Back in my latter days of teaching at Bosco Academy in 2015, I took on the questionable task of attempting to teach one of the second graders as much of the sign language that I could remember from my time in college. It seemed like a lofty goal, but ultimately, I hoped he may be able to walk away with something to show for himself when we were done working with one another. And so, as I recorded on my blog back in 2015, the boy and I would gather together many days after school in my classroom and do our best to fend off the other boys who kept interrupting us with their curiosity. Together, we plucked our way through the alphabet and slowly began to learn some of the more key phrases that could potentially be useful to him while growing up.
I could tell he liked coming to me after school, his enthusiasm was obvious, and he would often track me down earlier in the day to ask if we’d be getting together after school. It was amusing, but heartwarming as well. I don’t remember how the little guy and I left things once the year wrapped up. Surely, when the end of year exams rolled around, our one-on-one time must have just petered out. I didn’t think much of the time that he and I had spent together once it was over. I didn’t return to America and lie awake at night wondering how his communication skills were. For me, it was just over. Once, I heard from my former coordinator that his speech was improving, but I didn’t give that much thought either.
This little guy was the first one to greet me when I pranced back through the orphanage gates after a year and a half hiatus. I saw his face turn toward me and take a moment before a smile burst across his face and he charged toward me. Indeed, if nothing else, he remembered that I loved him. But, sure enough, I wasn’t the only one delivering a surprise for the day. He boastfully looked at me after being prompted by his new teacher and said slowly but confidently, “My. Name. Is. Aaron.”
The next day, I was walking with Aaron and some of the other boys from the bus park to the local pool for their weekly swimming endeavor. Aaron was holding my left hand and another boy had my right as we walked by a fenced off park. Towering over the fence were numerous trees, boasting Caribbean flowers and fruits. As we passed a cashew tree, with it’s fruit weighing down the branches, the boys began to mumble about the fruit. Cashews in Guyana are about the size of limes and are shaped like acorns. When they’re ripe, they’re bright pink on the outside and white on the inside. When you bite into them, they taste and have the texture of a pear that needs a few more days to ripen. They’re alright, but not my favorite though. This can’t be said for many of the boys, as the conversation about the cashews began to grow. “Cashews are my favorite fruit!” one of the boys declared. I looked over at Aaron, “what’s your favorite kind of fruit, Aaron?
He grunted at me. I was bummed I didn’t understand what he had said to me. I asked him again.
He glanced up at me, smiled, and then began to finger spell his answer, saying each letter out loud as clearly as he could as he moved through each letter of the word. When he reached the end of the word, as if rehearsed, he stated the full word he had just spelled. “M-A-N-G-O. Mango.”
The phrase “Holy Sh*t!” shot across my brain. It worked.
He had cruised through each letter, knowing I knew full well each character he presented to me, but he knew, at the same time, most people weren’t going to be able to understand sign language, so he pieced together each letter, letters that he has practiced forming in his mouth many times before, and then reemphasized his word with a final push at the end. The kid is onto something. Kudos to the current volunteer who works one-on-one with him this school year. She is doing a killer job helping him progress.
Given my limited understanding of sign language, I didn’t think the time I spent with him after school those weeks was getting us too far. However, he learned the alphabet, which he clearly is putting to use today, along with all of the major progress he’s made with his current teachers and anyone else who has set aside time to help move him closer to being able to communicate more effectively.
Aaron and I have since had many interactions, and every time I don’t quite understand what he’s trying to communicate, out comes the sign language, and we always end up reaching an understanding. Who knew?