Olivia sat, barely awake, watching her cartoons. It was early and she was nervous about starting the seventh grade. Her childhood cartoons were making her giggle, as always, and the banana pancakes her mom made felt like a familiar warm hug. She was almost feeling brave enough to conquer her fears until her mom, yapping away on the phone, turned the volume down on the TV, because she couldn’t hear her gossip well enough. Now Olivia was left alone with her own thoughts, and all of her fears of her first day came rushing back.
What if she didn’t make any friends? What if no one talked to her? What if people didn’t like her? What if people made up stories about her? What if -
“Ready Sweetie?” Her dad interrupted her deep panic. She jumped, swallowed her nervous tears back and said “I think so” as bravely as she could muster.
On the ride to school, trying to get her mind on something other than the day that lay ahead, she asked her Dad, “What was Mommy so busy gossiping about this morning anyway?”.
Her Dad laughed and explained that there was a new neighbor that had everyone talking. Olivia got excited. “A new neighbor?!” she repeated, clapping in anticipation. There weren’t many kids around the neighborhood that were Olivia’s age, most were much younger. She was already imagining this new neighbor having a daughter that was her age and the two of them growing up together, the best of friends.
“Now hold on there” Olivia’s father interrupted. She stopped her fantasy dead in its tracks, worried about the look on his face. “We want you to stay away from this new neighbor,” he continued, “they are strangers, we know nothing about them.”
Olivia, disappointed, sat on her dad's statement throughout her school day. That wasn’t how her parents typically acted with new neighbors. Her mom usually made a plate of warm cookies or one of her favorite dinner dishes to welcome new people when they moved in.
Granted, her mom usually also took that opportunity to find out everything she could to either gain a new friend or to start the “Gossip Train” as Olivia’s daddy called it. But to not give the neighbor a chance at all didn’t make sense to Olivia. She decided that she would dig into it further after school.
With her mind now occupied with cracking the case of the new neighbor, she actually had a pretty great first day. She was so distracted that she just didn’t have time to worry about what other people thought of her. Her distraction ended up making her appear confident and that resulted in several new friends talking and sitting with her throughout the course of the day.
As soon as the bell rang and Olivia could get into her Mom’s car, she asked “Why don’t you like the new neighbor?” Startled by the question, her mom explained “It’s not that I don’t like them, they’re just weird.”. “Stay away from them”, she added.
Olivia asked more questions but they were all answered in the same vague way. Her mom finally explained that she did, in fact, make a plate of cookies and brought them to the neighbor a few weeks ago. However, the neighbor did not answer the door, even though her mom could see her through the window, sitting right there, reading a book “her nose high in the air” , her mom added.
Olivia was then told a similar story, about another afternoon when her mom saw the neighbor outside getting her mail. Olivia’s mom hollered to her, asking her to wait a moment and the mystery neighbor just walked back into her house, sorting through her mail “as if I didn’t even exist” her mom sharply added.
And so the Gossip Train had left the station and the moms were all full steam ahead.
Olivia, even at her young age of 12, knew that there had to be a bigger story. Something was weighing on her heart about this neighbor. Why would someone move into a new neighborhood just to be all alone and the center of gossip and rumors?
When questioning her mom's logic, Olivia’s mom insisted “this new lady either thinks that she is too good for us or she is hiding something, either way, I’m going to get to the bottom of it”.
Olivia felt awful. This poor woman was living out her worst fears. She then received some hopeful news. There was going to be a block party! Everyone on the block was invited, including the new neighbor! This was perfect. Olivia was so excited because this was a chance for the new, misunderstood mystery neighbor to clear everything up. She even asked her mom if she could help bake another batch of cookies as a new beginning, in hopes that her mom would see it that way as well.
The evening of the block party came quickly. The scent of BBQ and the sound of music filled the air as the street filled with families mingling, meeting, laughing and drinking. Olivia could hear the moms talking about other moms, she heard the dads talking about sports and different bbq tips. She smiled at the comfort of it all. She enjoyed hearing the laughter, the music and the little kids running around playing. This was the kind of neighborhood she had always wanted. That thought made her wonder though, “Why is she not here?” She looked around one more time and did not see any new faces.
Olivia found her mom in the crowd and asked “Mom, did the new neighbor come?” Her mom replied, laughing, “of course not sweetheart, I told you, she’s weird!” All of the moms joined in laughing.
Olivia’s heart sank. She wandered off sadly, to find her friends and try to have some fun. At one point in the evening, Olivia and her friends were riding their bikes in view of the new neighbors home. Olivia took notice and glanced up right in time to see someone peeking out the front window. As their eyes met, the strangers' eyes disappeared.
That spooked Olivia but also intrigued her all the more. Now she knew for a fact that someone was there and they were curious about what was going on. “So, why didn’t they come to the party?” she wondered to herself. The party ended a few hours later and the mysterious stranger never did make an appearance.
The next day at school Olivia learned that the Gossip Train spreads quickly to the children of the parents who ride it. Some of the kids from the party were talking about “that new neighbor that thinks she’s too good for us”. Olivia attempted to stand up for the neighbor a few times but was quickly overruled by rumors she couldn’t answer to and by students much older and cooler than she was.
