It is a cool September morning. The sun is breaking through the pines, and the air carries a tangy scent of freshness and renewal only to be found on the first day of school. I am rocking my plus-size Phillies sweatshirt and waiting with the others at the bus stop. Well, not exactly "with" them. As often happens when I'm out in the world, I place myself a little bit apart from the herd. I lean against a tree a few feet off to the side of a triangle formation of two cute girls and a dude. I get their names: A.J., Teresa, and Gabby. They hardly acknowledge me, so I return the favor. I have a lot on my mind anyway.
Will I survive at the mainstream school? Should I seduce Nurse Weaver to stay out of special ed? I don't have a proven talent for normal, and it strains the limits of credibility to come up with a scenario that involves seducing Nurse Weaver, the school district RN who did my hearing test. (I passed, barely, by guessing and promising to wear my hearing aids, which are already stashed in my pocket--sucker!) Still, it is a fun thought. Nurse Weaver is a cutie. Thinking about seducing her is certainly preferable to imagining doing sexual favors for the person who really holds my future in her hands: Superintendent Sylvia P. Zirkel.
I had to write a plea to SPZ to let me transfer from the deaf school to Carbon High. It was mostly lies, since I figured she wouldn't really understand the fight that forced my departure from the school for the deaf. Infights and deaf-world arguments rarely make sense to anyone else. She gave a distinctly wary OK, but I still have to be on her good side. If she deems it necessary, I will be bounced. Regardless, I will not allow myself to be taken advantage of by Superintendent Zirkel--a woman who looks like a skeleton in a Beatles wig and smells like beef. This is my solemn vow. Amen.
Nurse Weaver might have guessed that I was fumbling through the hearing test, but she was impressed with my lipreading skills. They are fantastic, if I do say so myself. I was one of the two best lip-readers at my old school (the other being my ex-"girlfriend," Ebony). I'll have to rely on lipreading to get by, since this school district is still relatively underfunded despite all the newly rich moving in on the fringes of coal country. CHS cannot afford a cool captioning system like some of the fancy schools over the river. There are no interpreters. There's no structured "inclusion" program. What they have is pretty much "sink or swim." And from what I hear (so to sign, not speak), sink is the more common outcome.
The school bus comes, and I cruise on. Geez. I didn't factor in this being so terrifying, seeing these unfamiliar faces all scrubbed and happy. Who are these people? There is one guy, a half-asleep-looking weirdo, slouching in the back, who seems like he should be on a prison bus. I plop down on the first seat behind the bus driver.
The bus driver is a wiry and dangerous-looking man with a bizarre beard that rings his tanned face like an upside-down halo. Even though it is pretty cold out, he is wearing sandals, which reveal unnervingly long toenails. He is also eating a family-size bag of pork rinds for breakfast.
A cocky kid who gets on at a stop after mine says something to Jimmy Porkrinds about his sandals, to which he replies, "My feet, my business." Pretty deep. Someone should engrave it on a plaque and/or make it into an inspirational poster to hang in bathrooms. For the rest of the trip, J.P. talks to himself. I love people who talk to themselves. through the rearview mirrow, I lip-read some strange stuff coming out of his mouth. Stuff that might have been song lyrics: "Dig, dig, dig the hole, hidey-hidey hole" and "Joke the mole, smoke a bowl." I write in my notebook: JIMMY PORKRINDS = ADDLED POTHEAD OR GIFTED LYRICIST?
I also watch a few conversations from the rows behind me. Several kids, including Teresa and Gabby, have brought large envelopes with them and are waving them around. Those without envelopes seem a little sad. Somebody grabs Gabby's envelope, and a shiny piece of paper falls out and flutters to the ground. She freaks out and dives to catch it as if it was a baby falling to its death. "Dude, I am not missing that party," she says. "No way." She grabs it back up and carefully slides it into the envelope again with a smug expression. A.J. looks like he's not sure if he should laugh or cry. Join the club. Before long, with a fabulous mutter of "Watch yo' ass, Philip Glass" from J.P., we have arrived at school.
My day begins with a meeting in the principal's office. Principal's office already? Am I in trouble on the first day? I admonish myself. You are quite the miscreant, William Badboy Halpin.
Have to be careful not to look like some weirdo laughing to myself here. I do feel a bit nervous walking in that door labeled principal kroener. Even at the deaf school, we heard about Kroener. He supposedly threw a kid through a window for chewing gum. I was hoping I could get all the way to graduation without ever having to meet him. I've forgotten to put my hearing aids back on, but he doesn't notice. I can hear a little with them, but I hate them. I know I still don't hear what everyone else does, they give me intense headaches, and I hate being stared at like I have six heads. When I put them on, all eyes go straight to my ears. No one notices my dashing movie star looks or body builder's physique. Understandably.
