By Aaron Weir Kelstone

[Used by permission from the author].

The year I became six, the world decided I was different. It was then I learned that not only fruit jars got labeled-so do people. It began in a small room containing just one chair, a tiny window, and a thick door that seemed to shut like King Tut's tomb, sealing me forever away from the world.

In that soundproof room I was firmly affixed with my label "deaf." I remember vividly the headset pinching against my ears. The screeching sounds reminded me, for years afterward, of the old Anacin commercials. Sound crashed against my ears just like those hammers, anvils, and lightning did on TV. It was then I understood why aspirin sells so well.

Today I can laugh at the lady who consistently replaced the headset every time I removed it. At the time I had no compassion for her. It was just another confusing episode in my life. My days had been filled with angry people who punished me for unknown reasons. I clearly remember the faces, contorted in angry, silent words flowing out of their mouths; their stern faces a constant sight in my universe. This day did not appear to be any different for me.

Then I saw my mother's face. The look in her eyes remains with me always: a sadness etched so clearly I felt I could reach out and touch it. As she approached I felt anxiety well up within me. I wondered what I had done wrong. She reached out to me and to my surprise gently held me for the longest time. I could feel her tears on the back of my neck. Somehow, without striking a blow, I had made my mother cry.

Soon afterwards was the beginning of my watershed years. Looking back I clearly see the dividing line between my confusion and eventual coming to terms with the world. Bumping slowly down the old dirt road I knelt in the back seat of my family's 1954 Plymouth. Gazing out the back window I watched the farmhouse and its fields of clover and wheat fade into the distance. That memory alone leaves me with an eternal sense of loss. My childhood experiences in those fields of clover have never been regained. Hours were spent here in silence, my perception of the world sharpened by the lack of sounds. The brilliant colors and fluid motion of nature were the companions of my childhood.

My destination was a school where they taught me how to live with my label. There I was taught that I was an alien and the meager means of how to survive in this foreign land. But that first day started out with a terrible revelation. As I went through the hallways, my hand firmly entrenched in my mother's: I saw the classrooms. Each one of those rooms was filled with small desks and at each desk was a headset. The thought of that filled me with dread.

I felt a sense of relief as I was led outside where I saw other children playing. The joy of seeing them helped me forget momentarily the sight of those headsets. As my mother let go of my hand and I stepped out into the playground, I noticed a strange thing. Many of the children had large boxes strapped to their chests. From the boxes came wires that went into one or both of their ears. I recoiled, not understanding what I was seeing. Then I saw a wonderful thing. Their hands were moving in the air like graceful Dutch windmills and it seemed to mean something to them.

Their faces were full of childish glee and abandon. Not a single child was using his mouth to converse. Instead, their bodies came alive with a special language. I felt a vague sense of understanding and hope because it seemed to be my language too. As I stood there in awe, a blond-haired boy approached me. For a moment we stood gauging each other carefully. Cautiously he came closer. Pointing a finger at me, he made a flapping motion with his other hand like a mouth moving. I stood there frozen, not knowing how to respond. I hesitantly shook my head and to my surprise that was the right reply. His eyes lit up and a smile exploded across his face, revealing large front teeth with a gap between them. He laughed and gestured for me to follow him.

I paused to look back at my mother only to find her walking toward the school building. I turned and broke into a run with the golden-haired boy in tow. As I ran I felt tears of elation on my face. Running those final few yards to the other children I felt I had escaped somehow to a magic land. From that moment on life for me was never the same.

Now when fall season comes and the trees shed their leaves, it gives me a pause. As I feel my ears tingle from the cold air, I remember. The high school football team, the homecoming banners flapping strongly in the fall breeze, hands moving-everywhere-and suddenly I am six again discovering my homecoming.