Buggy loads of deaf Amish kids came to our school Wednesdays for a special ed. class. The girls wore long plum dresses and white bonnets. The boys sported bowl cuts, overalls, and wide brimmed hats. They didn’t have the technology we based our identities upon. Their deafness doubly removed them from our world. They stayed on their side of the playground and we stayed on ours.
We were shocked when one day an Amish girl walked along the mountain range the snowplow churned up, and stood there on the peak, hands on hips, gleaming at us in the sun.
I don’t remember if it was me or one of the other boys or if it was Ida herself who started it. Maybe she was prepared for war by Amish brothers who subjected her to such original forms of brutality we worldies couldn’t compete. Who knows? But someone launched the first exploratory volley of insults.
The back and forth mostly involved mirroring “retardo” faces while making screeching sounds and rude gestures. Someone cupped an ear with a hand and exclaimed, Ey? Ey? Ey?, like they couldn’t hear, and that became a thing. When Ida performed the gesture right back, the irony of a deaf girl pantomiming difficulty in hearing was lost on us.
When the exchange became animated enough, Mrs. P, the playground monitor, would trudge across the snowy asphalt and lecture our side on tolerance, insisting we should know better, that we ought to be ashamed of ourselves for treating a poor defenseless deaf girl that way. All the while, Ida, standing on the snowy mountain top behind Mrs P, would be jeering and grabbing her crotch like Michael Jackson.
Ida. We called her Ida All Right-Ah, after the french fry commercials.
The worst put down was to say you were in love with Ida. I was a little shorter than the other boys and that made me a target. Someone started a rumor that Ida and I kissed. It took weeks to quiet down, its apparent truth reaffirmed again and again simply by the retelling, until I wished Ida and I had shared a smooch, for all the trouble the lie was causing me.
It was hard to tell just who Ida was underneath her winter coat and dress. The faces she was constantly pulling, and the discordant birdlike sounds spouting from her throat, amplified her weirdness. I stuck my fingers in my ears trying to imagine life without sound, but I couldn’t do it.
One day I stood there with the boys, shuffling in the cold, curling and uncurling my toes inside my moon boots, tonguing the salty glaze of snot on my upper lip, squinting into the blazing white field dotted with running and tumbling blobs of screaming and laughing color——when the first snowball hit me in the face.
We turned to find Ida standing on her long birdy legs atop Mt. Snowy in the blinding winter sun. Glorious in her successful surprise attack. She was deaf to all pity.
Through the sting of that snowball I saw Ida in a new light. The purity and ruggedness of a previous century hung about her. Without the weakening effects of modern technology, she retained an innocent vibrancy us worldies had long since shed. Her youthful consciousness came to focus through wonders other than slasher movies, pop music videos, plastic action figures Saturday morning cartoon advertisements, and Cap'n Crunch with Crunch Berries cereal. Ida’s eyes saw a world unclouded by a mediated reality extolling the virtues of hyper consumption and the decadent pleasures of cultural narcissism. Our world begged for a rapid painful end by nuclear explosion (or slow death by environmental degradation). Ida lived in a pure land. Did she even know what a nuke was?
I was feeling sorry for myself. The world was going to die soon and everybody else seemed so sure of themselves. I didn’t even feel like a real boy. I knew if the gang caught scent of my weakness for Ida, they’d turn into a pack of wild dogs, chase me across the field, and leave me a smear of strawberry sherbet.
That was life and death for a kid on the playground in those days. You would be forgiven for thinking this field of snow was ash, and all us kids were ghosts who died in the atomic blast, but didn’t know it yet. Or that this is just me alone on my ice moon, remembering a first kiss with Ida back on old earth.
To think of all the things that girl couldn’t hear...
But Ida didn’t need my sympathy. It amazed me that though she couldn't hear our taunts she understood the game perfectly. She came over to challenge us undaunted by whatever filth we threw at her. She even spoke to us, or at least tried to. Her voice funny like she was trying to say words she heard long ago but which had drifted in her memory. She had no feedback, no sound echoing back to her to help her orient her voice, which veered off at every turn like a startled flock of birds.
The boys demanded revenge for the snow ball. And several gruesome scenarios were hastily sketched out. But what could we really do to her with Mrs. P the hawk-eyed recess attendant, a living symbol of divine order and retribution, ready to swoop in at any second whistling shrilly like an owl?
We weren’t bad boys. We maintained our status by simply having been born good looking and vaguely sporty. Our position in the school’s social hierarchy was indisputable from the get go.
But Ida was something else. She challenged our whole world order. She mocked us mocking her with a whiny voice and mr. yuck face. Tongue sticking out, eyes crossed, moaning like a goon. She even lifted her dress to show us her shockingly white panties. It stopped us cold since we couldn’t reply in kind, being bound by the bright yellow seams of our Toughskins jeans. Nor could we afford to be so vulnerable. I particularly envied her in this.
When we started giving her the middle finger, Ida reciprocated in kind, conveying both redoubled contempt, and a sly capability with playground sign language. Seeing an Amish girl with a screwed up face giving us the bird was too much. We doubled over coughing. But, on some elementary level, her ‘fuck you’ bridged the void between our universes.
Ida enjoyed the attention we were giving her. We must have been as alien to her as she was to us. She sought us out just to scream mispronounced swear words she must have only just learned. Once a group of deaf Amish boys followed her, looking mean at us. We looked mean back at them. Our standoff went nowhere. Finally, Ida signed to them with quick butterfly hands telling them to go away. She didn’t need them to protect her. The deaf Amish gang exchanged a few more contemptuous looks with us before skulking back to their turf, leaving Ida alone again, breathing out great clouds of joy, smiling triumphantly at the top of the snow pile.
She never backed down. Never saw herself as a victim of our ape-like gibes. You had to admire her spirit for taking on the alpha boys all by herself. For giving us as good as we gave. She fed off our ignorance and intolerance like a strange bird adapting to survival in a nuclear winter. Whether she lived out her future safe in her native community or escaped to a worldly life beyond, I doubt she needed an apology for the way we made fun of her double handicap—if you want to call it that—since it made her so unique.
Inevitably there came the time when Mrs. P blew the final triple whistle signaling the end of recess. Out of chaos and energy we all slowly fell together. Alphabetized, numerical, one in front of the other, all a little sad it was over. We turned to face the dull brick red facade of the school.
About the Author
J has lived in many times and places. Current native of Earth, America, Brooklyn. Caretaker of a human child. Published by Right Hand Pointing, Dime Show Review, Poets Reading the News, and forthcoming in Echo: A Journal of Creative Nonfiction.