Kroener is on a phone call and distractedly welcomes me into his office. He gestures for me to take a seat and scatters some papers as he does. I spy with my little eye a particular sheet of paper labeled "Will Halpin Individual Education Program." The fact that I require an IEP reminds me that I'm still on the banks of the mainstream. And though the sheet is upside-down from where I sit, I can make out the basics. Apparently, I'm "profoundly deaf yet intellectually capable." This yet pisses me off! It's the kind of thing some of my old classmates would have formed a protest committee over. I'm usually the type to let things slide, which maybe was why I was somewhat of an outsider even among my own peeps.
I see too that I have high marks for my ability to lip-read, and it's also noted that I'm excellent at sign language. A kiss of the hand to you. My ability to speak is listed as "adequate," which makes me smile inside, since I barely said a word to Nurse Weaver. I hardly speak at all, and I really don't like talking to people I don't know well. People have laughed at the way I talk, and I don't altogether know what the hell I'm saying. I've had a million arguments about how I should probably just get over this and be proud of my deafness, but I remain unconvinced. That kind of thinking is part of the reason I left my old school.
Kroener slams down the phone and gives me my schedule. He seems like he is actually trying to be nice. He has learned a few signs and stumbles through "Welcome to our school." He hands me a letter that basically says the same thing and a map, which I hope I will be able to figure out. "Consider me welcomed," I sign, throwing Kroener a big, only partly insincere, grin. Tall and wide, with a head shaped like a bullet, Principal Kroener tries to smile back, but it looks like it doesn't fit his face. I wave awkwardly and skedaddle.
First up, first class. I'm good with maps, probably from constantly playing video games (take that, video game critics!), so I easily find the room for American history. I'm stepping in, feeling like an astronaut on alien soil as my foot lands on the other side of the threshold. There is no time to contemplate this giant leap for Halpin-kind, however, because I am immediately overwhelmed. And it seems I'm not the only one.
The teacher, a pear-shaped, balding man whose ID badge identifies him as Mr. Arterberry, appears to be even more unsure of what to do with me. Nurse Weaver assured me that she had filled the teachers in, so they know all about my "primary mode of understanding" being lipreading and that I am "strong textually," which I assume means that I read and write well. She's right--I enjoy words. They are like music to my ears.
Mr. A. has a seat for me off in a corner of the room. This will allow me to read lips of teacher as well as students and thus benefit from the fantastic scholarly wisdom offered by both lecture and class discussion. But it also makes me feel shoved aside, sort of like a houseplant. Will someone at least remember to prune and water me?
The first thing I notice is this: public school girls are freaking hot. Nice. I try to focus on that and not on the sinking feeling that it might be way harder not to fail here than I thought. It's only been a few seconds since class started, and Arterberry apparently has already forgotten Nurse Weaver's instructions. Even though I have always been exceptionally good at lipreading (blue ribbon at Camp Arrowhead!), I need to actually see the lips. Even in the best situations, I'm likely to miss a few words in the middle of a sentence. Arterberry keeps turning around or covering his mouth with his flabby arm while writing on the board. Plus, although I realize that the Americans with Disabilities Act can't force him to get rid of his bushy lip beast, a basic sense of fashion and/or hygiene should compel him to at least trim his 'stache.
The class ends before I have any idea what era of history we were even talking about. The American Revolution or maybe the Teapot Dome scandal? At the deaf school, every teacher knows sign language, and they have these captioning systems so everything shows up as text on a screen in addition to the lecture. Have I made a terrible mistake coming here? But I got so tired of the squabbles. Are you deaf enough? Strong deaf? Weak deaf? I just wanted to hang out and relax--not have to prove so much. I simply don't have a problem with hearing people. I always ended up defending them. Which landed me here. And now I'm not so sure....
Ah, but the girls.
One specimen, a perky little type, answers so many questions that it is easy to figure out her name even through Arterberry's swath of mustache hair. "Yes, Mindy?" "Miss Spark?" "Right you are, Mindy." "Mindy, Mindy, Mindy." Deaf people are also good at reading emotion as well as content, and it is easy for me to see that Mindy Spark is already Mr. Arterberry's least favorite student.
And then there is a girl I'm pretty sure is named Leigha. Mindy says her name a few times ("Right, Leigha?" "How 'bout it, Leigha?" "Oh my God, remember, this one time Leigha?"), so I get it. This Leigha is an unqualified beauty. Her eyes shine like steel, and her perfect face is the face in a dream you never even knew you were capable of having. Perfect. I write it down in my little notebook. MOST BEAUTIFUL GIRL IN THE WORLD = LEIGHA-MIA. PERKY CHICK = MINDY SPARK PLUG. Then I write an observation about a weirdo from the bus. I don't know his name yet. Unlike Mindy, he answers no questions and spends the whole class staring at his fingers. SCUZZY GUY LOVES HIS FINGERS.
I hope this stuff will be on the test.
From the Hardcover edition.