I wrote this back in November/December for a feature that was being done. It was published in the January/February issue of BTS magazine. If you missed it there, as tomorrow is March – here it is again.
What they didn’t know
They thought she was a boy. Morgan’s mis-matched clothes, outgrown bowl haircut, and second hand sneakers hid every detail of who she was. The kids had ignored her since long before they were old enough to form the cliques they now claimed and the teachers were indifferent, the by-product of a system where everyone did the least they were required to do to get by, and it was allowed.
For years they thought she was mute, or dumb. Few had ever heard her speak. Many had seen her sign to her grandmother at the curb when she was dropped off, but none had bothered to find out why. The administration knew her story but were too overburdened to share it or try to draw her out of the hard little shell she had erected around herself. No one had seen her father in years though they knew he was around. No one knew who her mother was. Morgan was just another kid to everyone around her.
It was high school before anyone saw anything more. Miss Foster, the music teacher, looked at Morgan suspiciously as she walked down the hall past her room. Someone had been humming. The Doppler effect of the sound had grown and faded with Morgan’s course. Could it be? She wondered out loud to her empty classroom. She simply had to know. Not that her workload was less than anyone else’s, she went out of her way to find out more about the introverted child. Her heart cleaved and broke to read the story.
Morgan had been born a twin. Her mother had not survived the birth. A brother no one seemed to know about, was impaired and in a home with others of his abilities so he could have the round the clock care that was needed. Morgan lived with her father, but he worked two jobs to keep his son in the facility and a home for him and his daughter. Notes from registration and previous conferences about Morgan revealed that the grandmother was deaf and mute, but also a primary caregiver making sure Morgan went to school and was fed while her father worked. Other notes indicated that while Morgan could speak and was quite bright, she just communicated better with ASL than words.
The music teacher could not imagine it and determined upon closing the file that this could not be the end of the story for this girl. She watched Morgan for several weeks, waiting until just before fall break to approach her.
“Morgan Gaffen.” Miss Foster called quietly from her doorway.
Morgan stopped but did not respond or immediately turn. Her inset eyes were wide and conveyed more than a little fear as she turned halfway at the calling of her name.
“I’m Miss Foster, Erin Foster. I’m the music teacher here.” It was said with careful quiet phrasing. “I understand that you know sign language.”
Morgan only nodded in response. Her guard was still quite obviously raised in silent alarm.
“Can I talk to you? I have an idea, but I really need some help. I think you might be able to help me.” Erin continued, watching Morgan carefully as each word registered. When she stood still but didn’t move to get away, Erin pushed a little farther.
“Would you like to come in and sit down?”
Morgan drew back but didn’t step back. Erin didn’t want to rush her, so she amended her request. “Or, we can stand here too if that’s more comfortable.”
Morgan nodded. Erin thought she heard an ‘okay’ squeak out, but it was so soft she couldn’t be sure. Standing in the hallway just beyond her room, she presented her idea.
“I’d like to have someone sign the songs and stories for the Winter Festival.”
Morgan’s eyes were again wide but from interest more than fear this time. No one had ever asked her to participate in anything. Skepticism crept up. She had come to the festival for years through grade school and middle school, no one had ever signed before that she could remember. Why would they start now, and why ask her? Erin didn’t miss the change of emotion flash across Morgan’s usually stoic face.
“There is a class of deaf children at one of the grade schools. They are never invited to the festival performance because they cannot hear it. I thought,” she shrugged, “that if you could sign the songs, then maybe they could be invited for a change.”
Morgan’s jaw dropped. She knew all too well about how different groups were excluded or over-looked for things. She was one of those groups all by herself, but she didn’t say so. Erin thought she was making headway and pressed on.
“I understand your grandmother is deaf. It might be nice for her to get to come too.” She added quietly hoping that her knowledge wasn’t more than the girl could take.
Morgan’s lips were pressed together and a tear ran down her cheek. She brushed it away quickly. She knew she was going to have to speak. Erin watched as the girl cleared her throat and licked her lips. When she replied it was quiet and her voice shook. “She would probably like that.”
Erin didn’t want to overdo it. “I tell you what, we probably should make sure it’s okay with your family before we go any farther. How about you come by after classes and I’ll have a note explaining what I’m asking and why that you can take home. If dad and grandma agree, we’ll talk more. Okay?”
Morgan nodded. “Okay.”
By mid-December it was all set. Morgan had been working with her grandmother to make sure she had the signs right for everything that had been chosen. They decided that Morgan did not need to come in until the day of Festival performances, but would work to recordings of the choirs singing to have the tempos for the music. Corralling a class of kids was enough without the distraction of them watching her sign. Erin was sure they would not get much accomplished that way.
