Being speechless

Two weeks ago I was literally speechless. I had totally lost my voice.

After a day of thwarted communication, of ‘conversations’ in which all I could do was listen, I set off to youth group with a slight sense of trepidation.

It shouldn’t have surprised me that running a youth group with no voice wouldn’t be all that easy. I had to write instructions to my team, couldn’t chit chat and banter, and certainly couldn’t respond with any speed to challenging behaviour or to those who just wanted to talk.

My note informing the teenagers that I couldn’t speak met with mixed reactions. One, who for some reason reminds me of my brother when he was that age, chuckled with amusement, and continued to chuckle throughout the evening every time he saw me. I noticed others grinning as I mimed and wrote messages to explain my predicament to all the new arrivals as they waited for an answer to their question of how I was.

Some patiently carried out ‘conversations’ with me as I wrote my questions and answers, while others (usually the ones with less patience and/or English) kept coming up to me shouting: “Emily, Emily, answer me! Tell me! Speak to me!”  With mock surprise when no answer was forthcoming, “what, what, I can’t hear you,” they would roll away in a fit of laughter only to return a moment later with a new jibe about my speechlessness to fuel yet another round of merriment.

Most notable – apart from the friendly mocking which managed to be an endless source of delight for the whole evening – was the genuine concern that I hadn’t been well and couldn’t speak. The warm wishes for a speedy recovery were matched with advice for how the recovery could be hurried along. One suggestion was black tea with lemon, another was a cup of hot milk in both the morning and evening. Gargling salt water was the most popular prescription – mimed by Afghani and Kurdish teenagers who didn’t know the English words for ‘gargle’ but who were keen to act out the process in great detail so that I would fully understand the gut-wrenching implications of swallowing the mixture by mistake.

I remember a friend once saying that he only laughed at me because it was his way of communicating that he cared, and I suppose that’s what I saw that evening. The grinning amusement and the merciless teasing, concerned faces and endless remedies, fused together as parental advice and siblingesque banter to create a contented sense of family and at-homeness.

It was nice to have my voice more or less back the following week. Even nicer, however, was the fact that the teenagers genuinely cared. Sometimes this was expressed by boys arriving and pretending they couldn’t speak, laughing happily at their joke, while others more conventionally just asked me: “Now you speak?”   Either way, I went home feeling affirmed by their surprisingly visible support and with their words ringing in my ears. “Ah, you speaking Emily! Very good, very good!”

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