Joanna

Posted on November 8, 2010

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The Playhouse

Mr. Douthhart is probably dead now. I loved him. He was a gentle giant. He was the principal of North Falmouth Elementary school when I was little and living in West Falmouth, on the Cape. But, he was the principal. And when you got called to the principal’s office you were in trouble. One day I heard the secretary over the intercom to my classroom tell my teacher to send me to his office. That was a very nerve-racking walk! I was so shy. And as far as anyone knew I never did anything wrong.

I made it to the foyer where I still couldn’t see over the top of the secretary’s counter. She announced to Mr. Douthhart that I was there and he met me at the corner of that counter. He smiled and leaned on his elbow. I had no idea what was going on. When you’re a kid you know very well all the secrets you’ve got to keep track of just in case you’re confronted and have to have a conversation with an adult. I didn’t have any. He said to me, ” Betsy, I have a question for you.” Adults know everything. There’s nothing a kid can tell them that they don’t already know unless it’s something really bad that they think they can intimidate you into divulging. At least that was my experience. He continued, “How did you get Joanna to talk?” I felt instant relief! I had no experience in looking deep into things to find hidden meanings or reasons for things that happened. So I gave him the only answer I had. “I played with her.” “That’s it?” he asked incredulously. “What did you say? How did you do it?” I just shrugged my shoulders and repeated, “I just played with her.” He was frustrated but satisfied and sent me back to class. On the way back down the hallway I felt like something significant in my life had happened and I logged it away until I could see it more clearly. Here’s the story.

One day when I was about eight my sister was invited to her friend’s house to play for the day. As an after-thought I was invited to play with her little sister, Joanna. She was a year or two younger. But I went probably because I didn’t know how to say no. It was a well-known fact that Joanna didn’t talk. She hadn’t talked for years. I never found out why. Probably a traumatic event. I don’t know. Her mom was so sweet. Her father scared me. But most men did scare me. So that wasn’t a sign really that he was mean. There was just tension in the house that made me uneasy.

So we went outside to play. There was a playhouse in their front yard that the four of us and a couple of neighborhood friends decided to play in. Joanna came but never said a thing to me or to anyone else. We decided to play tag. Everyone was ignoring her as they used the inside of the playhouse as the base and chased each other around the yard and the house. When I noticed that she was sitting in the same spot everytime I came in I would just say “Hi”, and leave again. You’ve got to understand…I was the shy one. No one was more shy than I was! I started to talk to her about the game. I didn’t expect her not to respond. When she didn’t I just kept talking. I told her to do things like guard the door or to be still and quiet so I wouldn’t be found out. All I wanted was for her to know that I noticed her. She wasn’t invisble and I didn’t feel comfortable that she was being treated like she was.

After about an half an hour of this very exciting game she started to giggle. Once that started she would say little things to me. I think she surprised herself by talking to someone outside her family. I just giggled and played with her. I remember the relief I felt seeing her having so much fun. She was free from her self-imposed silence. I know I could analyze what happened, turn it inside out and upside down and sideways. But all that really matters to me are the facts.

The fact was that Joanna had chosen to stop talking. For some reason she needed that control and power in her life. When she was treated normally she responded normally. I played with her regardless of whether she talked or not. There were no conditions on my friendship with her. The rest is just being in the right place at the right time in the right way.

People, I’ve learned, are more than their “problems”. Lives go on with or without our full participation. Most of us have issues that keep us locked up inside at times. I like to treat people like they are smart enough to withhold what they need to withhold to feel safe, and to change  if they want to or need to. But I also know how I can only be myself at any given moment. I have only met disaster when I’ve tried to manipulate information or behavior out of or into someone that has been put into my circle of influence.

I don’t know what happened to Joanna. I don’t know if I ended up driving her crazy with things like trying to teach her to eat with her mouth closed! For a short time we were really close friends. I can’t believe I was given that experience with her. She was this fragile spirit who had retreated into  a shell. I was there to witness the joy when she saw freedom for the first time after a long, dark period of her so young life. Because of her I became very sensitive to children and the way events mold them for good and for bad. And I’m also very aware that everyone that crosses our path has the power to build up or to break down.

I hope I’m more of a builder.

Betsy Cross

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