Because of a congenital deformation on chromosome 14 my new student, age 18, will never speak or read. She walks haltingly and must wear diapers. She’s tube-fed. New situations and people baffle and frighten her. She cries and stops crying abruptly. She suffers frequent seizures. She weighs 83 pounds and looks half her age. Each time she steps from one floor or ground covering to another – say, tile to carpeting, or concrete to grass -- she squats and runs her hands over it, palms down, fingers rippling. The act, repeated dozens of times daily, recalls a blind person reading Braille.
Her hearing and vision are unimpaired but her primary sense is tactile. She loves texture – the stitching on a football, the raised lettering on any plastic toy, Velcro and canvas, the metal spiral on a notebook. “Reading” such objects is her most intense pleasure. She reads things most of us never notice or deem readable and our job, performed haltingly and blindly, is to read her, to come to some understanding of her ways. She makes me think of the comedian Jackie Mason, of all people. In his profile of Mason, collected in New York Voices: Fourteen Portraits (University Press of Mississippi, 2006), Whitney Balliett quotes him as saying:
“I don’t get too self-involved. I never sit around immersed in myself. I like to go to the coffee shops and watch people. Every person is a book. The whole world is a performance.”