Only one of the ten students in the special-education room where I work uses words and she relies almost exclusively on a small cache of nouns and verbs, and often is difficult to understand. The others are mute or rely on grunts, growls and whimpers that can be roughly translated as “happy” or “unhappy,” “hungry” or “sated,” “no pain” or “pain.” There’s no nuance, no ambiguity, no wordplay or irony, none of the lexical pleasures we take for granted. This forces us to rely on non-linguistic experience, empathy and intuition, but it also goads our gratitude for the gift of language.
In “Winged Words,” Rachel Hadas looks at the blessing of written and spoken language. Go here and scroll down to read the entire poem, but here is the first stanza:
“Trying to speak means flailing with
gestures half-sculpted out of need,
eloquent in the way of myth
—monumental, hard to read.
How does anything get said?
A nascent, feebly struggling thought,
hard to collect and to recover,
contrives to spit its substance out.
Words are the wings that lift us over.”
Our students, in this sense, never take wing though some take flight. Late in the school day on Monday, as we filled backpacks and put safety harnesses on kids for their bus rides home, someone noticed one was missing. A teacher had just put his harness on and turned to get a washrag to wipe his face, and he was gone. We carry radios and even before we understood what had happened we announced an all-points bulletin for the missing student. I’ve often worked with this kid and even fed him lunch on Monday. He’s big, strong and fast, has never uttered a word and is fueled by impulse and momentum. He’ll run because he’s already running. We eavesdropped on the frantic shouts of teachers on the radios.
After five minutes an able-bodied student who volunteers in our class and was on his way home phoned to say he could see the fugitive two blocks from school running down the sidewalk. He grabbed him and walked him back to class. Two teachers wept. One held the escapee by his shoulders, put her face close to his and said: “You scared us. Don’t you understand that?” He grinned. Hadas writes in the final lines of her poem:
“Words are the wings that lift us over
out of this limbo, away from here.”