Thirty hours was all I needed to complete my senior community service requirement. I could fulfill it anywhere – well not exactly anywhere. I couldn’t simply make copies for my favorite teacher or take out my elderly neighbor’s trash and feed her overfed puppies. Most of my fellow seniors chose to places like the school library, public library, elementary school, firehouse, the Y. Those choices were okay. To be honest, I had no idea what I wanted to do. Until I met her.
I was on my way to math class (running late as usual) and was halted in the hallway as Ms. Maggie (the special education teacher) was guiding her small group of students from the gym. I always tried to time my exit from lunch right so I wasn’t held up by her class. In the front of the procession, head high and face bright, Ms. Maggie wheeled a small boy to her classroom down the hall. A few more students in wheelchairs were pushed past me, one was flailing his arms and screaming incomprehensible words. The other two sat limp, one dozing steadily. I was jittery cause this lateness would get me written up. Other students walked slowly by with the help of aids and caretakers. A young woman in scrubs had her arm around a groaning boy’s stiff shoulders – he gazed at me in passing with sharp blue eyes that spoke more than his mouth could ever be capable of. As my eyes were suddenly stabbed by the time on the hallway clock, I heard a loud giggle and felt a warm hand snatch hold of me. I jumped and twisted my head to see who had the death grip on my hand. Two bright mocha eyes were inches from my face, shining through a thick curtain of curls. A pink jumpsuit clothed the girl’s tall, wobbly body and I immediately wobbled myself as the girl shifted all her weight to me. An aid helplessly tried to detach the girl from my hand.
“Amanda let go!” the woman cried. The girl replied with a shriek and a giggle and held me tighter already trying to get me to move with her. Quick apologies through a sad smile were delivered to me.
“No…it-it’s okay,” I mumbled while my eyes were busy staring at the smile that seemed to occupy the girl’s whole face. She let out a loud bird-like trill and pulled me down the hall towards her classroom. I stumbled with her, her chipped fingernails digging into the palm of my hand as her head fell upon my shoulder.
“Amandaaa!” the aid shouted. The woman’s cries faded into the background as my ears focused solely on the joyous giggles bursting from Amanda’s chapstick coated lips. I was soon infected and couldn’t stop smiling and laughing myself. We swaggered into the classroom like two drunk buddies out a bar laughing about a joke that couldn’t even be remembered. Ms. Maggie noticed us right away and threw her hands up.
“Amanda made a new friend!” she shouted in a high pitch raspy voice. She ran over and hugged us both. Amanda giggled even harder while swaying her body - and me, from side to side.
“Hello,” I peeped with a small wave of my free hand.
“Hi dear! Looks like Amanda really took a liking to you. She rarely latches on to people she doesn’t know…. such a sweetheart.” She gently pried Amanda’s hand from me.
“It-it’s fine,” I’d stuttered. “I didn’t mind. I wasn’t in any hurry.” (Now four minutes late.)
“What’s your name baby?”
She turned from me to Amanda. “Her name is Kim-ber-ly. Can you say Kim-ber-ly, Amanda?”
Amanda grinned, showing her full set of teeth. “Keem-bah.”
For some reason, hearing her kinda say my name struck some chord on the inside.
“What grade are you in, Kim?”
Ms. Maggie threw her hands up again and gripped giggling Amanda by the shoulders. “A senior! Amanda here is a senior too! How nice is that? You hear that Amanda? Kimberly is a senior just like you.” The word senior was then accompanied by an ASL sign from her hands. I was surprised to see Amanda mimic the same sign with her trembling fingers. She then turned back to me. “It was so nice of you to walk her here.” She returned to Amanda. “What do you say to Kimberly here?” She grabbed an iPad from the table and on the screen were a bunch of pictures with words underneath. She held it up to Amanda.
“Don’t you want to say thank you to Kimberly…?”
Ms. Maggie gave Amanda’s seemingly frozen hand a couple taps. Amanda lifted her hand and her chipped fingernail poked a spot on the screen.
“Thank you,” a monotone voice spoke.
“You’re welcome,” I said to Amanda. Right after, a light bulb flickered on in my brain. “Ms. Maggie, do you ever need help here? I mean, could you guys maybe use an extra pair of hands…a volunteer?”
The sun ruptured all over Ms. Maggie’s face. “Ohhh do we ever! We could always use more student volunteers. A few already are lending up a hand. Darling, do you think you might want to give us a hand too? I’m sure that would make Amanda here sooo happy.”
I gave a small nod.
Once more, Ms. Maggie grabbed Amanda and blasted the news into her ears. “Amanda! Kimberly is going to come by and help out. Your new friend is going to visit us - visit you.”
I listened with pleasure to Amanda’s excited shrieks and trills. And watched that smile on her face somehow grow even wider.
This is how I spent my thirty hours:
Every Tuesday and Thursday (when I normally would be dozing off in Study Hall) I was in Ms. Maggie’s classroom. I’d walk in and travel from student to student, leaning forward and saying “hello” nice and loud. Most waved back, some just stared. Amanda always waved and in her soft almost inaudible voice would peep, “Heh”. I always worked with Amanda. When I wasn’t reading her stories, I assisted her with arts and crafts. My hand would rest gently over hers and guide the scissors through the paper. She always smiled and cooed, leaning her face close to mine like cutting paper was the greatest thing in the world. Then I’d hold a box of markers up to her and ask what color she wanted to draw with.
“Purple,” was her most common response. “Purple. Purple. Purple.”
