AWAI Writing Challenge Winning Entry:
My Helper, My Friend, My Teacher
The best gift I have ever given was bought for a little boy who had a debilitating condition: he was profoundly deaf, could hardly speak and wore a hearing aid in each ear.
Danny was just seven when I first met him at our lakefront resort. His parents brought him (along with his normal-hearing twin brother) thinking that he might meet other children and make new friends who might be kinder to him. Danny was usually left at home, or with his speech therapist.
Danny didn’t play much with other children that summer; he mostly stayed by himself, alone in his silent world. We once saw him try to join a group of children, but he had trouble making himself understood and they soon tired of having to repeat everything, or to face him when speaking so he could read their lips. He was soon by himself, or sitting silently beside his dad. It hurt to see the pain in his face, and not know how to help him.
The following summer the family returned with Danny. We were delighted to learn that he was speaking better even though his deafness caused his speech to be indistinct and labored. One day as I was working on some of the boats on the beach, Danny came over to see what I was doing. With pantomime and simple words, I told him I was repairing leaks in the boat bottoms so they could be put back in the water. Immediately interested, he tried to ask a few questions, stayed a few minutes and then walked silently away. I felt bad because his sad eyes told me I had failed him.
That evening when I drove into town to pick up supplies, I thought I might find a little gift for Danny and for his twin brother, too, so he wouldn’t feel left out. For his brother I found a suitable water toy and was searching for a toy for Danny, when it occurred to me that maybe he would like something useful rather than a toy. I finally found a small boy’s carpentry kit: tool belt, hammer, screw driver, pliers, square and carpenter pencil in a windowed gift box.
When I returned, I took the two gifts to their cottage, gave the water toy to his brother ‘for his improvement in swimming,’ and offered the carpentry kit to Danny, who was holding back. Slowly and distinctly I said to him, “Danny, this is for you, because I could really use some help with the boats.” He reached out hesitantly, looked at the contents, clasped the box to his chest, looked up at me and in a choked voice asked, “Can I really help?” I assured him I needed his help. His parents looked on, tears in their eyes.
Morning work starts early on a resort, so I was on the beach before 6:30, working on a sailboat. As I was pushing it into the water I heard an unmistakable voice behind me say “I’m ready for work.” There stood little Danny, the too-large tool belt sagging between his hips and his knees, tools in their pockets, smiling from ear to ear, his blue eyes sparkling, the hammer in his hand. He couldn’t wait to get started.
Danny worked with me all morning: hammering, finding nails or screws, measuring everything in sight, asking questions and repeating the answers. He wore that tool belt all day every day after that. His mother said he kept it beside his bed at night and got up early to come to work with me every morning. He became my helper and my friend, following me around every day. And in a very real way, he became my teacher.
For the gift that I gave to Danny taught me that that there is no greater joy than to learn that a child’s life has been brightened by a small gift. My gift to Danny became his gift to me and I’ll never forget it, or him.
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