During my childhood summers I rode my bike from before sun up until after sun down. I spent my days searching for horses amongst cornfields and shade amongst stories. I was quiet, not the wow-she-is-so-interesting-let’s-ask-her-what-she’s-thinking-about quiet, I was more the hurry-the-other-way-because-we-don’t-get-her quiet. My bike rides were epic journeys of quiet, but inside my mind was a loud, wonderful, and whimsical constant of conversation, ideas, noise, and possibility.
When school would finally come to an end, I would release my breath. It was always like that. It was as if I held my breath the entire school year, willing the days to pass, willing the summer to rescue me, and when it did, I would release a soul-cleansing sigh, get on my bicycle, and head off into better company.
The summer of my twelfth year was shaping up to be exactly what I was used to; until I met Billy.
He rode up just as I was kicking off on my first adventure, my mind already soaring with the many prospects summer trails were hiding. Skidding to a stop, flinging rocks on me, this red-headed, freckled wisp of a boy said, “Hello.
Well that was new to me. I wasn’t sure how to respond. Was he saying hello in passing, should I have continued on and called back in response? Should I have gotten off my bike and introduced myself? I realized I had never seen him before and wondered if his family had moved into the housing unit three blocks over. He looked to be about ten or maybe nine. I wasn’t sure but I was much older than him. Wait, I thought to myself, too much time had passed and I feared he was going to know I was odd. I should have just waved nonchalantly and said, “Hello.” I wondered if it was too late.
It wasn’t too late. There he was, waiting for my mind to travel to my mouth and say something to him and he didn’t look at all annoyed or worried that I wasn’t saying anything. Instead, he asked if he could go on a ride with me. As if the request wasn’t abnormal enough for my day, he said it with about as many curse words as he did regular words. I had never heard anyone swear as much as he did. He seemed really angry; but at the same time, he was smiling at me and seemed to like me.
I knew right then that we would be the best of friends.
All summer long we rode our bikes. I found that I did actually love to talk and I talked quite a bit when someone would listen. He was a great listener. He’d listen to all of my ideas and stories, ooo and ahh at just the right moments, curse at others, and every now and then he’d tell me his stories. They were dark and full of sadness. He’d tell me about bruises and locked doors, fears and dark nights, and I was too quiet, too young, and too new at the world with another human to do anything but listen.
He’d curse and get angry and I’d say it was okay and read my favorite books to him. He would try to read but said the words and letters jumped everywhere. He would stutter -a lot- and that would lead to more cursing. He always liked when I read to him and I was happy to oblige. Books were a friend to me and sharing them gave me more joy than anything ever had. In return Billy would attempt to teach me math. Numbers were always an enigma to me, so most of the time I just smiled and listened. I would point out leaves of grass from Whitman and he would point out dodecahedrons and fractals.
If he let me finish the book in one day I’d give him quarters, which he adored, and he’d hide them away. He’d ride his bike nearly twenty miles each way to get a twenty-five cent soda from a gas station two towns over. One day he was upset because his brother had found his quarter jar and he showed me bruises and cried because he had taken the money to buy cigarettes. Billy was angry, so I read him a book until the cursing fell asleep. After that, we buried a new quarter jar next to the third tree along our southern route. I promised to fill it sometimes and he promised to tell me every time he needed to get out of town.
By August, the Midwestern heat and humidity can be unbearable. Billy came to my window one very early Saturday morning and asked if I wanted to go for a ride. I said it was too hot already and he cursed at me and called me names. I just smiled and said come back later.
One hour later he came back, cursing still, and said his brother was making him go to the river. It was a common thing to go to the river to cool off when the heat was inescapable. The kids would jump from the old train bridges, swing on ropes, and play all day long in the cool muddy shallows. Billy, however, was deathly afraid of heights and had never learned how to swim. I was his saving grace most days because I was never invited. He and I would take off before everyone else had woken up to the heat and we’d spend the day far from rivers and bridges.
This day was different. I just didn’t want to go. I told him to come back later and I’d go for a bike ride. I could hear him cursing all the way down the street. Billy never did come back to see me. He drowned in the Green River that day. As his one and only friend, I was asked many questions by police officers; ultimately, however, the case was not that important and his death was ruled a freak and tragic accident.
Billy is my second portrait of Gifted. I have this troublesome ability to remember everything; and as an adult, I wish sometimes that hindsight could be used as a Time Out. I’d like to call “Time!” and go back and do something different; but since I can’t do that, I will offer a much deserved face of genius to Billy.
Billy was as gifted a child as I’ve ever met. Though I can’t contain those conversations in one blog, and though I can’t prove my findings with any cognitive data or any diagnosis, I can tell you with certainty that his short life was spent soaring at heights no one in his family and no one in our community could have understood. His mind was devastated by what could have been learning disabilities, probable Turrets Syndrome, severe familial abuse, lack of education and services, and extreme poverty. Through all of the masks, and despite all of the uncertainty, Billy is a portrait of Gifted.
I didn’t stop riding my bike and telling myself stories, but after that summer I stopped focusing only inward and I started looking at the faces around me. I started noticing how so many of the misunderstood, the powerless, the shunned, and those living on the outskirts of intelligence may just need a new definition. They are the untested, the unprepared, and the underprivileged and the next time one of them comes knocking at my window, I will make sure to be ready for the ride.