I would laugh and hurry to grab the specific marker before her finger broke her talker (I learned that’s what the program on the iPad was called). It didn’t take long for me to realize that purple was her favorite color. She always picked purple. I helped pop the cap off the marker and handed it to her. I honestly loved watching her delicately draw sloppy hearts all over the paper. Sometimes halfway through an activity she would jump from her seat and run around the room. Those times I would grab her talker and ask her to tell me what’s wrong.
“Bathroom. Toilet. Bathroom”
“Okay. I hear you,” a response Ms. Maggie taught me to say. I hear you. I hear you. Yes. You do have a voice. I’d grab Amanda’s hand and together, we would wobble to the bathroom.
A couple days out the week, I walked with Amanda on the track when Ms. Maggie wanted her class to get some fresh air. I liked to imagine Amanda and I as Siamese twins with the way we were always latched together, two bodies joined at the hand. I learned to wrap my arm around hers so that we could have more balance as we wobbled down the long red road. I never let there be a moment of silence between us. I talked about anything and almost everything with Amanda. Whatever was on my mind, I said it and would take Amanda’s giggles and sounds as a friend’s witty replies. When her legs grew tired, we would sit on the grass and I’d pull the iPad from her bag. On these occasions, I liked to test this so called talker-response-system.
“How are you feeling today Amanda?”
“I am feeling – sad.”
Her finger pressed the picture while her face beamed with her usual bright smile.
“Is that really how you’re feeling Amanda?”
“Angry. Sad. Angry. Sad.”
I’d listen to her giggle and shriek while pressing the pictures, knowing that while the thing could communicate her favorite color or a bathroom emergency, I couldn’t rely on that monotone computer generated voice to tell me how she was really feeling.
“What’s my name Amanda?”
Laugh, high pitch squeal.
“It’s Kimberly. Kim-ber-ly.”
Her voice was deep, almost inaudible but she had said my name. Said it with her own, genuine voice. Quiet but her own.
“How are you Amanda? Are you feeling…good?”
“I hear you. I’m feeling pretty good too.”
Part of my thirty hours included field trips. The one I’d remember forever was the Christmas shopping trip. The week before Christmas, Ms. Maggie’s class went to the mall to find gifts for their family members. Some other student volunteers and I were more than happy to miss almost a full day of school to lend a hand. The others were from different times of the day and week; some seniors like me trying to fulfill our thirty hours. We each were assigned to be a buddy for one of her students - I of course was matched with Amanda. I had to help Amanda get a gift for her younger sister so we went to one of the little toy stores. She held my hand and shared her weight as we teeter-tottered into the shop. I noticed a mother take one look at Amanda and shove her kids in the other direction.
“Mommy, what’s wrong with that girl?”
“Keep moving,” the mother hissed quietly. When her eyes met mine they quickly darted away.
“Come on Amanda,” I said aloud. “Let’s find your sister a present.”
I took Amanda over to the dolls and asked her to point to the one she liked. I slowly unwound my hand and gave the array of dolls a Vanna White wave. Finally, Amanda’s trembling finger touched the box of a blond Barbie clad in a purple string bikini. I picked up the box, grabbed Amanda’s hand and walked her over to the check-out. While I paid for the toy, Amanda became interested in a rack of stuffed animals. She grabbed hold a purple big-eyed bunny. Suddenly losing her balance, she leaned on the rack for support, knocked it over and almost fell herself if I hadn’t caught her in time. The middle aged man behind the counter glared at us and huffed an angry sigh.
“Ma’am. Can you please… control her?”
There was a brief silence while I scooped my jaw from the floor and pinched myself cause this man really did not just say that.
“Excuse me?” I held Amanda close and handed her the plastic bag. I squinted my eyes and looked at the man’s name tag. “Excuse me…Dave but in case your stupid, little, imbecile, pea brain didn’t realize - this girl is a human being and human being’s make mistakes.” I turned Amanda in the other direction and we wobbled our way to the exit. On our way out, I accidentally pushed a rack of puppy calendars to the ground to which a curse was launched at us, bouncing off closed ears.
“Merry Christmas to you too!” I shouted, sticking one proud finger in the air.
Thirty hours and half a semester later, I found myself sitting outside with the sun shining on my neck and blindly reflecting the white gown that cloaked my body. In my hand, I clutched my diploma, the little light folder feeling heavier than my nostalgic heart. I had already walked my walk. Now I was waiting. My ears were pricked, listening for the name.
I stood up. I turned around and walked two rows back. A bright face was smiling at me beneath a drapery of curls. Two bright mocha eyes. One big smile.
“Come on Amanda. It’s time.”
My hands wrapped around her waist and lifted her from the seat. She giggled into my ear and made her sweet bird-like trill. Once on her feet, I gave her my hand. She grabbed it without hesitation, her chipped fingernails painted a deep purple (from yours truly) deep in the palm of my hand.
We wobbled our way through the grass, swaying, stumbling, like two drunk buddies who just conquered the world. Together we made our way to the podium.
“Congratulations Amanda,” our principle said, giving her hand a shake. I took the diploma and placed it in her hand. With her head on my shoulder, Amanda and I returned to the row of seats. She plopped down in her chair and a very eager Ms. Maggie was right by our side, squeezing Amanda’s shoulders.
“Yay! You did it!” she yelled, her grip releasing more laughs.
I waited for Ms. Maggie to step back then grabbed Amanda’s hand.
“How are you feeling today Amanda?”
Ms. Maggie reached for her talker but I pushed it away.
“How are you feeling today Amanda?”
I looked at her and waited.
“I’m feeling good too.”