This story is by Maria J. Rodero and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The turkey leg in Tommy’s fist was oddly oversized for him. He held onto it like a trophy, gnawing on it occasionally as he wandered through the rooms of his home. He found his mother in the kitchen, tugged her skirt and uttered a single syllable, “Wa?” Without looking down, she grabbed a sippy cup and filled it.
His long blond curls seemed to bounce upward in glee as he trotted off on tiptoes. He slowed to peek into his brothers’ room. Strangers were there, busy filling boxes. Tommy sensed change in the atmosphere.
He decided to find Pah. In the yard, Pah was busy fixing something. Tommy’s sister was nearby, brushing her doll’s hair and swinging on the swing set, humming her own tune.
Tommy asked his father a question, speaking a babble that was unintelligible to anyone but his sister.
Pah looked at him, half irritated, and said, “Sofi, what is he saying?”
“He wants you to go swimming with him, Papi.”
“Oh, Tommy, not now. I’m busy.”
Head bowed and shoulders drooping, Tommy walked back inside and wandered up to the playroom. ‘Blues Clues’ was on the television. He plopped down on the floor to watch. His eyes glazed over, trance-like. He was still gripping the turkey leg, but completely forgot its purpose.
At bedtime, Tommy had no idea his life was about to dramatically change. The emergency plan was to move to South America due to a financial crisis. Sleepless adults were aware and in turmoil. Tommy dreamt about chocolate.
It was six months before anyone realized Tommy hadn’t uttered a single sound. His siblings adapted, fluent and doubly noisy in both English and Spanish. Talking was absent from Tommy’s daily life. As far as speaking to be heard, it wasn’t for him.
In preschool, Tommy played and climbed, colored and built—in silence. Even when bitten several times by another student, he displayed no anger, no tears. He was a sweet child who was present. His preschool report card states, “Tommy is antisocial. Plays alone—always, but he seems happy.”
Two years later, the family moved back to the States. Tommy was finally speaking in simple sentences. Starting Kindergarten, Tommy hugged his mom goodbye, then sat down in the circle in front of the teacher. His crystal green eyes were brimming with light and excitement. His teacher began asking questions. Eager hands were raised. When she called on Tommy, he answered bravely. Snickers and giggles erupted.
The teacher said, “Sorry, honey. I don’t speak Spanish.” He tried again. Again, she said, “Sorry. I don’t understand you.”
Tommy was well aware that the other kids were laughing at him, but he couldn’t understand why. He spoke Spanish and understood English. That was his system of communication. When he realized that only family understood his words, he stopped speaking to anyone else.
As if by divine intervention, a red-headed boy and his pint-sized cohort joined the class. They were drawn to Tommy, attaching themselves to his comings and goings in the classroom. Confidence in their mighty threesome grew, and Tommy learned to speak English from them.
Finally, one day at home, when everyone was speaking in Spanish as usual, he spoke. In fact, he shouted, “No more Spanish. It hurts my brain!”
Tommy stayed home the day his mother was invited to school to discuss your son. She was escorted to a room with a conference table and seats occupied by interventionists from the school. They started in,
“Something is off with Tommy’s test scores. He follows along just fine in class. He seems attentive, but with testing he gets confused, unable to answer questions.”
“Sometimes he puts his head on the desk, saying he is too tired to try.”
“Then there are times when speaking to him, one on one, he stares off in the distance. He snaps back to our conversation saying: ‘Sorry, I was just watching a movie in my head.’”
They asked his mom, “Was he oxygen deprived as an infant? Has he suffered any brain trauma?”
Finally, one of the team suggested, “Since he is an ESL student, perhaps all he needs is more time.”
In near unison, the team nodded and shrugged their shoulders. The meeting ended with his teacher stating, “He is a sweet boy and well liked by the other students. He will catch up next year.”
Tommy’s mom left, thinking, “How can this be? Tommy is perceptive, funny, helpful, generous, and kind. Could there be something seriously wrong with him?”
Her hopes for his future of limitless possibilities deflated like a leaking balloon. Her focus now was to protect him from being worn down and mocked by the world. For she knew how intuitive he was and what an easy target he would be for bullies.
On bended knee, she prayed to God. “Lord, what do I do for Tommy? How am I supposed to proceed? Please take over and protect my son. I can’t do this alone.” Prayer helped, but worries lingered.
Meanwhile, Tommy lived in masked pain each day he had to face school. Going to school hurt Tommy in every sense of the word, but he couldn’t explain it with words.
Tommy thought, “They don’t understand. I want to learn, but I can’t do it. It’s too hard. I hate that I can’t do what they ask! It makes me feel stupid. I wish I had a better brain.”
Over time, circumstances became tragic. He worked himself into many forms of physical pain—stomach aches, sores on his scalp from pulling out his hair, hives, allergies, panic attacks, headaches. Calls from the school nurse became constant. In their minds, he was just a “frequent-flier.”
Something had to be done.
Psychological tests were privately conducted. Labels were given, but they were far from a solution. Tommy’s diagnosis consisted of Early Language Development Disorder, ADD, Anxiety, Dyslexia, and Word Retrieval Disorder. The prognosis: “Learn to live with it.”
Miraculously, Papa’s salary increased abroad, which meant private education was finally possible. Tommy attended a private half-day school for Dyslexia, with a ratio of 4:1 student to teacher. There, he regained self-esteem and began to learn on his terms. The other half of the day, he attended public school for purely social and legal reasons. His mother muzzled educators there, due to years of their lack. At home, love, patience, and support over his struggle were redefined daily.
Sixth-grade Tommy attended church with his family. He would sit by his mother’s side and doodle on the bulletin insert during every sermon. Afterwards, he would fold the paper carefully and set it in the offering plate. At first his mother tried to stop him, but he said, “No, Mom, please. It’s for God!” as if he wanted his bulletin delivered to God right away, on that silver tray.
When Papa came home after months away, Tommy clung to him tighter than spandex, smiling ear to ear. His love and joy were bigger than his little body could contain. At church, he sat between his parents after grabbing a bulletin and seeking out a pen.
During the sermon, his mother listened, reverently nodding her head, while Papa’s eyes were glued to Tommy. Papa gently clasped his wife’s shoulder. With tears in his eyes, he whispered, “Look!” He shifted his eyes downward to Tommy. Tommy was busy, but he wasn’t drawing. He was writing. He was writing prayers to God. Prayers from the sermon, prayers of thanks for his father’s safe return. He was their acting ambassador of love and hope as he wrote,
“Please God, love the world. The world needs love! We love you, God. Love my mommy, help her not be lonely, help her be happy. Thank you for giving my daddy work. I am trying to be good, aren’t I? I would love to fly like in my dreams. Please God. All I want is to have my family together and safe. Please God, save my family!”
He finished writing and looked up at his parents. He saw their tears. “These are good tears,” he thought, “but why cry?” He was doing what he had always done. He was writing to God, for writing to God made him feel good. It made him feel safe. God understood.
He placed the bulletin on the silver tray. Stretching out his arms, he hugged his parents. His flushed cheeks turned more crimson as he closed his eyes and welcomed their affection. His heart soared.
In that instant, his parents understood. God had blessed him with a divine spiritual gift of faith, generosity, and humility. It was painted on his soul as though God had used a broad brush, big strokes, and bright iridescent colors. He was beautifully created for a divine purpose, and God had a plan.
As they embraced him, they embraced the truth that Tommy’s life belongs right where it is—cradled lovingly in the arms of Jesus; a fact Tommy was already well aware of in his own mind.