Made to feel she didn’t belong because of her cleft palate, a young girl’s outlook is changed by a teacher’s kindness.
I grew up knowing I was different, and I hated it.
I was born with a cleft palate, and when I started to go to school, my classmates—who were constantly teasing—made it clear to me how I must look to others: a little girl with a misshapen lip, crooked nose, lopsided teeth, and hollow and somewhat garbled speech. I couldn’t even blow up a balloon without holding my nose, and when I bent to drink from a fountain, the water spilled out of my nose.
When schoolmates asked, “What happened to your lip?,” I’d tell them that I’d fallen as a baby and cut it on a piece of glass. Somehow it seemed more acceptable to have suffered an accident than to have been born different. By the age of seven I was convinced that no one outside my own family could ever love me. Or even like me.
And then I entered second grade, and Mrs. Leonard’s class.
I never knew what her first name was—just Mrs. Leonard. She was round and pretty and fragrant, with chubby arms and shining brown hair and warm, dark eyes that smiled even on the rare occasions when her mouth didn’t. Everyone adored her. But no one came to love her more than I did. And for a special reason.
The time came for the annual “hearing tests” given at our school. I was barely able to hear anything out of one ear, and was not about to reveal yet another problem that would single me out as different. And so I cheated.
I had learned to watch the other children and raise my hand when they did during group testing. The “whisper test,” however, required a different kind of deception: Each child would go to the door of the classroom, turn sideways, close one ear with a finger, and the teacher would whisper something from her desk, which the child would repeat. Then the same thing was done for the other ear.
I had discovered in kindergarten that nobody checked to see how tightly the untested ear was being covered, so I merely pretended to block mine.
As usual, I was last, but all through the testing I wondered what Mrs. Leonard might say to me. I knew from previous years that the teacher whispered things like “The sky is blue” or “Do you have new shoes?”
My turn came. I turned my bad ear to her, plugging up the other solidly with my finger, then gently backed my finger out enough to be able to hear. I waited, and then came the words that God had surely put into her mouth, seven words that changed my life forever.
Mrs. Leonard, the pretty, fragrant teacher I adored, said softly, “I wish you were my little girl.”
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