Throughout the following week, things seemed to unravel and all Olivia could do was stand by and watch with deep sadness. The neighbors house was egged by a group of popular students, who yelled hateful slurs at the house with each egg they hurled. As Olivia heard the story retold by her concerned dad, she said a quick prayer for the neighbor, that she maybe wasn’t home to hear those awful words.
Nothing significant came of the egging incident and a week passed by. The mystery neighbor remained unseen and the trouble making students grew restless so they decided to make a bigger, louder and more hateful statement. That Friday night, the same popular kids threw rocks at the neighbors windows, breaking three of them.
The next time Olivia rode her bike by the house, the windows were boarded up, making that new beautiful home look just as battered and lonely as the woman living in it probably felt. She rode her bike home in tears, her heart yearning for the truth.
During dinner that evening, Olivia asked her mom if she had heard about the neighbors' broken windows. Her mom cackled, “The boards will help her with whatever she’s trying to hide”. Her mom had become so mean about this whole situation. Olivia dismissed herself from the table. Her mom's last comments took away any appetite that she may have had.
That night, Olivia hatched a plan. She was going to meet this new neighbor once and for all.
In the morning Olivia told her mom that she was going to stay after school to help work on the school play. Olivia knew that her mom would be so excited about the idea of Olivia getting involved in something that she would have minimal questions. She told her mom she would need to be picked up at 5pm instead of 3pm. She figured that would be ample time to enact her plan. Her mom did not bat an eye. She didn’t even look up from her phone. “Okay, so 5 instead of 3, got it! Proud of you!” she said at her phone while Olivia left the car for school.
Olivia watched the clock all day and the moment it struck three, she bolted to the mystery house. Once there, she gathered her nerves, caught her breath and knocked on the door. No one came to open it. She looked through the only window that wasn’t boarded up and she could see a surprisingly younger lady, early 20’s would be her guess, sitting on a sofa, reading. Olivia knocked on the window, still nothing.
She then waved her hand and yelled “Hello!!” out of frustration. It looked as if her hand waving caught the young lady's attention and she looked up at Olivia, startled. They locked eyes, then to Olivia’s surprise, this new stranger smiled a warm welcoming smile that instantly made her glad that she took the chance to come.
Olivia watched through the window as the smiling neighbor stood up, grabbed a pen and pad of paper and motioned for Olivia to go to the front door. Excitedly, she did just that and as the door opened, Olivia certainly did not see a monster. She didn’t see a snob or anyone even remotely deserving of the horrible things that had been said about her. She saw a petite, hesitant, painfully shy young woman with a smile that reminded her of her mom's banana pancakes.
Overcome with excitement, Olivia blurted out “Hi! My name is Olivia!” Her new friend watched her patiently, put her hand up, as if asking her to wait a moment and then proceeded to write something on the pad of paper that she was holding. Confused, Olivia waited, until she was handed the notebook and read the words carefully, aloud “My name is Teresa. I am Deaf. That means that I can not hear. I am thrilled to meet you though. Can you write your name for me?”
So many things made sense now. Olivia had never met a real deaf person before she had heard of it on TV. For a fleeting moment, Olivia smiled, relieved, reliving and realizing the many misunderstandings that had unfolded in the last few weeks. As she felt the relief wash over her, she wrote “ My name is Olivia and I am so excited to finally meet you Teresa”. She handed back the notebook.
Teresa read the note, smiled from ear to ear, and continued to write. “Thank you for coming to see me in person and not being scared. As you can see, that has not been what others have chosen to do”, she handed back the notebook and pointed to the windows that were boarded up.
She and Olivia spoke by written word for another 20-30 minutes. Olivia learned that Teresa used to live with her parents, who were also deaf, but they had died in an accident a few years ago. Since the accident, Teresa had been trying to live on her own but she found that everywhere she went, people feared her because she was different. Instead of getting to know her and learning how to communicate with her, she ended up judged, isolated and misunderstood. She had sadly started getting used to the loneliness and had stopped trying to make people understand.
Olivia wanted to help but then saw that it was almost 5pm. She vowed to her new friend that she would be back soon and she ran back to school, finding a furiously awaiting mother. After jumping into the car and apologizing several times, she told her mom everything. She talked faster when her mom’s face contorted like she was going to interrupt or get upset. “And so, I told her that you and I would come over a few days a week to learn her language, so she wouldn’t have to be so lonely anymore” Olivia said, ending her story.
She hadn’t taken a breath yet so she caught her breath waiting for her mom to respond. Her mom looked long and hard at her daughter and felt all of her anger melt away as the story went on. By the end, she had nothing to say. How did she create a child that was so good and so kind? She felt embarrassed and ashamed at how she had acted. She felt so grateful that her daughter, though so young in years, had the wisdom and faith to see through it all and to trust her gut. She hugged her daughter tight and all she could muster aloud was “okay Olivia, okay”.
Olivia and her mom did, in fact, start going to Teresa’s a few days a week to learn Sign Language. Olivia proudly watched the Gossip Train come to a complete halt as the other moms started to join them. Within just a month, the majority of the neighborhood was learning sign language together, signing with Teresa and each other.
After Christmas break, Olivia got an invitation in the mail. Another block party, only this time Teresa was listed as the host! Olivia smiled, hugged the invite tight and then stuffed it into her backpack, ready to head out to school.