The fortress that is Alex G. Barrett Junior High School sprawls at the top of a steep slope in the heart of Louisville's Crescent Hill neighborhood. All middle schools are jails to the average 13-year-old. This one, however, earns its nickname, "The Prison on the Hill."
The year is 1971.
There are learners here, but menaces, too. Chain-smoking Little Richard Turell, as short as a piano stool, is living proof that cigarettes stunt your growth. Mike Wilson, starting guard on the basketball team, possesses perpetually clenched fists and an unchecked desire to use them. Greg Leitchfield, whose adolescence blasted into him at the age of 9, reveals in the shower a length of manhood so insanely out of peer-proportion that no one can bear to look, not even Mike Wilson.
Meanwhile, a boy sits in Mrs. Barnette's homeroom. One hundred pounds of hormones beneath a shock of chlorine-fried hair, his green eyes shift madly in search of the eyes of a girl, any girl, to return his gaze. No takers. This boy is me.
The morning announcements crackle through the brown cotton weave of the room's wooden wall speaker. Principal Clifford has a western Kentucky accent so thick students and staff comprehend only 30% of his daily instructions. "Barrett" sounds like "Bert."
"This mornin' all Bert students will report to the health room for hearin' tests." This provokes lusty cheers not only from our room, but from the other rooms as well.
Hearing-test days are get-out-of-jail-free cards. Good as gold. The columns of students that snake from the health room door look like Depression-era soup lines. Two blocks long. Two blocks of pimples, steel and linoleum.
I don't know if Nurse Hunt ever performed a triple bypass, but she was prepared for one. Barrett's health room is the Mayo Clinic. Freaky stainless-steel chairs, tilting at odd angles. Paper-draped tables. Rows of gleaming metal instruments on a Formica counter. Across the back wall, a large, locked, glass-door cabinet filled with giant brown jars of liquid.
I wonder, as I always do, what's in those jars, as Nurse Hunt, in her crisp white uniform, adjusts the headphones over my ears. They're heavy on my head, and I watch her as she gathers herself on the other side of the table and fiddles with dials on a black machine as big as a dog house.
The first beeps come into my right ear from a great distance. Like they were telegraphed from Berlin. Up goes my hand. Then the other side gets a secret beep message. Hushed and electronic. Left hand up. "Very good," I see Nurse Hunt's lips say.
Those are the last tones I hear. I wait patiently inside the headphones, sure that more beeps are making their long journey from overseas. Nothing. Nurse Hunt's face goes from humdrum to holy crap. Machine's busted, I think.
"Thanks, Andy. That'll be all for now," she says and sends me on my way.
Sometimes dreams come true. The next morning Mr. Clifford announces a list of names to return to the health room for more hearing tests. Andy Moore makes the cut. No math test today for this guy.
"You suck!" says Ronnie Price, who sits to my right. Harold Storment turns around to say: "Jerk!" I'm the envy of my classmates, and I milk it, making my exit walking backwards, a sneer on my face, fists raised in triumph.
The line is shorter today. By a lot. I'm in and out of the chair in no time, the beeps once again distant and few. This time Nurse Hunt asks me questions and writes a bunch of stuff down before she lets me go. "Were you born full term?" she asks. "In September," I answer.
Mr. Clifford's hearing-test list has only two names the next morning. I'm no longer a get-out-of-class celebrity. In the minds of my middle-school classmates, clearly I'm just a deaf guy. Good health is a privilege, but not when you're 13. That's when it's an expected part of the deal. Those who don't have it are culled from the herd.
This time it's just Nurse Hunt and me and another guy, who looks, as I do, like the air was let out of him. The visit is simple. We need to have our parents call her. As soon as possible.
I get back to room 313 just in time for a quiz. Ronnie Price and Little Richard Turell are mouthing words at me. Urgent communication sans sound. This is their idea of a joke. Mock the hearing-test flunker. I look away to discover Greg Leitchfield across the room making wild hand gestures at me. He's acting like he's using sign language.
Et tu, Greg? This hurts. I'm the only guy in the showers who doesn't poke fun at his endowment. But I know how it works. The guy picked on the most strikes back the hardest when shown an opening. That opening is me.
Mr. Clifford's announcements sound a little bit more garbled the next day. And the morning after that, I catch myself leaning into the sound of Mrs. Barnette's voice explaining sentence diagrams. My mom takes me to Dr. Forrester, who has the same big, black machine as Nurse Hunt. He says I have to quit competitive swimming. I don't.
Today I can't hear the hiss of a live cymbal. Or the chirp of many kinds of cell phones. Or robins singing in the morning. Or the beeping of an oven timer. This doesn't bother me. But when someone points it out, when they realize I can't hear one of those things and react in a disbelieving way, it puts me right back into room 313.
Right back into the skin of a boy who wants to be heard, to be noticed, but not to be different or be left alone in the silence of not fitting in.