Brad sat in the classroom, nervous and distracted by all the masks adorning the faces of children and teachers alike. His gazed bounced from student to student, desperately seeking a focal point, something to calm his anxiety. Finally finding a familiar pair of eyes, Mrs. Lewis caught his attention, waved and stepped closer.
“Hi, Brad,” she signed.
“Hi, Lewis,” he signed back.
“Welcome back to school,” she signed.
“Thanks,” he motioned, unenthusiastically.
“What do you think of all this?” she asked, motioning around.
“Don’t like it,” he replied. “Can’t see lips.”
Although Brad was not a master at reading lips, the masks prohibited him from feeling the emotion of his interpreter because he couldn’t see her expressions. He couldn’t see anyones expressions. Reading people’s faces was what got Brad through the day in an all-hearing public school.
Smiles, frowns, pensive and frustrated looks were things he could easily read from his peers. He used to be able to tell how his friends were feeling throughout the day, but now everything changed. He could see no one and it sent a sense of panic through his body. He was the only student in the district who was deaf, making it all the more important to feel included.
“Let’s sit,” Mrs. Lewis signed.
“I don’t want to be here,” he replied.
“I know,” her eyes softened to show empathy. Mrs. Lewis had been Brad’s interpreter since he was in preschool. Now, entering junior high, life was going to be different in so many ways. Switching classes, different students, unknown teachers, and now nothing to see but eyes constantly staring back at him.
Brad watched as Mrs. Lewis took her place next to the teacher at the front of the classroom. He could see them chatting back and forth for a bit before Mrs. Lewis started signing.
“Good morning, boys and girls. Welcome to seventh grade English. We have a lot of literature to cover this year as well as many…” Mrs. Lewis was still signing but Brad had already lost interest. He glanced around the room, taking in the posters of Shakespear and The Call of the Wild that had been placed on the walls many, many years ago.
Out of the corner of his eye he could see Mrs. Lewis waving to him. That was the signal for him to pay attention.
“Ok, ok,” he signed.
“I can’t help you if you won’t pay attention.” Mrs Lewis was one of the nicest people you would meet, but she also knew the importance of her job. She was the glue keeping him engaged in his learning.
“Sorry,” he motioned on his chest.
The rest of English played out the same way. Brad losing attention and apologizing for his lack of focus. The same story was true in his next three periods. Math, Science and Government all found Brad losing focus with his eyes wandering aimlessly around the rooms, not paying attention to what Mrs. Lewis was interpreting for him.
By lunchtime, Brad was about exhausted from trying to figure out how to read everyone. His friends all waved to say hi, but Brad couldn’t tell if they were happy to see him or just being polite.
“How can I help?” Mrs. Lewis asked at lunch. “What can we do to get you to pay attention better?” She pulled off her mask and started eating her sandwich.
Brad lit up like a light bulb, smiling from ear to ear.
“There’s you!” he smiled, pointing right at her.
“What do you mean?” she asked, taking another bite of her sandwich.
“I can see you now!” he practically laughed. Mrs. Lewis, realizing Brad could finally see her mouth as she ate without her mask, laughed right along with him.
“Let me see what I can do to fix this. Until then, you have to try to watch me, ok?”
She smiled. Brad just nodded as he continued eating his lunch. Something was going to have to change in order for him to successfully make it through this school year.
The next few days at school were just as rough. Brad made a valiant effort to focus on Mrs. Lewis, but he started to feel uncomfortable, something he had never felt before at school.
“Everyone just stares,” Brad said one day at lunch to Mrs. Lewis.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“All I see are eyes, staring, like I’m different.” The frustration was wearing him down.
“Hey,” she softened her own expression. “Everyone loves you, they just don’t know how to communicate with you yet with these masks. But don’t worry,” she started, then paused popping a chip into her mouth. “Tomorrow will be different. Promise.”
The next day at school, Brad was greeted at first period English by Mrs. Lewis. And boy, was he ever happy to see her. She smiled and he smiled back.
“How did you do that?” he gestured to her face. “Those aren’t allowed here.”
“The school is letting me wear this face shield instead of the mask so you can read me better.” The emotions were crystal clear on her face as she signed every word. Brad laughed.
“And…” she said. “Look around the room.”
He took a minute and looked around the classroom. All of the students who were at their desks and still trickling into the classroom were wearing face shields, which had been prohibited in their district for in-person learning up to this point.
“How?” he asked, turning back to Mrs. Lewis. She stood there, holding out a face shield for him as well.
His mouth gaped as he took the shield from her.
“Well,” she said, “don’t just stand there. Put it on!”
Brad ripped off his mask and slid the shield over his head, adjusting it comfortably in front of his face.
“This is good,” he signed, the priceless smile on his face was more than enough to show how he felt.
What was turning out to be a very difficult school year suddenly became more tolerable for Brad.