I have been thinking about Jonathan a lot recently. He graduated twelve years ago, fell into the nebulous shadows of my memories and collapsed into silence.
Which really isn’t surprising.
I worked with Jonathan when he was a senior, but he had been on my “radar” for three years preceding. Jonathan was a ghost in the hallways, constantly present, barely seen. He never spoke. Instead, he coalesced in different places throughout the day, his lips pinched.
On the first day of class, Jonathan sat in the front row, his eyes twinkling as I went through the first day joking, trying to set everyone at ease. But when I called his name, he raised his hand, smiled, lowered his hand. Likely, I completely missed him the first couple of times because I’m so busy staring at my gradebook and being distracted by students chatting loudly.
Over the course of the first month of school, I met with Jonathan’s other teachers, digging into his history of silence. What even closed his mouth, sealed his voice? One teacher said that she had called his parents and heard him in the background, talking. But when he was in school, he was a voiceless songbird.
Why he chose to stop talking, though, is a mystery I have yet to dissolve. Nobody could narrate a specific point when he was so profoundly hurt, so terribly upset that being voiceless was better than even saying a single syllable.
As the year passed, Jonathan became my focus. I wanted to hear him speak. Maybe I was doing the wrong thing. Maybe I was fighting a battle that was none of my business. But Jonathan’s tight grin, his expressive eyes clung to me. I was in the midst of this tomblike labyrinth that I wanted to unravel.
Eventually, Jonathan’s silence started to break. A couple of girls found him endearing, loved the quiet boy in the front row. Everyday, they greeted him, flirted with him while they waited for class to start. Jonathan hunched in his chair, his face flushed with joy as the girls ebulliently leaned over their desks and included him in their conversation.
And then, one day, I encouraged him to greet them. I might have even offered him extra credit. I don’t know. I can’t remember. I just know that he opened his mouth, took a breath, and a word stumbled out.
So quiet, it seemed like his breath shuttered against his teeth to form a sound. I asked him to speak again, more loudly this time.
I think the world kind of broke around me. The voiceless had spoken. I know the girls shrieked with excitement. I think I hugged Jonathan. I know that the entire class understood that their peer who had not spoken to them in years had crossed past his muteness and said one syllable. A greeting. An opening.
As days elapsed, Jonathan was expected to greet the girls daily. “Hi” had “How are you?” added to it.
Jonathan started saying the pledge of allegiance.
He participated in class.
He answered questions.
He read chapters out of the book we were reading. He read them out loud.
I invited one of his teachers to come to my class. She stood in the doorway and listened to Jonathan’s high-pitched, slightly raspy voice while he read Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.
I begged the principal to let Jonathan say the Pledge of Allegiance at graduation. She politely declined, explained that we had a tradition. And I understood. But Jonathan really wanted to have his voice heard.
Jonathan graduated. He walked across the stage and walked out of my life.
But I continue to think about him. Recently, he has been an ever-present focus. Not because I have heard about him.
For no real reason at all.
Giving a voice to the voiceless, though, is becoming an important focus for me. I’m wrapping up my Imperialism unit, and I wish I had a reservoir of literature from the people who were oppressed by Imperialists.
I have the voice of Rudyard Kipling and “The White Man’s Burden.”
I have the voice of Joseph Conrad and Heart of Darkness.
I have the voice of George Orwell and “Shooting an Elephant.”
But where are the voices of the Indians, the Africans? Yes, I can bring in Chinua Achebe. I have used the poem “White Australia” written by an Australian Aborigone.
But I still feel like I haven’t found the voices of the time period. I haven’t been able to find the right voices that talk about what might be construed as a cultural or societal genocide, a replacement of the native customs with foreign customs.
I think about Jonathan because he reminds me that just because something isn’t spoken doesn’t mean that it’s not important. I think about Jonathan because the most silent students still have something worth hearing, accepting, taking on as part of myself.
I wrote about Alex and the quiet students, how their words are steady tethers that link me to my profession, link me to the reality of my world.
My world isn’t in the literature that I teach.
My world is in the students with whom I work. The students who are my atomic structure and unite the divergent parts of me until I am whole.