a huge hit, and the penguin exhibit kept them entertained for the better part of an hour. The huge sharks in their tank had invoked a chorus of “ooh”’s and “ahh”’s from both the students and the adults watching over them. The day had been going so well.Then, they had rounded up the children for lunch, and Ms. McCormick had taken a head count. Just following protocol, of course, she was certain that none of the children had gone missing. After twenty three years of teaching, ten of those years devoted exclusively to autistic children, Ms. McCormick was confident in her abilities. She was certain that she could not have misplaced a child, so certain that she just knew it had to be a mistake when she counted sixteen children instead of seventeen. Of course it was a mistake, and then it was just her nervousness causing her to make the mistake again and again.After the fourth count, she had to admit that a child had gone missing.Ms. McCormick (Sheila, to her friends, but always Ms. McCormick when she was in teacher mode) had a list of all the students present. After comparing her list to the small crowd in front of her, she realized that Jimmy Acosta was definitely not with the group. She searched the little crowd frantically with her eyes, but the silent little brown-haired boy was just not there.There was one other teacher present, and the three parental volunteers that had come along. They went and searched every corner of the aquarium while Ms. McCormick tried to keep the children entertained and unaffected by the crisis at hand. He never talks, she thought. He could’ve been snatched by a maniac and he may not have made a sound.She began to think that maybe she wasn’t very good at her job. If she had been better at her job, this wouldn’t have happened. If she had been better at her job, Jimmy would’ve been communicating with her by now. If she had been better at her job, she would have noticed when he left the group.After searching for nearly half an hour, the adults reconvened.“He’s not in any of the rooms down that way,” said Ms. Caputo, one of the parental volunteers. Her voice sounded high and breathy, as if she were on the verge of panic.“Not by the sea lions display,” said Ms. Randal, the gym teacher, with military efficiency. “I suggest we alert the management immediately.”“Perhaps we should get the kids their lunches first?” said Mr. DeSoto, the only father who had come along on the trip. “I know my Jill gets distressed when her schedule is disrupted, and I’d hate to see these kids all go haywire.”“Good point,” said Ms. McCormick. It was decided that they would all go back to the bus to get the kids’ sandwiches, while Ms. Randal went and alerted the staff to the fact that a lone child was wandering the premises somewhere.Jimmy was fast asleep, and dreaming of friendship and quiet.The morning had been amazing. He had actually been able to stand between his classmates and the penguins. There had been a moment that he stood in his crowd, and made eye contact with one of the penguins…..he knew, he just knew the penguin had felt the same kinship with him that he had felt with it. It was like finding his long lost brother or something. The excitement of it all had inspired him; he felt as if he would never be misunderstood again.It had been obvious what he had to do, so he had done it. Then he went back to the bus, because it was safe and warm and he was tired and cold.He slept, and he slept well.The class trailed along behind Ms. McCormick and Ms. Caputo, with the other parents bringing up the rear. They had decided to eat their lunch on the bus, because the children would be most comfortable there. (The unspoken thought among the adults was that it would be harder to lose any more children on the bus.)As Ms. McCormick approached the giant yellow vehicle, the bus driver opened the door from within, and mumbled, “Got a stowaway back there.”“What?”“Kid came up ’bout an hour ago, climbed on board and went to sleep. Been sitting here keeping an eye on him ever since.”Ms. McCormick climbed aboard the bus excitedly, and breathed a sigh of relief as she saw Jimmy sprawled out across two seats, sleeping peacefully.“Oh, thank God,” she murmured, tiptoeing closer to him. She noticed that the area around his seat was a bit wet, but thought little of it; the boy had probably spilled a bottle of water.“Let’s not wake him,” murmured Ms. Caputo, who had apparently crept up behind her. “He looks so peaceful. The children wouldn’t mind eating in the pavilion over there, they’re starting to like it here. And one of us can stay here to watch Jimmy.”