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Senior Column: Actions speak louder than words

I’d never really fed anyone, so it was really hard when I finally did. It didn’t help that I had almost no similar basis of communication with the kid who I was feeding, Jack. Jack has a severe brain impairment, and goes to school at Chase’s Place, a school for kids with special needs where I was volunteering. He didn’t speak, but his inconsistent use of his communication board was infinitely better than I could have managed.

Jack loves rice cakes, he hates pizza. A strange taste. However, the kid isn’t too strange. He’s very stubborn and has firm likes and dislikes. It’s near impossible to get him to eat a tiny piece of pizza in ten minutes but he’ll gobble up a rice cake is under fifteen seconds. It’s actually pretty impressive. It reminds me of when I was five eating one of those frosted sugar cookies that can kill you. Actually, I still do that.

An honest examination of how hard it was to feed him requires me to look into the differences between me and Jack. For one thing, we don’t speak the same language. I speak a verbal language with simply defined words and grammar. Jack mostly uses an elaborate combination of physical cues, much more complicated and subjective than the English language. Jack is working on his communication board that speaks English for him, but honestly, I like learning his natural language. It’s more consistent with what language should be, a constantly changing interpretation of reactions to things that happen.

I understand that spoken language is necessary to advance in this world, either electronic or real, but I think it’s possible to underestimate the value of his natural method of communication. That’s not to say it wasn’t’ difficult to talk to him. I had to learn to interpret. Hitting fists together means “more,” sometimes he’ll just grab food from your hand if he doesn’t feel he’s getting what he needs fast enough then shoves the food into his face with a smile. “It’s not funny,” one of the workers would say.

But it is funny. It’s funny how cunning he is, how smart he is, how outspoken he is in his own way, and how much he knows that I don’t. It’s also funny how much he’s proving me that I’m wrong about kids like him. I’m not necessarily more knowledgeable than them, and I’m definitely not their savior. Despite my knowledge of English, I find myself constantly stretching for words. Jack is not afflicted by this oral frustration, so maybe I should stop pitying others for a second and learn.

Originally published in the November 2017 print issue

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