The Happiest Boy In The World
Sayon, seven years old
A 5 minute read
In the speech therapy room at the Satya Outreach school in Pondicherry are a man, a woman, a boy and Judykael, the French speech therapist. The boy is sitting on the floor, clinging onto Judykael’s legs. His own legs are folded underneath him, Japanese-style. His parents are talking animatedly. Many parents in Satya school are somewhat deferential to foreign teachers, but Sayon’s parents are not in the slightest, talking with confidence in fluent French. Sayon was born in France, as were his brothers and sisters, and his parents are asking what paperwork will be necessary to get his younger siblings accepted into the French lycée, the most prestigious school in the area.
Every now and then, to get Judykael’s attention, Sayon gently bites his leg. Judykael breaks off from the conversation and looks down at Sayon, smiling.
“Cheeky boy! I know your game! I am not a dosa! Don’t eat me!”
He turns back to his parents: “He is always playing, this one.”
I sit on the floor and Sayon catches my eye, while the conversation continues in the air above our heads. He has a big smile on his face. His mouth is open at all times, saliva constantly dribbling onto the floor as from a leaky tap. His movements are jerky, his head lolling from one side to the other. He is leaning on Judykael’s legs, unable to support himself, smiling at me.
I walk my fingers across the floor with a cartoon ‘boing’ sound. Sayon laughs. I do it again. He laughs again, as if this is the funniest thing he has ever seen. One more time and he is creased up with laughter, and the minute he stops, a single movement from my fingers sends him back into long fits of laughter.
His mother looks down to see what is so funny, smiling at the sound of her child enjoying himself so much. She takes a soft bib out of her bag, and ties it around his neck, mopping the saliva from his shirt and face.
Sayon wants to get closer to me. He drags himself, a few inches at a time, towards me, reaching out his hands to touch mine. He is still sitting on his heels, legs buckled underneath him. They are cased in hard, plastic supports that go from his feet up to his knees.
I stretch out my hand and walk my fingers on his arms, all the while making the cartoon ‘boing’ sound.
His laughter is hysterical now, so much so that the laughter sends him into a long coughing fit, like after an intense tickling session.
I start to wonder if I might be pushing the amusement too far.
His parents finish up, and leave the room quickly.
Judykael heaves Sayon up from the floor and sits down on his soft purple mat in the middle of his room with Sayon on his lap, taking care to straighten out his legs.
“It’s not good for him to sit like that all the time.”
“OK boy,” he says, stroking Sayon’s neck, “let’s see if we can make some sounds today.”
Sayon turns his head towards Judy, his face open and smiling, like always.
Judy starts with vowels: long “aaaaa”, “eeeee” and “iiiii” sounds, followed by short “a”, “e” and “i”.
Sayon’s voice is unsteady, as if he does not know it very well. He manages to reproduce the sounds, more or less, Judykael encouraging him all the way.
Next they move onto consonants.
“Now we do ‘Mmmmm’. ‘Mmmmmm’. Come on boy, close your mouth and say ‘Mmmmm’.”
“Aaaaa,” says Sayon, still smiling, his mouth open.
“Mmmmmm. Mmmmmm.” Judy strokes Sayon’s chin with his index finger, drawing it across his mouth from one corner to another. “Relax your face.”
Judy turns to me. “Cerebral palsy. The muscles in his face are too tense. It is very hard for him to shut his mouth.”
I look more closely at Sayon’s mouth. His smile is constant, never leaving his face for a second. If ever he relaxes his mouth, the smile goes away, but only ever for a moment. His smile, I see now, is like an elastic reflex: anything that Judy says makes it snap back into place. But it is more than that - Sayon genuinely finds everything funny. His eyes sparkle with mirth all the time. But when you find everything funny, basic speech sounds are nigh on impossible.
Judy tries a bit more, but by now Sayon is laughing again, high-pitched giggles filling the room. Judy picks him up and turns him around to face him.
Sayon starts to bite his shoulder, which sets him off into fits of laughter again.
“So today you want to play, huh? That’s OK,” smiles Judy, “today we play.” He takes Sayon’s bib and mops his shoulder, which is soaking wet.
“I love this boy. If ever I feel down, I know being with him will make me feel good again.”
I realise that my own face feels a little tired: all three of us have been smiling and laughing non-stop throughout.
Judy puts Sayon gently on the mat, stands up, and heaves him up onto his shoulder to take him back to class.
“Oof! This is getting more and more difficult! You’ve been eating lots of dosas I see!”
Sayon fixes his mischevious eyes on me over Judy’s shoulder, and beams at me as they leave the room.
I am sorry to see him go. Thank you, Sayon. You have taught me more than you can possibly know.