I grew up knowing I was different, and I hated it.
I was born with a cleft palate, and when I started to go to school, my
classmates-who were constantly teasing- made it clear to me how I must look
to others: a little girl with a misshapen lip, crooked nose, lopsided
teeth, and hollow and somewhat garbled speech. I couldn't even blow up a
balloon without holding my nose, and when I bent to drink from a fountain,
the water spilled out of my nose.
When my schoolmates asked, "What happened to your lip?" I'd tell them
that I'd fallen as a baby and cut it on a piece of glass. Somehow it
seemed more acceptable to have suffered an accident than to have been born
different. By the age of seven I was convinced that no one outside my own
family could ever love me. Or even like me.
And then I entered the second grade, and Mrs. Leonard's class.
I never knew what her first name was -- just Mrs. Leonard. She was
round and pretty and fragrant, with chubby arms and shining brown hair and
warm dark eyes that smiled even on the rare occasions when her mouth
didn't. Everyone adored her. But no one came to love her more than I did.
And for a special reason.
The time came for the annual "hearing tests" given at our school. I
was barely able to hear anything out of one ear, and was not about to
reveal yet another problem that would single me out as different. And so I
I had learned to watch other children and raised my hand when they did
during group testing. The "whisper test" however, required a different
kind of deception: Each child would go to the door of the classroom, turn
sideways, close one ear with a finger, and the teacher would whisper
something from her desk, which the child would repeat. Then the same thing
was done for the other ear. I had discovered in kindergarten that nobody
checked to see how tightly the untested ear was being covered, so I merely
pretended to block mine.
As usual, I was last, but all through the testing I wondered what Mrs.
Leonard might say to me. I knew from previous years that she whispered
things like "The sky is blue" or "Do you have new shoes?"
My turn came up. I turned my bad ear to her plugging up the other
solidly with my finger, then gently backed my finger out enough to be able
to hear. I waited and then the words that God had surely put into her
mouth, seven words that changed my life forever.
Mrs. Leonard, the pretty, fragrant teacher I adored, said softly, "I
wish you were my little girl."
Mary Ann Bird, Hopkinton, Massachusetts
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