The week before the performances Morgan appeared in the doorway to the music room after school. Erin was busy tearing down the day but stopped to see why she was there. “Is everything okay?”
Morgan held out a note from her father. Erin took the paper and wept at the request.
We’ve not met, but I want to thank you. Your request to have Morgan be part of the program this year has reminded all of us of what is important. I have a request in return for you. Morgan’s brother Michael, and others like him where he lives, do not get invited to participate in things either. Some are hearing impaired and Morgan has been signing to them the songs she has been practicing. Is there any way that they could be invited to a performance?
Erin quickly scribbled a response. She knew that the afternoon performance would be to a full house but that the morning one had plenty of room. There would be parents and other families there too as they were given the option to come since no evening performances were to be held. There was no reason she could see to deny the request. She would do whatever was necessary to make the invitation happen, and she did.
Thirteen children were wheeled in or escorted in with a caregiver. They sat around the perimeter of the room, mostly fidgeting, but generally quiet. The parents milled in too, many complaining about work and deadlines, shopping and other trivial things. Morgan listened absently. Lastly came in the class of hearing impaired children. They were seated down front near the side where Morgan would be.
Once the choir was set, Miss Foster invited her special guest up to the stage. The kids in the choir had been told someone would be signing, they had no idea it would be Morgan. More than one jaw dropped as she came up to the stage in a simple green dress with her hair pulled back behind a headband. They nearly didn’t recognize her.
The stories were told and the songs sung. Morgan signed them all. She even smiled as she watched the class of hearing impaired children sign with her once they knew which piece was being performed. Near the end, several of the children from Michael’s group home were restless. They could only really sit still and be quiet for so long. She heard Michael, and she heard her father’s voice as he tried to quiet him. She didn’t know he had come. He should be sleeping at this hour. She was happy and sad to hear his voice as it wasn’t working to quiet Michael down.
Her heart sank as she noticed them start to take Michael from the room, but she kept signing. Miss Foster noticed the change in the girl, walked over between numbers and asked quietly if there was anything she could do. Morgan asked if there was a pause that could be taken or something so she could step out in the hall and calm him down. She knew what to do but couldn’t from the stage. Erin told the audience there would be a brief pause, but they would be right back.
Morgan jumped from the stage and caught up to them just outside the doors. The conversation, while private, didn’t stay private as it carried through the door into the auditorium.
“Don’t go. Not yet. His favorite is coming up. He doesn’t get to come out that much, please.”
“Morgan, we know. He did his best. We just want everyone else to get to enjoy the rest of the performance. You did great honey.”
Morgan had to try. Without further conversation, the choirs listened as Morgan sang to her brother unaware that she could be heard. The audience too eventually caught the words as Morgan sang ‘Believe’ from The Polar Express to her brother. The auditorium went quiet as the sound carried through to them. All the hectic and crazy that had come into the room with them suddenly wasn’t so big or problematic.
When she was done, there was no further conversation. Michael was brought back in, set just inside the doors, and Morgan returned to the stage. It took all of two seconds for her to figure out that she’d been heard. She was not embarrassed but didn’t want to dwell on it. Believe was one of Michael’s favorite songs in the winter. He didn’t know it was the last one on the program and she didn’t want him to miss it. She hand gestured Miss Foster to continue so that he could stay for the end.
The story and two songs before Believe passed quickly. Finally the full choir stood up to sing. Morgan was watching Michael to see his reaction and wasn’t watching the stage. A tap on her shoulder startled her. A girl she didn’t know but had seen around school, was standing there. Morgan instinctively drew back as the girl leaned in to whisper.
“We decided when you were in the hall. You should sing this if you’re up to it. We’ll back you up. We didn’t know.”
Morgan missed a few of the words signing and singing at the same time. Thankfully, once she started, the class down front had all joined in. They all knew the song and were signing to everyone else. Morgan watched Michael and sang to him. It was the only way she would manage to do this. She didn’t notice the adults crying, or other children smiling. She smiled for him and sang for him.
When it was over and the house lights came up, Morgan knew it had been worth it. Michael was smiling and her father was crying. Next to them was gran signing applause. It was better than any ‘thank you’ or ‘you did great honey’ that had ever been. There had been gifts given that day by people who didn’t know they gave them or to whom. They might never know, and that was okay with Morgan because what they didn’t know was that dreams come true in strange places and that day, her family was together.