“I’ll keep an eye on the boy,” said Dean, the bus driver. “He’s been no trouble. If he wakes up, I’ll just bring him on over to you.”Ms. McCormick smiled. Dean had been driving a school bus for nearly as many years as she’d been teaching, and she trusted him. “Thank you, Dean. You’re a good man.”Dean grunted and unfolded the newspaper on his lap, burying his nose in it.Feeling as if the weight of the world had been lifted from her shoulders, Ms. McCormick gathered up the children’s lunches and led them over to the pavilion. Perhaps this field trip would be disaster-free, after all.The rest of the afternoon went pretty smoothly. Ms. McCormick was congratulating herself as they all piled back onto the bus to head home. Jimmy had apparently slept the whole time, according to Dean. As they climbed aboard the bus, though, the slumbering boy began to stir, and by the time the children were back in their seats, Jimmy was wide awake.The adults all sat in the first two rows of seats, with the children sitting in pairs behind them. Everyone was quiet, subdued by the fatigue of a long day, but a feeling of contentedness seemed to hang in the air.“What a perfectly lovely day,” said Mr. DeSoto, grinning back at his daughter. “Jilly had a wonderful time, and I think the rest of the kids did, too.”“Thought we had a disaster on our hands for a second there, but the boy turned up. I’d have to agree, this has been a successful field trip,” added Ms. Randal. “What’s the matter, Mike?” This last comment was to a little boy sitting right behind her who had suddenly begun twisting around in his seat and making excited sounds. The boy turned back to her with wide eyes, but upon meeting the gym teacher’s stern gaze, he sat down and stared out the window silently.Ms. McCormick beamed as Susan, normally one of the quieter children in the class, ran up the aisle to sit in the empty seat next to her. The girl was pointing to the back of the bus. Ms. McCormick followed the direction of her pointing finger with her eyes, seeing only the children in their seats, and the traffic out the back window. “Ohhh, you want to go back.”Susan looked at her, then back toward the back window.“I know, Susan dear, I’d like to go back to the aquarium too. Perhaps your mom and dad will take you there some time soon.”“I wouldn’t be surprised if all of us get dragged back there soon,” said Mr. DeSoto jovially. “The kids had so much fun, they’re still all worked up.” As he spoke, a loud laugh erupted from a child somewhere toward the middle of the bus.“Ahhhh, well, they’ll be tuckered out by the time we get home,” said Ms. Caputo, her wide blue eyes looking tired. “At least I hope so! They really are excited today. It’s gonna be hard to get Jamie to bed tonight.”Ali, a little girl sitting two rows from the rear of the bus, stood in the aisle and pulled her arms inward so that her hands seemed to stick out from her chest, her elbows extended to the side. She took a few small waddling steps. “Get back in your seat, Ali, don’t want you to fall down,” called Ms. Randal. Undeterred, Ali simply walked backward in that same, waddling motion.“That’s new,” said Ms. Randal. “All that kid ever does is repeat what I say, usually.”“Perhaps I’d better go sit in the back,” murmured Ms. McCormick, “to calm them down.”She made her way to the back of the bus, directing Ali to her seat. There was an open seat next to little Jimmy Acosta, so she headed toward it. “There’s our sleeping beauty,” she said, smiling at him. “Did you miss out on the afternoon fun? Or were your dreams better than our little aquarium trip?”Jimmy didn’t respond, but she hadn’t expected him to. He just sat in his seat, with his green backpack propped up next to him as if it were a wall he could hide behind.Ms. McCormick sat down next to the boy. “My, this seat’s awfully cold. Is it damp? It feels a bit damp. Did you…..,” she lowered her voice a bit, “did you have an accident, Jimmy?” The boy said nothing, just held his backpack gently between them and stared at her. “Now, Jimmy, you know you can tell me, we all have our accidents, nothing to be ashamed of,” she said, but still there was no response of any kind. The boy just stared at her calmly and silently. Ms. McCormick reached toward the handles of his backpack; perhaps if she moved it, she could see his pants and determine if he had indeed had an accident.As she reached toward the backpack, though, some sort of……..some small black creature popped its head out of the bag and looked her right in the eye with its small, black, evil-looking eyes. “Meh,” it said, quietly, and Ms. McCormick screamed.Chaos broke out as the children reacted to her scream and the adults tried to make their way through the frightened children to the back of the bus. “Meh,” said the creature again, and Jimmy giggled a bit.“What is it? What’s wrong?” said Ms. Randal, taking Ms. McCormick’s arm.“Meh,” said the creature again.“What the….” said Ms. Randal, reaching slowly toward the backpack. The creature barely moved, just watched her hand come toward it. As she opened the front of the backpack, they saw that the creature was a small one with a white chest and stomach. Ms. McCormick felt she might faint, and entertained brief notions that an alien had gotten into Jimmy’s backpack.