"I'm not hungry tonight."
His mother sighs. She turns to look at him, not bothering to turn off the water. Sam sees her studying him, running her eyes over his bony arms as he wearily props himself against the door frame. He knows she's been watching him like this since he left the hospital six months ago. She's scared the mass on the side of his face will once again roar to life and maybe, this time, kill him.
"I'm full," he says.
She bends her head toward him, about to speak. He knows what's coming--the concerns, the worries, all the questions that he doesn't want to answer. He moves to cut her off.
"Really, Mom. I'm full."
He gives her the thumbs-up sign and a smile. After spending his young life trying to make himself understood, Sam has found alternatives to the words that are so hard for him to shape. He uses his good eye and hand gestures to get his point across.
"Okay, Sam," she says quietly.
He leaves the doorway and goes upstairs. He walks along the hall to the door with the toy license plate announcing "Sam." In his room he fiddles with a laptop, leafs through a motorcycle magazine, and plays with a foam basketball.
He sits on the bed and tosses the ball across the room, hitting a poster on the wall. His mother made that poster, assembling family photographs and documents and then laminating them. They are the remnants of a fading childhood.
In the middle of the poster is a questionnaire Sam filled out when he was eight. He had been asked to list his three greatest wishes. First, he said, he wanted $1 million. Next, a dog. On the third line, he doodled three question marks--back then, he couldn't think of anything else he wanted or needed. If he could be granted one wish now, it would be to look better. Not perfect. Not like a model. Sam just wants to look a little more normal. He wants people to see beyond his face.
He hears the back door shut downstairs. His father is home. Sam goes to his door. He can hear his parents talking, and he listens carefully, but he can't make out the words. Maybe his parents are talking about him.
He changes into his clothes for the open house, the shirt and pants he selected with such care. All eighth-graders are obsessed with how they look and how they'll fit in at school. Sam is no different. He watches MTV. He knows what's considered popular and cool. He knows what girls like. Everyone talks about beauty being on the inside, but Sam knows that's only what people tell themselves. It may seem true to little kids, or to men and women in their forties. But to a teenager like Sam, it's a lie.
When Sam was due to arrive at middle school, his fifth-grade teacher, worried that he would be teased and misunderstood, created a slide show on his life. She gathered photographs of Sam from his family, and asked students who knew him in grade school to write letters of introduction. Then she held an assembly at the middle school, and at all the grade schools that would send kids to Gregory Heights. After the students had seen pictures of Sam, she read from letters his schoolmates had written.
"I've known Sam for the greater portion of my time at Rose City Park," one student wrote. "Not very well until this year, though. I remember that kids, ignorant, hateful kids, would make fun of him....Think how horrible it was for him. I, like many other people, did nothing. I was quiet and got my fair share of teasing....I deeply regret [that I did nothing]. I wasn't in Sam's class again until fifth grade. I saw a tremendous improvement in the other kids. Perhaps ignorance was our biggest enemy. I saw a new side of Sam, too. A side that had always been there, a side that only needed a closer look. So I ask you, before you judge Sam, or anyone for that matter, remember that a person's true beauty is not on the outside, but within their heart."
Sam's teacher ended the assemblies by reminding students that while Sam looked different, he was a normal boy. They didn't have to be his best friends, but they should not be afraid of him, or make fun of him.
From Sam: The Boy Behind the Mask by Tom Hallman, Copyright © October 2002, Putnam Pub Group, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.
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