Words I Cannot Say

By Shaquana Johnson

Silence can be so loud when you are lost in your own thoughts. The constant vibrations from the fish tank’s filter were the only real noise in the room. The doctor’s office was large, with mostly white walls except for one. It had a large colorful mural of children playing in the street that consumed the entire wall. My mom and I sat across from a kid who looked to be about my age, 8 or 9. Like them, we too were here for a yearly physical. “Sanchez!” heads turned in the direction the voice came from. In the doorway stood a tall petite blonde holding a clip board. She wore blue scrubs and wore a stethoscope around her neck. He looked frozen, too terrified to move as his mother stood gathering their belongings. Twenty minutes or so passed and finally I was called next.  

My yearly visits with Dr. Jagger had always been pleasant aside from the scheduled vaccines needed at the time. This—this visit was not like my previous visits. This trip to Dr. Jagger’s office would be the visit that changed my life. “Alright Shaquana. Mom says you have been complaining about back pain. I want you to bend over and touch your toes.” The request was simple enough. I did this on the regular to tie my sneakers or to stretch. I did what Dr. Jagger asked without hesitation. In an unusual tone, all she said was “Hmmm.” I am convinced that the phrase “Hmmm” is taught to doctors in medical school to terrorize patients. After a few X-ray’s, my mom and I sat in Dr. Jaggers office with tons of questions. 

Scoliosis, curvature of the spine, muscle spasms, physical deformity, difficulty breathing. These were all the things Dr. Jagger began to explain to us as we sat in her office staring at the X-rays of my spine that looked like a complete ‘S’. “These are some of the complications of untreated scoliosis.” Dr. Jagger continued. If she was trying to make a point in scaring me, mission accomplished. “Are there any other options?” my mother asked hoping there were. “There’s a back brace, but I don’t recommend it. Shaquana’s curvature is too advance. The brace will only delay the inevitable.” I felt so confused and scared after meeting with Dr. Jagger. My friends at school were not much help either, they did the best they could at comforting me by asking and saying things like, “Are you gonna die?” or “Will you get the gas mask?” and how can I forget my favorite, “You’re probably never gonna walk again,” what did you expect from a bunch of 8-year old’s?  

In school, my grades suffered tremendously because the pain became too unbearable. Most days it felt almost impossible to even get out of bed. Finally, after a failed attempt at trying the back brace, my parents decided to do the surgery. The night before the surgery my mother and I laid in bed together just talking. Despite my mom’s best efforts to comfort me, I tossed and turned all night. That morning I was up and ready to go by 5am. For the better part of the morning, I spent lost in my head wondering if all those things my friends said was true. By 6:00 am I was prepped and being rolled into the OR while butterflies were doing summersaults in the pit of my gut. The OR was bright and freezing as the two nurses rolled me in. The smell of disinfectant was in the air as I looked around at the tools and machines covered in a transparent blue plastic. If my nerves were not bad before, they were worse now.  

Despite a mild complication during the surgery, it was a complete success. To say I was happy would be an understatement. Since the pain had been so unbearable during the school year, I had to take a leave of absence from school. At 8 years old, the world around me sort of worked different. I did not understand the concept of homeschooling. My mom tried to explain it to me but the idea of being taught at home just sounded weird. Homeschooling started a few weeks after surgery. Monday morning rolled around, and I made my way to the living room as I had done every morning since being home, but to my surprise there was someone there. My parents had signed me up for a homeschooling program that would allow me to complete the assignments and still move up to the next grade. This was not at all what I had in mind. Little did I know that my new homeschool teacher, Mr. Owen, would be the key to my internal recovery.  

Mr. Owen was a young tall red headed lanky man that wore thin black framed glasses. He had blue eyes and these beautiful curls that sounded crunchy because he wore pounds and pounds of gel in his hair. I would often giggle to myself whenever he touched his hair because of the hard crunch you would hear. He would look at me confused asking if everything was alright, and I would just shake my head yes, keeping my secret hidden. To get around with his mountain of textbooks, he lugged around this enormous black bag with wheels and a pull handle. Every morning, the dining room table would be covered with books, leaving me just enough space to work opposite him.  

As much as Mr. Owen tried to make the homeschooling experience as close to in school learning, I was still having trouble adjusting to the way things were now. Homeschooling was quite a different experience than in school learning. In school learning I was surrounded by my friends, got a chance to run around outside and play, laugh and joke at lunchtime with my friends. Homeschooling did not offer any of those things. We spent hours in the books studying. I got a forty-five-minute lunch and a five-minute break in between each lesson. There were no friends, or recess which meant I was stuck staring at his face for 8 hours a day 5 days a week. The notion of that was not at all appealing.  

Every morning Mr. Owen would do an ice breaker. He gave me a green journal and explained the requirements of the journal. The ice breaker question would always be the same, “How are you feeling today?” I would look at the question and write the same response each time, “Fine.” Instead of my one-word responses annoying Mr. Owen like I hoped it would, it did something else…it made him curious. One morning before starting the ice breaker assignment, Mr. Owen said something that stuck with me: “use that journal for words you can’t say.” Before I knew it, I was writing things in that journal I did not realize I was feeling. Things I had pent up inside and didn’t know were even there. The green journal proved to be an immense help. Writing in the journal allowed me a chance to unpack all the feelings I had been carrying since the surgery. Mr. Owen had no idea the light bulb that lit after his suggestion to just write.

As much of a stickler for the rules as Mr. Owen was, he loosened up and even allowed a little free time after the icebreaker just to write about my feelings which turned out to be the key to my recovery. That green journal helped me to be ok with myself. It taught me how to accept all my differences and flaws. Thanks to Mr. Owen, I know that I can always use that little green journal for words I cannot say.  

Course: ENG 095 Basic Writing, Spring 2021

Assignment: Literacy Narrative

Instructor: Alexa Carey

Instructor comments: I selected this literacy narrative because the use of vivid details are so captivating. In the very first paragraph, when Shaquana sets up the scene of the doctor’s office, the reader feels transported to this place. The setting and the characters come alive due to the descriptions. Shaquana also writes in an authentic and refreshing voice, using humor, cheekiness, curiosity, and the right balance of seriousness and confusion to bring the world of an 8-year old alive. 

Photo Credit: “words” by danna & curious tangles, Creative Commons license.

2 thoughts on “Words I Cannot Say

Add yours

  1. What a great story – it is an inspiration to all young people facing both physical and emotional challenges. Thank you for sharing. Keep up the great work!

  2. great story on how a little child can go through what she went through and still be able to
    tell about her story like it was just the other day.

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