“It’s a penguin,” breathed Ms. Randal. “It’s a frigging penguin.”“Frigging penguin!” mimicked Ali. The adults ignored her; her tendency to mimic people was best ignored. If you made a fuss, she’d keep it up forever.The penguin waddled out of the backpack and stood on the seat. It seemed to give them a cursory glance, then turned back toward Jimmy. Bird and boy stared at each other silently (Is it a bird? Wondered Ms. McCormick. It can’t fly.), then turned and looked out the window.“Oh, dear.” said Ms. McCormick. “Oh…I had thought he’d spilled water….when he was on the bus sleeping….there was wetness….” The world seemed to slow down for Ms. McCormick. She was vaguely aware of the other adults commenting that Jimmy must have gotten into the penguin tank without them noticing, that he must have been very gentle with the penguin because he got it all the way back to the bus without being noticed. She heard Ms. Randal calling the aquarium from a cell phone. She noticed in some peripheral sense as Dean the bus driver pulled off the next exit to turn around and head back to the aquarium. Mostly, though, all she was aware of was that Jimmy and the penguin seemed so peaceful and happy as they gazed out the window.Her knees felt a bit weak after the initial shock, so she lowered herself to the seat beside them. The penguin turned and looked at her, and she stared back at it. Now that the fear had worn off, she was just astounded by the creature. It was so peaceful….so serene….so present. It was definitely present, on the bus. Oh dear, thought Ms. McCormick. This is just a mess.Jimmy turned and looked at her with a benign half smile that made him seem almost angelic. She couldn’t help but smile back. The three of them sat there – well, Jimmy and Ms. McCormick sat, the penguin stood between them on the seat – and gazed at each other silently. Somehow, it seemed that everything would be okay.Over the course of the next hour, there was an awful lot of activity. They brought the penguin back to the aquarium. The staff veterinarian assured them after a cursory examination of the bird that it was in perfect health, and no charges would be pressed. The adults bustled around, the children were abuzz with the mood of it all, and through it all, Ms. McCormick felt strangely detached. She felt peaceful. When the man came on the bus to take the penguin, she had felt almost sad until she looked at Jimmy. The expression of grave understanding on his face had been… calming. It was as if he understood the situation better than she did, and accepted it.The next day at school, everybody had heard about the excitement. Some of the more vocal children were pointing and laughing at Jimmy as he entered the building. Little Ali kept saying, “What the hell was that boy thinking?” in a voice that sounded very much like Ms. Randal’s.Jimmy trudged into the classroom with his head down, feeling very uncomfortable. Nothing felt right at all today. His parents had been questioning him the night before, and again over breakfast that morning. His mother had seemed so distressed, just asking over and over, “Why would you do that, Jimmy? Did you want attention? Did you want to bring me a gift?”Then, his father had turned his mother and said, “You know damn well he’s not going to answer you. What’s the point of asking?”He had felt sad, hearing those words. He wished he could explain to them everything that had gone through his head when he met the penguin. He wanted to tell them how the penguin made him feel as if he belonged, and he could communicate with ease. It was so difficult, though, to find words they might understand.“Hello, Jimmy.” said Ms. McCormick, as he entered the classroom. She stood in front of him, smiling gently and leaning on her desk. Her desk now had little penguin figurines lined up on the edge. Behind the desk, a big poster was freshly hung on the wall, very much like the one in Jimmy’s own room. Jimmy gazed into the image of penguins and their peaceful society, then looked back at Ms. McCormick. She seemed different to him today; calmer, more understanding, in a way.“How are you feeling today?” she asked.“Better,” he said, and he and Ms. McCormick smiled at each other.

Silent Communications

DeirdreH

Raritan, United States

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Artist's Description

A short story based on a true story that happened here in NJ a couple of years back, with some embellishment, of course. Just a heartwarming tale about a boy with communication impairments, and the teacher who tried to understand him.

Artwork Comments

  • Tony Ryan
  • DeirdreH
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