Immaculata is 15 years old, middle daughter in a family of five children. You’ll have guessed from the name that the family is Catholic. She does not speak. This is not the result of any throat injury or vocal disability- she laughs when she is happy and giggles when she is unsure. I think it is her choice never to make loud noises, only soft ones. The restraints seem to be mental rather than physical, but no-one knows the cause.
This is a warm and close-knit family. They have developed a rudimentary sign language, but it is a blunt instrument. No-one communicates with her in any detail. This means that whilst she can read and write, it is impossible to tell how well. Whilst she understands some Wapishana, of course she does not speak it. (I asked the thoughtless question “Can you speak Wapishana?” and suddenly realised it should have been rather “Do you understand Wapishana?”, or “If you spoke, would you speak it?”). In the time that I have known her she has never volunteered communication to anyone, although she seems willingly responsive, either by signs or occasionally by writing. Does communication really exist if one never frames the question, never chooses the topic? Which leads me to wonder whether Immaculata is unreachable by choice, and if so, why.
Throughout primary school, her mother tells me, the other children were not gentle. So she decided to take her out of schooling at 12. Since then, she has lived at home and helped with the housework and the tending of children. The CRS course is her first engagement with a world wider than family and church since finishing primary school. My sister is a teaching assistant in the UK, and expectations are heavy upon them to observe and understand each child’s learning style and find ways to support them. Here there are no learning disability specialists, so no-one has ever looked into Immaculata’s situation. I do not even know if it is a “condition”. She is clearly intelligent; she keeps up easily with her fellow trainees, all of whom are secondary graduates. Her attention span is very good. She seems happy and quite untroubled. If it is a refusal to speak, refusal itself seems out of character. She has a subtle but distinct aura of openness, interest, of something like hope.
At first she is very wary of me. This manifests itself both audibly (her giggles increase and rise in pitch) and physically (if I come closer she moves behind someone). Before entering the training course she has never touched a computer. She learns at a similar pace to everyone else, faster than some because her concentration is better. Her weaving and shooting also improve more quickly than average. I think as a teacher I have an intuition for whether a person is extending themselves: I get the impression that she is not. By the end she is much more comfortable in the group environment, giggles rarely, and is completely relaxed around me.
I hope that her parents are very proud to see her running a powerpoint presentation at the closing ceremony, and to see her receive her completion certificate. She takes it very much in her stride. I wonder if another person will ever really know her. I wonder whether that is an impoverishment, or whether her solitude is a gift from herself to herself. Her whole being is a smiling secret.